The beef industry has improved its sustainability by 5 percent in just six years according to the results of the checkoff-funded Beef Industry Sustainability Assessment, released during the 2013 Cattle Industry Summer Conference.

Richard Gebhart, cow-calf producer from Claremore, Okla., also served on the sustainability advisory panel. He explains that the beef sustainability assessment is the most detailed examination of a commodity value chain ever completed, taking into account every aspect of beef production from the growth of feed to the disposal of packaging by the final consumer.

“We examined all the inputs and outputs required to produce a pound of boneless, edible beef and we did that for the 1970s, 2005 and 2011,” says Gebhart, explaining that the 1970s and 2005 each represents major shifts in beef production practices, while 2011 represents present-day.

Improvements in crop yields, better irrigation, innovations in the packing sector, improvements in technology and better animal performance are examples of innovations that have all played a role in advancing industry sustainability, according to Kim Stackouse-Lawson, Ph.D., director of sustainability for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff Program.

“The completion of the life cycle assessment (LCA) project provides the industry, for the first time, the science-based evidence necessary to lead conversations about the sustainability of beef,” says Stackhouse-Lawson. “The Beef Checkoff and the Beef Promotion Operating Committee had the foresight three years ago to see the importance of this work and make it a priority for the industry. By completing the LCA, the checkoff positioned beef as a leader on the topic of sustainability.”

Stackhouse-Lawson says the project was extensive. “We examined millions of individual data points and then created models to simulate specific aspects of beef production practices so that this data and these results are truly representative of beef production in the United States.”

Gebhart and Stackhouse-Lawson agree that the completion of the project represents an outstanding opportunity for cattlemen and cattlewomen to tell their own stories of sustainable beef production, rather than letting those outside the industry do it.

“The results of this work show the beef industry is becoming more innovative and efficient, while also doing an excellent job protecting the resources with which they have been entrusted,” says Gebhart.

Stackhouse-Lawson explains that during the six years between 2005 and 2011, the beef industry has:

  • Reduced environmental impacts by 7 percent
  • Improved its overall sustainability by 5 percent
  • Reduced emissions to soil by 7 percent
  • Reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 2 percent
  • Lowered acidification potential emissions by 3 percent
  • Reduced emissions to water by 10 percent
  • Lessened occupational accidents and illnesses by 32 percent
  • Reduced resource consumption by 2 percent
  • Decreased water use by 3 percent
  • Decreased land use by 4 percent
  • Lowered energy use by 2 percent

“The results of the Beef Industry Sustainability Assessment, which was just certified by the National Standards Foundation (NSF), show the industry is on a path of continuous improvement,” says Stackhouse-Lawson, who explains that the certification by NSF lends third-party credibility to the work, making it more acceptable to non-governmental organizations and other potential partners in the sustainability arena.

“When we talk about the sustainability of an industry, that’s what it’s all about, getting better over time. As an industry, beef is doing a good job at making progress on the path toward a more sustainable future. The certification of these results confirms that,” she says.

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