Source: Dr. Jude Capper, Washington State University, and Dr. Richard Gebhart, University of Tulsa.
Sustainability. It’s the new buzz-word in every restaurant menu, every corporate mission statement and every TV commercial. If we believe articles in The New York Times, Time magazine or other popular press, sustainability can be only achieved through eating grass-fed, locally-produced, organic beef, preferably that which you have slaughtered yourself.
There’s a market for every production system within the U.S. beef industry, but, to suggest that only a small proportion of the industry is sustainable does an injustice to all. Coined by the Brundtland Commission in 1987, the most widely-used definition of sustainability is that it “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The presence of 5th, 6th and 7th generation ranchers and farmers within the industry clearly shows that through producing sufficient safe, affordable beef to feed the past, current and future population while taking care of land and water resources, the beef industry is an excellent example of sustainability in action.
Sustainability can further be broken down into three components: environmental stewardship, economic viability, and social responsibility. Environmentally, beef producers have made amazing advances over the past 30 years – compared to 1977, 19% less feed, 12% less water, 9% less fossil fuels and 33% less land is required to produce a pound of beef – leading to a 16% decrease in beef’s carbon footprint.
Through gains in productivity and efficiency, beef is an affordable economic choice for consumers, allowing our families, children and grandchildren to enjoy high-quality animal protein that supports healthy bodies. Socially, beef producers are an intrinsic part of rural communities, contributing to the rural economy and promoting development through providing employment to ranch and feedlot workers as well as veterinarians, nutritionists, feed mills and allied industry professionals. These contributions were documented in the first NCBA Corporate and Social Responsibility Report published last year1.
Differing priorities are one of the major problems in defining a sustainable system. Knowing that beef has been produced in a manner that is economically efficient for the rancher is not a top priority for an urban consumer, even though this is an essential part of ensuring that ranchers can continue to supply food to the consumer. Instead, consumers want to know that their food is safe, and produced in a way that preserves the natural resources that we all share.