Beef production in the United States today has improved its “eco-efficiency” and reduced its “environmental fingerprint” over the past decade, according to a groundbreaking lifecycle-analysis study from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. At the 2013 Cattle Industry Convention held in Tampa, Fla., last month, NCBA’s director of sustainability research Kim Stackhouse-Lawson unveiled some results of the study, more of which will become available in the coming months.

The research is funded through the Beef Promotion Operating Committee using checkoff funds and has been underway for two years. NCBA cooperated with the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb., to collect data on all pre-harvest phases of beef production, and with BASF to develop models for measuring post-harvest inputs. This “cradle to grave” lifecycle analysis (LCA) measures all direct and indirect inputs and impacts of beef production. The research and goals for its application are centered around the “three pillars of sustainability,” which include environmental responsibility, economic opportunity and social diligence.

Benchmarking beef sustainabilityThe researchers say the project is the most comprehensive study of its kind for any industry and the first to include a social component, although all the results of that portion of the study are not yet available.

The project involves three phases. The first was to conduct a stakeholder survey called a “hotspot analysis” to identify perceptions of sustainability issues across the beef value chain. The next phase was to conduct the actual LCA, which measures and compares inputs and impacts from the 1970s, 2005 and 2011 to identify trends and create benchmarks for measuring future progress. The third phase will be to develop LCA assessment tools, which will allow participants at every phase of beef production to evaluate measures of sustainability within their own operations based on objective, scientific measures. The first of these will become available later this year, possibly by April.

In their hotspot analysis, the researchers identified the key stakeholder concerns for each of the three sustainability areas. The top environmental concerns included biodiversity, air and water emissions, and water use. The researchers were surprised to note that “carbon footprint” did not appear among the top concerns.

In the area of economic sustainability, compliance with regulations, rural economies and traceability topped the list.

For the social-diligence pillar, the survey identified animal welfare, consumer health and safety, consumer education, food availability and food cost as the top concerns.

So what have they found? The researchers combined data from each of the three pillars of sustainability into a single gate-to-plate data point for the industry, which they call the “eco-efficiency portfolio.” The comprehensive LCA shows significant, linear improvement in this measure from 2005 to 2011. These improvements result from more efficient farm machinery, better targeted irrigation and fertilization, improved animal performance and crop yields during the pre-harvest phases. During the post-harvest stages, the researchers note improvements in energy use, biogas production, water recycling and various conservation technologies.

The researchers also combined data relating to energy consumption, emissions, toxicity potential, occupational illnesses and accidents, resource consumption and land use to assess beef’s total environmental fingerprint. They found improvements in each of those areas between 2005 and 2011.

The researchers will release more detailed results once the report is certified through the National Standards Foundation, which they expect later this year.

While the improvements this study reveals are good news for the beef industry, Stackhouse-Lawson notes that sustainability will require continuous improvement over time.