Sustainability researcher Dr. Jude Capper once made this analogy regarding efficiency: If one vehicle travels 50 miles per gallon of fuel, and another gets eight miles, which is more efficient? Answering, of course, requires more information. If the vehicle that runs 50 miles on one gallon is a sub-compact car that barely holds four passengers, and the one that gets just eight miles per gallon is a 60-passenger bus, the bus is more efficient. It requires more inputs (fuel) per mile, but uses less fuel per passenger mile.

In beef production, we can equate a feedyard or any intensive-production system with that 60-passenger bus. Compared to a more extensive, pasture-based system, the feedyard requires more inputs per acre and even more inputs per animal, but it has an advantage in inputs per pound of beef produced.

In this case though, does efficiency translate directly to sustainability? That was the question subjected to debate during the recent Global Conference on Sustainable Beef. Part 1 of this series introduced the topic and covered part of the debate. This article continues that discussion.

The debate focused on whether “chasing efficiency will lead to positive environmental and social outcomes.” On one side, the debaters included Carrie Balckom, Executive Director of the American Grassfed Association and Dr. Lesley Mitchel, Chief Policy Advisor and Head of Farming Policy for World Animal Protection. Representing the efficiency stance were Dr. Robert Cady, Global Sustainability Lead for Elanco, and Dr. Martin Scholten, General Director, Animal and Marine Sciences, Wageningen University, The Netherlands.

Dr. Mitchell, with World Animal Protection, said proponents of all beef-production systems share similar goals for providing adequate nutrition for the world’s population. There is no place for food waste, she says, but the industry should change its approach away from becoming more efficient with the goal of just boosting production, and focus more 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, she says, can incorporate efficiency while considering those social impacts. Consumers around the world want values incorporated into the food they purchase. “We need win-win solutions, she says, adding that the industry needs to produce enough, rather than the most. She also stressed the importance of the “three pillars” of sustainability: Social responsibility, environmental stewardship and economic viability. “Failure in one aspect of sustainability can destroy the results,” she says. Efficiency alone will not give us solutions we need, she adds. We need to consider all the costs. “Yes, we need to be efficient, but also effective in delivering sustainability.”

We need, Mitchell says, to redefine what efficiency is, beyond just inputs versus outputs. Look at broader outcomes in terms of animal welfare and carbon sequestration in soils versus carbon emissions to the atmosphere. If we view efficiency simply from an input-output standpoint, poultry gains an advantage over beef. We need she says, to take advantage of ruminant abilities, and consider goals beyond efficiency.

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

Natural ecosystems, he says, are not all plant-based. They rely on animals to cycle nutrients, and provide other ecological services. Depletion of resources or loss of animal health are not consistent with efficient production. “We can double production if we adopt ecological approaches,” he says. “Optimizing protein production is best done with animals, which convert plants to protein and return nutrients to soil.” Good animal welfare, animal health, and a functional microbiome are critical for efficiency in the system. Abandoning livestock production to save land or water or to increase plant-based agriculture is false concept, Scholten says.

Carrie Balcorn, with the American Grassfed Association, says modern pasture-based production began as alternative – an opportunity to bring more people back to eating beef by giving them another choice. Grass-finished beef has experienced a growth rate exceeding 300% over the last 10 years. Ruminants, she points out, have the ability to convert grass to protein, and modern, intensified grazing systems can produce more beef on less land compared with conventional grazing, while regenerating land and rural economies and keeping families on farms.

By increasing soil fertility, cattle graziers can produce more with less. She offered an example of a producer in Georgia who switched from a conventional cow-calf system to a pasture-based birth-to-plate operation. His management system, incorporating intensive grazing management and some grain feeding on pasture, has added seven inches of topsoil to his pastures, and the farm now employs 130 people in and economically stresses area. “We’re all working on different efficiencies,” she says, adding that we cannot feed our growing population with plant-based agriculture alone. “We’re here to be part of the solution, and provide alternative to other systems,” she says.

During the Q&A session, a representative of the Parker Ranch in Hawaii, said the 20,000-cow operation is working to move away from the commodity-beef business. The ranch now finishes about 5,000 animals per year on grass. Those cattle go to market about 50 pounds lighter than their grain-finished counterparts, but their market value makes up for the lower volume. The groups of cattle are produced with different goals in terms of balancing production efficiency, environmental considerations and profit margins.

Overall, participants in the conference seemed to agree that we need to consider the entire ecosystem and seek out ways to build efficiencies into all types of beef production. While we sometimes view efficiency and sustainability as synonymous, efficiency is just one component of sustainability. As we measure and evaluate all aspects of sustainability, we can determine whether individual practices that generate gains in efficiency fit with long-term goals in a sustained production system.

Read more in part 1 of this series