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.

Other countries will step up

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.