A first step toward improving sustainability in beef production is to define what sustainability actually means. A panel of experts offered their thoughts on sustainable beef, including a variety of definitions, during the International Livestock Congress in Denver this week.

John Pollack, PhD, who serves as director of USDA’s Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska, defined sustainability simply as “the capacity to endure.”

Cristain Barcan, who directs sustainability efforts at BASF, defines sustainability as practices that “fill the needs of today without compromising the future.”

Kim Stackhouse, PhD, directs sustainability research for NCBA. She emphasized that sustainability requires three components – economic viability, environmental stewardship and social responsibility.

Cameron Bruett, chief sustainability officer for meat packer JBS, elaborated on those “three pillars,” noting that JBS strives to reduce the environmental impact of its plants and feedayrds while contributing to the communities in which they are located. The company also values its people and works to provide employees with benefits and a good working environment. But first, the company needs to operate profitably in order to invest in employees and communities or make facility improvements for environmental protection.

Stackhouse adds that the “social responsibility” aspect of sustainability is the most difficult to measure, and probably the least understood in terms of beef production. We can objectively measure whether a practice contributes to profitability in beef production, and whether it has a positive or negative environmental impact, but effects on communities or society as a whole are less clear and more subjective.

The issue of sustainability in agriculture generates debates over the relative merits of organic or natural production versus conventional production practices. Or whether crop production is more sustainable than animal agriculture or whether chickens are more sustainable than cattle.

Bruett says the industry should take a comprehensive, holistic view of sustainability. He believes organic, natural or grass-finished systems have their place, but high-yield systems utilizing available technologies for higher productivity per unit of input are indispensable for agriculture to meet the needs of growing world populations. And systems that use technologies to produce more beef while reducing the required number of animals and amount of land, water, feed and time can be fully sustainable.

Pollack agrees, saying we cannot afford to move toward lower-yield agriculture, but should work to make all production systems – organic and conventional, chickens and cows – more sustainable. He believes continued improvements in efficiency and productivity are vital toward improving sustainability in beef production. We already have made significant progress in the United States, as heavier slaughter weights have helped compensate for shrinking herd numbers. We’re now producing about as much beef as we ever have, but with far fewer cattle and cattle going to slaughter at younger ages.

Bruett, speaking for JBS, pointed out that continuing to increases slaughter weights to account for shrinking herds is not sustainable. Biology and logistics in the packing plants limit just how big we can make cattle. At some point, we need to begin rebuilding herd numbers to meet future beef demand.

Pollack attributes much of the progress in U.S. agriculture to our outstanding network of research, development, education and technology transfer led by our Land Grant universities and USDA. He fears though, that outreach and technology transfer could suffer in the future as Extension programs feel the pinch of tight budgets.

Stackhouse and Pollack stressed that efficiencies at all levels of production will help contribute to sustainability. We’ll see improvements in biological efficiency of individual animals, for example, through the use of genomics and selection for feed efficiency. We’ll also need improvements in enterprise efficiency, including better reproduction rates and resource utilization. Further up the chain we’ll need improvements in processing, transporting and marketing beef, to reduce food waste and consumption of resources such as water and energy.

Barcan finished the discussion voicing a concern that issues surrounding the concept of sustainability in food production are not meaningful to many American consumers. In a BASF study with U.S. moms, he says, researchers found many had little awareness or concern over global hunger or the need to nearly double food production by 2050 to feed the growing population, while using less land, less water and with less environmental impact. They don’t personally know anyone who is going hungry, so the concept remains abstract. He says though, that food companies have an opportunity to promote sustainability and differentiate themselves by highlighting their sustainable practices.