Can we really rely on beef’s efficiency story to earn us a seat at the ‘sustainability’ table? Another sobering shot across our bow

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Greenpeace's sustainable and yours don't look the sameThe push is on by beef organizations and others to convince consumers, regulators and activists that by carefully applying technology to improve the health, productivity and efficiency of cattle production, tomorrow’s beef industry is really “sustainable,” that is, capable of feeding the well-worn benchmark of 9 billion people in the world by 2050 without undue environmental destruction. After all, we assure ourselves, technology now allows America’s beef producers to basically provide the same amount of beef today using the cow numbers (and environmental impact) of a half century ago. How’s that not sustainable? Greenpeace International, the crazy uncle in the attic of the environmental sustainability movement, recently released a 36-page study that should give the beef industry a stark reminder of how far apart the two ends of the spectrum are when it comes to compromising on an acceptable “sustainability.”

Greenpeace’s mid-February report, Ecological Livestock, identifies what the 2.8-million member environmental-activist association believes are the practical options for reducing livestock production and consumption to fit within ecological limits the world will face by 2050. Although it targets Europe as the poster child for the Developed World’s contribution to livestock-based environmental damage, the writing on the wall should be clear to America and its beef producers.

Greenpeace’s definition of “ecological farming” could have come right of the Beef Checkoff’s sustainability project: It “…ensures healthy farming and healthy food for today and tomorrow, by protecting soil, water and climate, promotes biodiversity, and does not contaminate the environment…” And in case you’re tempted to dismiss them as vegetarian-driven, the report also recognizes a necessary role for livestock and meat production in a sustainable system:

“Ecological livestock integrates farm animals as essential elements in the agriculture system; they help optimise the use and cycling of nutrients and, in many regions, provide necessary farm working force,” it says. “Ecological livestock relies on grasslands, pasture and residues for feed, minimising use of arable land and competition with land for direct human food production, and protecting natural ecosystems within a globally equitable food system.”

Yet the similarity in definition of the end masks a vast divide in the means to get there.  The very marvel of increased efficiency the beef industry holds up as evidence of its sustainability condemns it in the eyes of the organization’s report:

“It is often suggested that gains in livestock production efficiency, for example by technological advances, will compensate for growth in livestock numbers, and thus ameliorate its impacts. However, given projected livestock expansion by 2050 and current impacts on safe operating space of the planetary boundaries for biomass and biodiversity, nitrogen and greenhouse gases, the magnitude of efficiency gains would have to be disproportionate to be sufficient. For example, Pelletier calculated that efficiency gains would have to be between 136% and 433% to maintain livestock impacts within acceptable impacts level (Pelletier 2010). The magnitude of these efficiency gains makes them very unrealistic within the next 50 years. ...Technological advances and gains in efficiency will not be sufficient to limit unacceptable damage to our planet’s resources.”

The bottom line, according to Greenpeace?

Only a “drastic reduction in livestock numbers,” coupled with a system in which livestock only remove the amount of resources they put back into the system, and in which the higher productivity of the entire food system is raised (not just individual parts, like beef production) with minimal inputs is acceptable.

What would that look like, according to the report? In order to meet the realistic goal of simply holding livestock production at year 2000 levels by year 2050, Western Europe would have to cut its consumption of meat by more than three times current levels. Although Greenpeace doesn’t do the math for us in the report, that target would require U.S. consumers to cut their meat consumption to one-fourth of current levels.

 

Sustainable by their definition would require massive cuts in global meat consumption


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