The second phase of the study is a lifecycle assessment. This is where the researchers really delved into every aspect of beef industry sustainability, beginning with the birth of a calf and ending with what ends up in the landfill after the consumer enjoys a beef meal.

“For example, we ship beef in cardboard boxes,” Stackhouse says. “That cardboard comes with an impact of how much it affects environmental, economic and social parameters of sustainability.”

For this year, the researchers will regionalize the data, taking the models they created and then building assumption curves in different regions across the U.S. With regionalization complete, the group will develop an app that producers can use to determine the level of sustainability of their operations. In addition, they’re still working to complete the social analysis of the data.

The assessment will be submitted to the National Standards Foundation (NSF) for certification, which is important because it shows the research is sound and unbiased. Since this project is far and away the most complex sustainability assessment ever submitted, the researchers say it will take NSF longer than normal to make a decision. That decision is expected sometime this year.

What are the benefits of the research? “It gives us data and the proof we need to tell our story,” Stackhouse says.

The research, looking at the 1970s when boxed beef was introduced, then at 2005 to represent the ethanol era, then at 2011 as a benchmark, shows remarkable improvements in environmental and economic sustainability. Once those results are certified, the industry will have some proactive ammunition with which to tell its sustainability story.

That, hopefully, will open doors. “We think the lowest-hanging fruit and the biggest opportunity for us to improve the beef industry moving forward is to partner with groups working to reduce food waste,” Stackhouse says. “If we can reduce food waste at the consumer level by half, we can improve our beef sustainability portfolio by 10%.”