Beef farmers and ranchers are dedicated to producing beef in a way that prioritizes the planet, people, animals and progress. Numerous proven sustainability practices are utilized throughout the process that contribute to the way beef is responsibly raised. A food supply balances efficient production with environmental, social and economic impacts.
The social pillar of sustainability is defined as community and organizational resilience, based on principles such as equity, health, social capital and well-being. For beef production, social sustainability includes worker safety, animal welfare, antibiotic and technology use, and the culture and traditions of beef producers.
The economic pillar of sustainability refers to practices that support economic success and equitability, without negatively impacting the social and environmental aspects of the community. This includes improving rural economies and livelihoods, affordability of beef to consumers, profitability of beef producers, and the value of ecosystem services. Beef farms and ranches represent over 30% of the farms in the U.S., making up the single largest segment of U.S. agriculture, and a significant component of the agricultural economy.¹
An economic impact assessment for the beef industry is now being completed. This economic impact report is one way to measure economic sustainability of the beef industry and is an area that will continue to develop, and progress given the significant social and economic contributions of the beef industry to the U.S. and global community.
The environmental pillar is concerned with protecting and enhancing natural resources, ecosystem services, and ecological health. This pillar looks at biodiversity, carbon and water footprints, wildlife habitat, soil and rangeland health, and the ability of cattle to utilize human inedible feeds, among others.
Currently, emissions from cattle, including those that come from the feed production, fuel, and electricity only account for 3.7% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.² To better understand and optimize environmental sustainability across the entire beef lifecycle, from pasture-to-plate, cattlemen and women have recently invested in an updated environmental life cycle assessment (LCA). This in-depth assessment utilizes the most up-to-date and comprehensive methodology and includes data from seven different regions across the country. The LCA provides benchmarks on environmental contributions of the cattle industry in the U.S. and is a roadmap for the journey toward an even more environmentally sustainable approach to raising beef.
As a result of scientific advancements in beef cattle genetics, nutrition, production practices, and biotechnologies, the U.S. is a global leader in beef production efficiency. If the rest of the world were as efficient as the U.S., we could double global beef production, providing more high-quality protein for a growing population. In fact, the U.S. produces 18% of the world's beef with only 6% of the world's cattle.³
In the U.S, improvements in productivity allow beef cattle to reach harvest weight in a shorter amount of time than other countries. As compared to other countries, 2.66 cattle are required to produce the same amount of beef as one beef animal in the U.S. due to improvements in resilience and efficiency.⁴ Additionally, the carbon footprint of U.S. beef production is 10-50 times lower than other regions of the world.⁵
It is also critical to consider the ecosystem services provided by raising beef. This includes mitigating the risk of wildfires, in addition to benefits from grazing lands such as water regulation and purification, carbon sequestration, and wildlife habitat. The value of these services, estimated at $14.8 billion⁶ combined with beef's significant economic contribution to the U.S. economy, are further contributions to consider when looking at sustainability across the livestock industry.
Approximately one-third of all food produced for human consumption in the world is lost or wasted, which places a substantial burden on global sustainability issues, including greenhouse gas emissions and food security. While 18% of food waste occurs at the restaurant and foodservice level, 43% of food waste occurs in the home.⁷
The food an average American family wastes translates into about $2,500 per year. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), beef is one of the least wasted foods, with 20% spoiled or not eaten, but that still leaves plenty of room for improvement. Sustainability is never complete, with all involved playing a role to help create a more sustainable food supply.
² CA Rotz, S Asem-Hiablie, S Place, G Thoma., 2018. Environmental footprints of beef cattle production in the United States. Agricultural Systems. Advance online publication. doi.org/10.1016/j.agsy.2018.11.005
³ U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. FAOSTAT Database – Food and agricultural data. Available at: http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#home accessed December 6, 2019).
⁵ Herrero M, et al. 2013. Biomass use, production, feed efficiencies, and greenhouse gas emissions from global livestock systems. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 110: 20888-20893
⁶ Taylor, DT, et al. 2019. National and State Economic Values of Cattle Ranching and Farming Based Ecosystem Services in the U.S. University of Wyoming Extension B-1338.
⁷ ReFED. 2016. A roadmap to reduce US food waste by 20 percent. Found here.