Sustainability of Beef Production

By Dr. John Comerford

Photo by Kiss Peter/shutterstock.com.

The role of beef production in the total worldwide food supply is significant. In the U.S., beef is king when it comes to the volume of sales and total dollar amount. The incredible biology of the rumen allows the beef cow to eat a wide variety of feed components - including waste from human food processing and production - and convert them into high-quality food for humans. The primary source of feed is forages and grass, and only 10 percent of U.S. corn production is used in beef production (in comparison, 40 percent of corn production is used in ethanol production). Beef is singularly important in the human diet to provide protein, iron, zinc and B vitamins. Over 95 percent of beef operations are defined as family farms by the USDA.


Sustainability has been variously defined regarding agriculture and beef production. In general, sustainability has been defined under three baseline categories: social sustainability, economic sustainability and environmental sustainability.

Table 1. Perceptions of Sustainability for Beef Consumers
Stackhouse-Lawson, 2013.

A recent report from Dr. Kim Stackhouse-Lawson (2013), which addressed sustainability of beef production for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, indicated the definition of sustainability among consumers is more diverse. Table 1 is an excerpt of the notion of sustainability among consumers.

These results show that, unlike a producer's perspective, the consumer's notion of sustainability in agriculture is not based on a business model. The definition is driven by esoteric issues that are more personal and emotional. The first step for farmers in achieving and maintaining sustainability is to understand the perspective of the marketplace and address those issues at the farm.

The overriding issue for beef production - and all of agriculture - is that there must be 70 percent more food production in the next 35 years to meet the needs of the growing population. Secondly, there will be no such thing as zero impact of food production on social, economic and environmental sustainability. Therefore, any changes in food production practices cannot reduce total food production and must, in fact, increase production at a steady rate while facing and addressing sustainability issues.

Beef production is more sustainable today than it was in 1977.
Photo by CherylPeters/morguefile.com.

Is beef production more sustainable?

Beef production is more sustainable today than it was in 1977. A review of beef production's impact on the environment is summarized by Dr. Jude Capper (2010) in Table 2.

The Environmental Protection Agency (2009) concluded that livestock in the U.S. produced 3.4 percent of total greenhouse gases, compared to transportation at 28 percent and electricity production at 33 percent. Unfortunately, this minor impact is disproportionately magnified in the press and by vegan organizations.

Table 2. Environmental Impact of U.S. Beef Production: 1977 to 2007
Capper, 2010.

The economic standard of sustainability was defined by Stackhouse-Lawson (2013) as factors including traceability, rural economies, market concentration and pricing, efficiency, trade and compliance with the law.

There is another feature of economic sustainability to consider. That is a business model. The failure of a business model to produce beef will have impacts on all other facets of sustainability. For example, the failure of a farm or ranch reduces food production on those acres, grasslands that are the heart of beef production of all kinds will not be available for most other types of food production, and the rural economy for the location of that farm or ranch will suffer. Collectively, these issues are at the heart of social sustainability.

Social sustainability relative to beef production is best defined by accessibility and affordability. Since beef is a high-quality food with few wasted calories (as opposed to baked goods and sugar-based foods) and high nutrient density, it follows that the human diet is well-served by having access to beef.

The worst scenario for U.S. consumers would be if beef became an expensive, inaccessible food. The protein and iron component of beef, particularly in a balanced diet for young women, is an especially important issue in human health. The economic reality of beef production necessitates a business model that will maintain social sustainability, which in turn traces back to a highly efficient use of environmental and technological resources in production.

The failure of a business model to produce beef will have impacts on all other facets of sustainability.
Photo by schurch/morguefile.com.

The future

The primary reason for the positive impacts on sustainability over the past few decades is increased efficiency derived from genetics, improved feeding technology, and the use of technology such as growth promotants. Genetic improvement for animal growth, carcass quality and efficiency of feed use has markedly increased with the use of genetic prediction tools such as expected progeny differences that became available after 1974. Genetic markers - the specific genes that may contribute to improvement of specific traits - have been identified and are now in use to enhance genetic improvement. Research is now under way to define genetic markers for disease resistance and other factors to enhance efficiency.

The biochemistry of the rumen and how it uses feed is fairly well understood. Improved feeding technologies incorporate the biochemistry of the rumen with specific feed inputs to reduce feed waste and allow greater efficiency of feed use at the cellular level. Growth promotants that include hormones and repartitioning agents are meeting resistance from consumers despite significant documentation that they are safe to use. This conflict will unfortunately continue in spite of reduced resource use and lower food costs that result from their use.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have essentially been used in beef production for many decades, if they are defined as selected individuals that are used as parents of the next generation of cattle. In the future, GMOs used at the cellular level may be those that have complete resistance to internal parasites or pneumonia in calves. This result will invite the consideration of the use of GMOs for improved animal welfare. How that conflict may be resolved is a question for the future. In an effort to continue to improve the impact of beef production on the collective issues of sustainability, new technology, as well as technology already in use, will not only continue, but escalate to meet the growing need for food.

These results beg the question of how alternative and nontraditional beef production practices - such as grass-fed, organic and natural production - will be used in the future. The result is actually very clear. These practices will maintain only a niche in the marketplace for beef. It's vitally important that these products remain available, because they serve a group of consumers who may not purchase any other kinds of beef. However, they will probably have a collective negative impact on sustainability:

The discussion surrounding sustainability in agriculture has taken a dangerous turn. Beef producers do not produce cattle; they produce food. The benchmark for comparative issues for sustainability is how much food is produced, what the quality will be, how accessible it will be, and how much of the population will be able to afford to buy it. That is the only sensible correlation to resource use, environmental impact and the impact on rural communities.

Dr. John Comerford is an associate professor and extension beef specialist at Pennsylvania State University.