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, http://beefmagazine.com/research/0318-technology-research-agriculture-re... " 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.

Unintended Consequences

Recently, Dr. Capper and Dr. Dermot Hayes, an agricultural economist with Iowa State University teamed up to answer the overarching question: “What would be the environmental and economic effects of removing productivity enhancing technology from the U.S. beef production system?”

The research examines two U.S. beef production systems, identical in every way except for the fact production enhancing technologies are modeled in one system and left out of the other. Technologies modeled include FDA-approved ionophores, steroid implants, melengestrol acetate (MGA) and beta-adrenergic use at current adoption rates.

The results were first presented in July at the 2012 American Society of Animal Science meetings. You can find results and a bevy of other resources at the Sustainable Beef Resource Center (SBRC, www.SustainableBeef.org).

Incidentally, the SBRC was formed at the suggestion of beef producers and branded beef marketers who recognized the need for a centralized source of facts about technologies used in sustainable beef production. SBRC works with third-party experts to develop factual, science based information about the important role of technologies in producing safe, affordable beef through socially and environmentally responsible practices.

The bottom line of the new peer reviewed study from Drs. Capper and Hayes is that plenty would happen, none of it positive for producers, consumers or the environment.

In order to produce the same amount of beef without the use of the aforementioned technologies, this is what would be required:

  • 10 million more cattle in the U.S. beef herd, equivalent to doubling the number of beef cattle in Iowa and Kansas.
  • 3 million more fed cattle harvested.
  • Four additional packing plants with a total capacity of 10,000 head per day.
  • 81 million more tons of feed, enough to fill the Rose Bowl stadium more than 1,000 times.
  • 17 million more acres of land for grazing and growing feed, equivalent to about the entire state of West Virginia.
  • 138 billion more gallons of water for producing feed and maintaining animals.
  • 18 million more metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2eq) would be released in the United States alone.

According to Drs. Capper and Hayes, this would be the equivalent of imposing an 8.2% tax on U.S. farmers and ranchers producing beef (or increasing the total cost of production by 8.2%). Unsurprisingly, the model estimates U.S. beef producers would reduce production by 17.2% within 15 years.

“If less U.S. beef is available, other countries will produce more to satisfy global demand, ultimately using more natural resources and increasing greenhouse gas emissions,” say Drs. Capper and Hayes.

Specifically, if global beef demand were maintained for 15 years without technology, Drs. Capper and Hayes say 3.1 billion more metric tons of CO2eq would be released into the atmosphere. That’s equivalent to the annual emissions from 522 million U.S. cars, more than twice the number of cars in the United States today.

“The biggest single impact would come from the destruction of 16.9 million acres of Amazon Rainforest and forests in the West Central Cerrado regions of Brazil,” says Dr. Capper. “Losing the ability to use safe, approved technologies will create significant environmental and economic challenges that are undesirable and unnecessary.”

Keep in mind the research from Drs. Capper and Hayes represents the latest, most comprehensive modeling tools available.

“Our goal was to make this research as accurate and as real as possible,” says Capper. “That’s why we turned to the best available resources, from the models used to prepare briefings for U.S. trade representatives and Congressional leaders, to the newly developed whole system environmental model.”

With this new system, Drs. Capper and Hayes modeled the effect of each production system to produce the same amount of beef. The model includes beef production inputs and outputs, from the manufacturing of crop inputs (fertilizer and pesticides), to the arrival of animals at the processor.

The results were then input to the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development model. That included a greenhouse gas assessment in order to understand the consequences for global agricultural production and trade.

“Global demand for safe, affordable beef has increased during the last 50 years and U.S. producers have responded by adopting innovative products and management practices that help them produce more lean beef,” Dr. Capper says. “If use of these scientifically approved, proven, Food and Drug Administration-approved technologies were discontinued, our research shows the end result would be sobering: more cattle, more land and more water needed to produce the same amount of beef, and more CO2eq released into the atmosphere.”

Looking ahead at the global population in 2050, the NIAA white paper authors say, “One economist maintains that 70% of the anticipated needed food supply will have to come from advancements in efficiency-improving technology: practices, products and genetics. For example, in the beef industry, technology has resulted in each pound of beef produced in the United States in 2007 requiring 14% less water and 34% less land than in 1977.”

“I don’t have a knock against natural and organic production. They’re niche markets and this is a free country,”

Dr. Rethorst says. “If people have the affluence to buy these products, that’s fine. But, we’re not going to feed the masses with organic and natural production.”