If there was an upside to the 2006 report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” it is that it proved just how misinformed the 98% of the people are who enjoy the fruits of your hard work, but have negative and erroneous ideas about how you do what you do.

The report, released by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, was so heavily flawed that it drew smirks and incredulous gasps from cattle producers. For everyone else, unfortunately, it only cemented their already-negative thoughts about cattle production.

Here’s the other upside to the report: it galvanized cattlemen into getting more aggressive and doing something about it.

The results of that call to action were many, including more research and a stepped-up recognition that cattlemen must tell their own story. Recently, however, the beef industry took a major step – through the beef checkoff, cattlemen last year embarked on the largest sustainability study of its kind ever conducted. This farm-to-fork, comprehensive sustainability assessment will define, beyond any doubt, beef’s contribution to the three pillars of sustainability – economic, environmental and social.

While just about everyone has a different definition of sustainability, the beef industry defines it as the process of meeting beef demand by balancing environmental responsibility, economic opportunity and social diligence throughout the supply chain, according to Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, director of sustainability for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

The interesting thing about the whole sustainability conversation, she says, is that cattlemen have been producing more with less for generations. “But we have very little data to back that up,” which puts cattlemen at a disadvantage when discussing their role in feeding the world and answering the challenge of becoming more sustainable.

The sustainability assessment

The checkoff initiated the three-year study last year. The goal of the industry’s sustainability assessment is to turn that disadvantage into an advantage. But it’s important to remember that sustainability isn’t a simple yes or no question.

“Sustainability is not an on-off switch,” says Richard Gephardt, chairman of the Federation of State Beef Councils. “It’s not that we’re sustainable or not sustainable. Sustainability is a journey – it is continuous improvement.”

To that end, the industry’s sustainability assessment will provide cattlemen with a benchmark as the industry goes forward. So the first part of the effort was a “hotspot” analysis where industry stakeholders were asked to identify perceptions about the beef industry all along the value chain.

And they had concerns:

  • “If we go to the environment, biodiversity was their number-one concern for sustainability,” Stackhouse says, followed by air emissions, water emissions, land management and water use.
  • For economic concerns, stakeholders were concerned that confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) weren’t in compliance with existing laws. “They’re worried about traceability; they’re worried that we’re damaging rural economies,” she says.
  • On the social side, animal health and welfare was the top concern, along with consumer health and safety, consumer education and food availability.

“We were surprised that carbon footprint didn’t even make the list,” Stackhouse says. “We thought that was most peoples’ definition of sustainability. What we learned is sustainability has become a larger umbrella of issues for our stakeholders.”

Life-cycle assessment

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%.”