Our ability to enhance performance and efficiency in beef production provides environmental benefits as well as economic ones. That was the message from animal scientist Jude Capper, PhD., serving as an independent sustainability consultant. Capper presented results of her research on the topic during a reception hosted by the Sustainable Beef Resource Center at the Cattle Industry Summer Conference last week.
Capper’s study used modeling based on two theoretical populations including all classes of beef cattle, with each population targeting the same level of beef production.
One of the populations would be raised in conventional production systems allowing four performance-enhancing technologies: implants, in-feed ionophores, MGA for heifers and beta agonists at the end of the finishing period. The model based its figures on 2009 adoption rates for the products, used according to label instructions.
Modeling for the other population excluded the use of those performance technologies.
Capper’s life-cycle analysis for each population included all the inputs – land, feed, fertilizers, irrigation water, drinking water, electricity, fuel and others – used in beef production up to slaughter. The researchers analyzed environmental and economic impacts in the United States, and also fed the data into a model from the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD) at Iowa State University. The CARD model includes a greenhouse gas component and assesses global impacts of production changes.
The reduction in production efficiency due to the loss of performance-enhancing technologies would lead to surprisingly large impacts, according to Capper’s analysis. Producing the same amount of beef in the United States without using the products would require the following:
- Adding 10 million head of cattle to U.S. herds, twice the number currently in Iowa and Kansas combined
- Boosting annual slaughter rates by 2,859,000 head, or 10,000 head per week day, about the capacity of four additional large packing plants
- 17 million additional acres of land and 81 million tons of feed, enough to fill the Rose Bowl 1,010 times.
- 138 billion more gallons of water per year, enough to supply the annual water needs of 1.36 million homes
- More than 8 billion additional mega joules of energy use, and 18.6 million metric tons of additional greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of putting 3 million more cars on the road.
The economic impact would add up to an 8.2 percent tax on U.S. beef producers.
Based on the CARD model, the researchers estimate that discontinued use of the four production technologies would reduce U.S. beef production by 17 percent over the next 15 years, resulting in a 352 percent increase in beef imports. Other countries would take up the slack in beef production, in some cases using less-efficient practices with greater environmental impacts. Canada’s beef exports would rise by 36 percent, Brazil’s by 25 percent, Argentina’s by 11 percent and Australia’s by 5 percent.
Increased production in Brazil would result in deforestation of an estimated 17 million acres of rainforest, and greenhouse gas emissions due to land-use change in Brazil alone would exceed 2 billion metric tons. The global increase in greenhouse gas emissions due to land-use change would exceed 3 billion tons.
Capper’s paper, titled “The environmental and economic impact of removing growth-enhancing technologies from United States beef production” is scheduled for publication in the Journal of Animal Science.
Learn more about the sustainability issue from the Sustainable Beef Resource Center.