The law ofunintended consequences, which is often cited but rarely defined, says that the actions of people, and especially governments, always have effects that are both unanticipated and unintended.

Beef producers know something of that. For them, perhaps a different definition is appropriate: Those who try to do the most good under misguided pretenses end up doing the most harm.

That’s the conclusion that Jude Capper, adjunct professor at Washington State University and now a Montana-based beef sustainability consultant, came to when she analyzed data on what would happen if beef producers were unable to use growth-enhancing technologies.

A Closer Look: Modern Beef Production Is "Green"

“I think we’re all aware that we face a potential threat to the industry in terms of consumer perceptions of technology,” she says. But what would happen if consumers and retailers made what to them would seem to be a fairly small change, such as sourcing beef that doesn’t come from cattle produced with growth-enhancing technologies? “It has global, long-term consequences,” Capper says. “This doesn’t just affect us here.”

And she has peer-reviewed data to prove it.

Capper’s research, sponsored by the Sustainable Beef Resource Center (www.sustainablebeef.org), took a whole-systems look at two U.S. beef production systems identical in all ways but one – one was a conventional production system where fed cattle were given growth-enhancing technologies (implants, beta-agonists, ionophores and MGA for heifers); the other did not use growth-enhancing technologies.

A whole-system, environmental and natural resource model was used to determine the effects of using each system to produce the same amount of beef. The model included all inputs and outputs through beef production – including all segments of beef production and the manufacture of cropping inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides – to the arrival of the animals at the processor.

Iowa State University (ISU) economist Dermot Hayes then fed the results into ISU’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development model, which includes a greenhouse gas assessment, to understand the global ag-production and trade consequences.

Those consequences are legion.

Analysis showed that producing the same amount of U.S. beef without using productivity-enhancing technologies would require these additional resources each and every year:

  • 10 million more beef cattle,
  • 17 million more acres of land for grazing and growing feed,
  • 81 million more tons of cattle feed and
  • 138 billion more gal. of water.

In the U.S. alone, 18 million more metric tons of CO² equivalent (eq) would be released into the atmosphere. These effects would be equivalent to imposing an 8.2% tax on U.S. beef farmers and ranchers, causing domestic beef production to be reduced by 17%.

Capper then looked at the effects of each technology – implants and beta-agonists – individually as well as in combination.

Beta-agonists don’t improve feed efficiency; they help animals partition more feed into lean growth. As a result, the products add about 33 lbs. more carcass weight. “Simply by gaining that extra 33 lbs. of carcass weight/animal with the same number of days on feed, we’re cutting total environmental impact by 5%,” she says.

“I looked at that and thought 5% is not that much until I thought this is just one technology in all the tools we have. It’s only used in one sector, yet it cuts total impact by 5%. On an 800-lb. carcass, (under a whole-system analysis) that’s equivalent to saving 1.6 tons of feed, 0.4 acres of land and nearly 9,000 gal. of water.”

Looking at implants alone, she calculates they cut the environmental impact by 9%/lb. of beef. “In terms of resources, we’re saving 3.1 tons of feed, 0.7 acres of land and nearly 17,000 gal. of water.”

At current adoption rates, about 95% of all fed cattle receive an implant and 70% receive a beta-agonist. So two-thirds of the animals in the feedlot have an implant and a beta-agonist. That cuts the total environmental impact by 12%/lb. of beef and produces an extra 77 lbs. of boneless beef when compared with animals that don’t receive growth-enhancing technology.