If a farm or ranch has operated for multiple generations, and is more productive and environmentally friendly today than it was 50 years ago, is the business “sustainable?” Most of us probably would say yes, but that might not be enough to satisfy market demands for sustainable agricultural supply chains in the future.

Food companies such as McDonald’s, JBS and Cargill face increasing pressure from their customers to measure and document sustainability, from the farm level through delivery of their products. Defining sustainability, however, and setting measurable indicators across diverse and complex production chains, isn’t easy.

Facing that challenge, those food companies, producer groups, environmental organizations and others formed the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) in 2012. GRSB defines sustainable beef as “a socially responsible, environmentally sound and economically viable product that priorities planet, people, animals and progress.”

 The GRSB held its second global conference in Alberta in October. Throughout the conference, presenters discussed and debated methods for benchmarking sustainability and measuring progress. While the topic is complex and sometimes divisive, one fact is clear: improving sustainability in agriculture requires reduction of waste, and resource use overall, across the production chain.

Does efficient equal sustainable? Frank Mitloehner, air quality and sustainability specialist at the University of California, Davis, notes the U.S. beef herd numbered around 140 million head in 1970. Today that number is around 90 million, yet we produce roughly the same tonnage of beef. As for dairy production, the U.S. herd of around 9 million head today produces 60% more milk than 16 million head did in 1950.

The Beef Checkoff, in cooperation with NCBA, recently conducted a life-cycle assessment (LCA) to quantify and benchmark various indicators of sustainability against which to measure future progress. The LCA accounts for all inputs and outputs, such as energy use in feed production, water use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, at each production stage. The five-year review showed, between 2005 and 2011, U.S. beef production significantly reduced resource use per unit of production and improved sustainability by 5%.

In terms of feed efficiency alone, beef production will never match poultry or fish. However, as ruminant animals adapted to multiple environments, cattle thrive on grazed or harvested forages grown on land unsuitable for production of food crops. Adding a grain-based finishing stage creates efficiencies while also enhancing beef quality. That step, however, remains a point of contention between some advocates of beef sustainability.

During the global conference, a key session featured a debate on whether “chasing efficiency will lead to positive environmental and social outcomes.” On one side, the debaters included Carrie Balkcom, executive director of the American Grassfed Association and Lesley Mitchell, head of farming policy for World Animal Protection. Representing the efficiency stance were Robert Cady, global sustainability lead for Elanco, and Martin Scholten, general director, Animal and Marine Sciences, Wageningen University, The Netherlands. Through the debate, the participants respectfully disagreed on some points while generally agreeing that beef production has more than one path toward greater sustainability and all production systems have room for improvement.

Cady, from Elanco, started the discussion, noting global population will likely increase by 2 billion people over the next 25 years. Longer lifespans account for much of the growth, with the fastest increase occurring in people over 70 years of age. Older people generally eat less than younger people, but they also need adequate protein in their diets to maintain muscle mass. Also, about 1.5 billion of the global population fall in the middle class. That number will increase by 3 billion by 2030, and with increased global wealth, we’ll see growth in animal-protein consumption.

Given this expected growth in beef demand, Cady says we will need to produce more with less, meaning we need to use resources such as land, feed and water more efficiently, while also reducing carbon emissions. Historically, he says, humans have tended to deplete resources then move on because land and water seemed infinite. In reality, land accounts for about one-third of the earth’s sur-face, with about one-third of that suited for agriculture and one-third being rangeland. Today, virtually all the land suited to agriculture is being used for food production.

One key for addressing future food needs is to reduce pre-harvest and post-harvest food waste, Cady says. We also need intensification of agriculture, including high-yield crop production, concentrated animal feeding and use of technologies that enhance health and performance.

Proponents of all beef production systems share similar goals for pro-viding adequate nutrition for the world’s population, says Mitchell, with World Animal Protection. But, she stresses the industry should think beyond boosting production and focus on systems that help ensure public health, animal welfare and quality of life for agricultural workers and rural residents.

An integrated approach toward sustainable livestock can incorporate efficiency while considering those social impacts, she adds. “We need win-win solutions. Failure in one aspect of sustainability can destroy the results,” Mitchell says.

The ability of ruminant animals to convert high-roughage feeds such as grain stubble, ethanol byproducts and native-range forages into high-quality food benefits the sustainability of beef production.

She encourages the industry to look at broader outcomes in terms of animal welfare and carbon storage in soils. If we view efficiency simply from an input-output standpoint, poultry gains an advantage over beef, Mitchell says. We need to take advantage of ruminant abilities.

Scholten, Wageningen University, agrees with Mitchell on the importance of social responsibility in beef production, but disagrees that striving for efficiency creates a burden for animal well-being. Animal welfare is a cornerstone of efficiency, he says, adding modern production systems reflect and enhance natural biological systems. Ecosystems have evolved to ensure efficient use of resources, and animals have evolved to subsist within those ecosystems. Agriculture alters ecosystems for greater production, largely through intensification.

Depletion of resources or loss of animal health are not consistent with efficient production, Scholten says. “We can double production if we adopt ecological approaches. Optimizing protein production is best done with animals, which convert plants to protein and return nutrients to soil,” he says.

Good animal welfare, animal health and a functional microbiome are critical for efficiency in the system.

Balkcom, with the American Grassfed Association, says ranchers can use modern, intensified grazing systems to produce more beef on less land compared with conventional grazing, while regenerating land and rural economies and keeping families on farms.

“We’re all working on different efficiencies,” she says, adding we cannot feed our growing population with plant-based agriculture alone. “We’re here to be part of the solution and provide alternatives to other systems,” she says.

Overall, participants in the conference seemed to agree that we need to build efficiencies into all types of beef production. But while we sometimes view efficiency and sustainability as synonymous, efficiency is only one component of sustainability. As we measure and evaluate all aspects of sustainability, we can deter-mine whether individual practices that generate gains in efficiency fit with long-term goals of a sustained production system.


Note: This story appears in the November/December issue of Drovers.