Consumers often perceive the modern beef production system has an environmental impact greater than that of historical systems, with improved efficiency being achieved at the expense of greenhouse gas emissions,” says Jude Capper, private Sustainability Consultant and Adjunct Professor of Animal Science at Washington State University.

That’s from Dr. Capper’s seminal study The Environmental Impact of Beef Production in the United States: 1977 Compared with 2007 published last year.

Dr. Capper continues, “Modern beef production requires considerably fewer resources than the equivalent system in 1977.”

In fact, by 2007, compared to three decades earlier, Dr. Capper says producing 1 billion kilograms of beef in the U.S. was achieved with 31.1% fewer cows, 18.6% less feedstuffs, 12.1% less water and 33% less land. This increased efficiency also meant production of 18.1% less manure, 12% less nitrous oxide and 17.7% less methane.

All told, Dr. Capper says the beef industry’s carbon footprint in 2007 was 16.3% less than in 1977.

This increased efficiency stems from everything from genetics to management, to production enhancing technologies such as implants and ionophores, the very technologies coming under fire from a misinformed public.

Take nothing for granted

“We need to be more proactive as an industry and tell consumers that we’re a lot greener than they give us credit for,” says David Rethorst, DVM of Animal Health Solutions, LLC of Hastings, Neb.

Generations removed from any direct knowledge of production agriculture, few consumers have any reason to question the activist rhetoric that suggests exactly the opposite.

“Many of us, particularly in the beef industry, have a ‘feed the world’ mentality,” Dr. Rethorst says. “But too few understand the efficiencies we give up with natural and organic beef production, such as feed conversion.”

Dr. Rethorst has a longstanding interest in industry sustainability. He was one of the few veterinarians to attend the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef in 2010. That meeting set the stage for establishing “a multi-stakeholder initiative by achieving greater clarity and deepening alignment around the key issues that influence the sustainability of the beef production system.” This was not some meeting of the fringes. Global giants like JBS, McDonald’s and Cargill sponsored the meeting. In February of this year, the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef was formed as a legal entity. 

“When you look at the projected global population in 2050 and the number of acres available for agricultural production worldwide, we’ve got to use technology. There’s land worldwide that can’t be farmed and we have to be able to harvest food from it in some fashion,” Rethorst says. “The good Lord put ruminant animals on this earth for one reason, in my opinion, and that’s to convert cellulose into red meat protein.”

Depending on who is running the abacus, global population is expected to peak at 8.5 to 9.5 billion people in 2050. It’s 6.9 billion today. So, 1.6 billion (23.2%) to 2.6 billion (37.7%) more people in the next 38 years.

“The demand for animal protein in the next 38 years is anticipated to increase significantly,” according to authors of Living in a World of Decreasing Resources & Increasing Regulation: How to Advance Animal Agriculture.

This white paper revolves around information synthesized from the 2012 Annual Conference of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA) in March this year.

“Economists estimate by the year 2050, " target="_blank">global meat production must increase by 73% to meet the expected 43% boost to the world’s population,” say white paper authors. “Three other basic factors driving global demand for animal protein are economic growth and income, the rising middle class of countries (particularly China and India) and urbanization. Broken down by species, to meet anticipated animal protein demand, global poultry production will need to increase by 125%, followed by sheep and goat meat at 78%; beef at 58%; pork at 37%.”

Conversely, while significantly more agricultural production is required, activists and consumers with no reason to question the fattest monkey in the closet, as well as food elitists, clamor for a bucolic vision of production agriculture that never existed; one where food is grown locally, neighbor feeding neighbor and Rockwellian sunsets to boot.

Think here of a production system sans crucial technologies many in production agriculture take for granted; things like steroid implants, ionophores, dewormers and all of the rest.