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What Is Sustainable Beef?

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Experts define sustainability in the beef industry.

Consumers today are blessed with a myriad of choices when they walk into a grocery store. Aside from the many brands of beef, shoppers can choose their preferred production method -- conventional, organic, natural or grass-fed. With so many choices and an abundance of items, it can be a challenge to know which choice is best for your health and the planet.

What is sustainable beef? How is it best defined?

Rachel Tepper writes for The Huffington Post, “Earlier this month, McDonald's Corp.'s sustainability vice president Bob Langert addressed the issue of sustainable beef and the difficulty defining it. His concerns come more than a year after the company pledged to move toward sustainability. Langert's comments bring up pointed questions. McDonald's defines ‘double green’ as plans and actions that ultimately benefit society and business growth, but how easy is it to make a business sustainable -- particularly fast-food businesses that rely heavily on beef -- and what does beef sustainability even mean?

“Interest in sustainability has skyrocketed among major players in the food service industry in recent years, mirroring conversations in the broader green and food communities about the agriculture industry's role in serious environmental challenges.

“Bryan Weech, director of livestock agriculture for World Wildlife Fund (WWF), told The Huffington Post that ‘there is no one, universally accepted definition’ for beef sustainability. Weech also represents the WWF on the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, one of several groups working toward a definition.

“Jude Capper, an adjunct professor of animal sciences at Washington State University, agrees. Moving toward sustainability is easier said than done, she says.

‘There is no doubt that for every restaurant or airline or car company, this is the kind of trendy issue at the moment. Can we say we’re buying any sustainable beef today? No, we can’t. Could we be buying sustainable beef? We might be. What I mean by that is that there are no standards, measures, accountability and traceability to make those claims today.

“Capper says basic improvements that could be implemented globally are straightforward ones, like attending to sick animals and providing nutritionally adequate feed. Also important is using land efficiently, which could be helped by simply increasing the number of calves in a herd. More animals healthily housed in less space, essentially.”

According to Tepper, there are several things that can help define what is sustainable including: “impact on protected wildlife, biodiversity, soil and land quality, water resources usage and quality, deforestation, land use and management, social responsibility, nutritional security and community and financial viability.”

It’s apparent from the experts quoted in the article that defining sustainability is a difficult task. To me, sustainable beef is that which is produced efficiently, packs the most nutrient punch and creates the least environmental impact. I think it’s great that the U.S. beef industry offers so many choices to appeal to a wide range of consumer demands and needs. However, I hope consumers know that they shouldn’t fear conventionally raised, traditional beef. After all, it’s a product that is raised with the most efficiency, therefore using less land, water and natural resources, while still providing many of the essential nutrients we need to thrive. With its tremendous efficiency, the U.S. model of beef production should be used as the world’s model for providing food with sustainability.

What does sustainability mean to you? Leave your definition in the comments section below.

 

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Discuss this Blog Entry 19

Jim McGrann (not verified)
on Oct 23, 2012

The U.S. beef system is built on low cost feed grains. This model fits very few parts of the world beef production.

a gaucho (not verified)
on Oct 23, 2012

I agree 100%.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 9, 2014

Do you care to elaborate? Your statement is extremely vague and has nothing to back it up.

on Oct 23, 2012

I don't think any aspect of ag that is built primarily around consumption of iron and oil can be considered sustainable.

Hmmmm??? I guess you might say that about society as a whole.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Oct 23, 2012

Sustainability, at core, means ability to continue producing without depleting resources. Almost the something-out-of-nothing model, or more accurately something-out-of-renewable resources. Cattle ranchers, especially at cow-calf level, do that every day. Grass fed cattle ranchers do it by definition.In a strict definition, you would have to remove machinery from the equation (non-renewable fuels). That said, I think a grass-fed cow-calf operation employing cowboys on horseback would be a sustainable cattle ranch.

on Oct 23, 2012

I agree with the environmental sustainability definition. I would add that a sustainable system must also be able to pay for itself.

Jay Fulmer (not verified)
on Oct 23, 2012

I recently heard Jude Capper give the best definition of "sustainable". She said "Sustainable beef does not mean local, organic, natural, etc. First it has to be economically viable. Second, it has to be environmentally responsible. And third, it has to be socially acceptable." To that I would add that any other pie-in-the-sky definition that ignores the economic aspect of sustainability is flawed.

on Oct 23, 2012

Wow, to say the rest of the world should use our grain and heavily fossil fuel dependent model dis-regards climatic, ecological, and economic considerations. I saw Jude Capper talk at our state cattlemen's convention and she is heavily biased towards the feedlot model of finishing beef.based on selective economics, not necessarily enviromental impact..

on Oct 23, 2012

Ranchers have always been "sustainable" How the hell do you think we've lasted this long. This "sustainable" is the current buzz word.

The socialist movement will push the issue trying to attain the definition for sustainable as "no net return" as in "no profit".

Anonymous again (not verified)
on Oct 24, 2012

Money, or profit, is a renewable resource in a broad definition of environmental "sustainability:" money in, money out; cowboys work, get paid and work more; grass puts on beef pounds (and fuels horses) and comes back for more. All ranchers know that we'll never be rich, but can sure keep the cycle going. Non-renewable resources (like fuel) have to be "value added" or are equivalent to throwing money in the trash -- not sustainable. Ranchers battle that balance always. As non-renewables get more expensive (rare or low-supply-high-demand), they will be less "value added" to a profitable (renewable) operation…simplistic, but an easy way to think about "sustainability."

Bryan Weech (not verified)
on Nov 17, 2012

Interesting comments. Here is a working definition of sustainable beef that is starting to take shape that I offer as "food for thought":

Sustainable beef is a wholesome and healthful protein source that is produced, processed, distributed and marketed in such a way that minimizes impacts on the environment, and optimizes resource use efficiency, and stewardship contributes to functional ecosystems including healthy soil, pasture, water, wildlife populations and biodiversity generally, and enhances eco-system services such as carbon sequestration, protection of water resources, and biodiversity etc.,

Sustainable beef avoids deforestation, land degradation, and damage to other high conservation value areas including water resources, riparian areas, wildlife habitat etc.

Sustainable beef minimizes resource usage on a per unit of production basis including feed, energy, water, packaging material etc.

Sustainable beef is socially responsible by providing nutritional security, community vibrancy, protection of worker and animal welfare, and other social benefits.

Sustainable beef is financially viable by contributing to stakeholder value, long-term economic security, and quality of life.

I welcome your feedback.

texas nana (not verified)
on Jan 8, 2014

I have no more idea what sustainable means now than before I read this article. I grew up in Montana where ranchers ran their cattle on federally owned forest lands for decades and did their round ups on horseback. I guess that is sustainable production. Now live in Texas and hear all the Austin wackos talking about saving the environment while all one has to do is drive twenty miles outside the city limits to see some of the worst examples of overgrazing in the nation. Not much connection between the hot air and the reality.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 8, 2014

The fact that we have been eating beef for hundreds of years should be evidence that we have been using sustainable beef.

Come on, sustainable beef???? I'm tired of this overuse of the term "sustainable" as a marketing ploy! Geezzzz

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 9, 2014

I just wish antibiotics were not used :(

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 10, 2014

To anonymous: all you need do is stop using antibiotics. Don't allow your doctor to prescribe them when you don't need them. Demand by patients for antibiotics from their doctors is proving to be the most abused of antibiotic uses!

Re. antibiotics used in food animal production, it IS regulated, AND you can buy beef from animals NEVER given antibiotics. Just do it! Food producers DO respond to demand for specific production methods.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 16, 2014

The U.S. "Model" encourages monopolies and huge profits for a few corporations while filling the consumer full of antibiotic lased meat. E. coli outbreaks, monopolies, poor quality food to keep costs low is not the model I recommend to other countries. Do yourself a favor, even if you don't understand it (which you should) research your food, find out more about what you buy and where it comes from, and you just might pay the extra $1 for organic. Help out the smaller farming communities.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 20, 2014

Trust no one who uses the term sustainable anything!!
What they really mean to say is if you like your hamburger you can keep it.
Underlying, these are the airheads who want less people less cows less freedom

on Jan 30, 2014

Well said. Never deal with the devil

Walt (not verified)
on Jan 21, 2014

Who cares. Another added expense like climate change hoax

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BEEF Daily Blog is produced by rancher Amanda Radke, one of the U.S. beef industry’s top social media “agvocates.”

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Amanda Radke

A fifth-generation rancher from Mitchell, SD, Amanda grew up on a purebred Limousin cattle operation in which she and husband Tyler are active. She graduated with a degree in agriculture journalism...

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