If U.S. beef producers were to abandon growth-promoting technology, it’s likely that other countries would increase beef production to capture the market share lost by U.S. producers. Within 15 years, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Australia would increase beef exports by 36%, 24%, 11% and 5%, respectively.

“Just think about that extra 24% in Brazil,” she says. “Deforestation is a huge issue in South America. Just by doing something that some groups see as a sensible, positive thing – taking technology away from U.S. beef – we would see this 24% increase in beef exports from Brazil.”

That would require clearing nearly 17 million acres of rainforest by 2023, she estimates. “So, from a social point of view, that would have huge negative consequences, and also from a carbon point of view. So this really does have big global implications.”

Under that scenario, the four countries also would release 3.1 billion more metric tons (mt) of CO²eq. “So that 36% increase in beef from Canada means that by the year 2023, we’d have another 283 million metric tons (mmt) of carbon coming out of Canada to maintain the global beef supply,” she says. In addition, an extra 143 mmt would be produced from Argentina, 139 mmt from Australia, and the rest of the world would contribute 413 mmt.

“So on a global basis, we would see 3.1 billion mt more of carbon in 2023. Brazil would account for about 65% (2.16 billion mt) of that global increase because of lower productivity and efficiency of the beef production system and also the 17 million acres of rainforest being cut down.”

To put that into context, Capper says if the U.S. were to take technology out of the beef production process tomorrow, by the year 2023 that extra 3.1 billion mt of carbon would be like adding 523 million cars to the road. “That’s approximately equal to 2.3 times the cars that we have in the states now,” she says.

While the data on the environmental and economic benefits of growth-enhancing technologies is solid, Capper says it’s still difficult to defend beef industry technology from a social point of view.

In an effort to define some metrics to address that, she thought of school kids. Data indicates that school kids will consume about 11 lbs./year of beef in school lunches. Taking the additional beef produced from one carcass of an animal produced with implants and beta-agonists, she calculated it would supply seven kids with their beef-containing school lunches for a year.

“And I personally think those are the kind of metrics we’re going to have to find. Because if we talk about feeding the world, that works well from a happy, feely-touchy point of view,” Capper says.

“But the average person on the street, they say, ‘Of course I care about feeding the world, but really I care most about my kids and my family.’ So I really think we’ve got to be able to find these kinds of metrics to be able to defend the technology we use now. We are feeding kids with those 77 lbs. of boneless beef from the implant and from the beta-agonist. So we do have some positive social aspects for this.”

These technologies are important in terms of reducing impacts on land, water, fuel, carbon and other resources, she says. “These are not things that make some tiny little difference. They really make a big impact to our system. If we take them out, we become less competitive, other countries take up that slack and it really does have long-term economic, trade, and carbon implications.

“And we can talk about this until we’re blue in the face because we have good economic data, we have good environmental data. So the social aspect is the one where we’re going to potentially have the most issues in the future.”

For more information go to wsu.academia.edu/JudeCapper and www.sustainablebeef.org.