Moving beyond food footprints to sustainable food systems

This article is sponsored by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor with the Beef Checkoff.

If you’ve heard that beef has a higher carbon or land footprint than many other foods, you should know that is largely correct. Higher footprints for beef are driven by the biology of cattle — they are large ruminant animals that take longer to reach maturity and harvest than other livestock species. For example, a chicken is typically harvested at six weeks of age while a grain-finished steer likely will be 14 to 18 months old.

That said, with respect to differences in environmental footprints between individual foods, radical changes in diets do not necessarily translate into positive environmental outcomes. And extreme dietary changes may come with unintended negative consequences. This was illustrated in a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. The researchers put the "less meat, less heat" hypothesis to the most extreme test — what if every American, including our pets, went vegan and we eliminated animals from our agricultural systems?

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States indeed would decrease, by only 2.6 percent, and we would produce more total pounds of food and calories. Importantly, that 2.6 percent reduction in GHG emissions is not attainable by solely eliminating livestock agriculture — all livestock in the United States would have to disappear. If we keep the animals around, the emissions associated with them would continue, and if we were to replace cattle with another large ruminant on our grassland ecosystems, such as American Bison, the emissions reduction would be less than 2.6 percent. While emissions would decrease, without animals our food supply would be lacking in key micronutrients such as vitamin B12, which is only found in animal source foods, and we’d rely more on synthetic fertilizers for crop production as we’d have no animal manure.

Figure 1. Examples of how beef production, crop production, and other food, fiber, and biofuels industries are integrated in the circular bio-economy. Nutrient and energy cycling between the different waste streams allow potential waste products to be upcycled rather than creating an environmental burden. For example, for each bushel of corn processed into fuel ethanol, about 17 lbs. of dried distillers grains are produced. By feeding the distillers grains to cattle and other livestock, the nutrients and energy can be transformed into food and fertilizer rather than enter a landfill.

This study brings to life the reality that reducing our environmental footprint may not be as easy as we would like, especially considering the interdependency of supply chains, such as our food, biofuel and fiber systems (Figure 1). Some key aspects of beef’s role in a sustainable circular bio-economy follow.

1. Cattle can convert human-inedible feeds into high quality human-edible protein.

Ninety percent of the lifetime feed intake of grain-finished beef cattle is not grain that potentially could be eaten by people — it’s whole plants such as grass and plant based leftovers (Figure 1). Our current grain-finished beef system in the United States generates (PDF) 19 percent more protein for the human food supply than it consumes. Beef cattle are the ultimate upcyclers; turning human inedible plants and plant leftovers into high quality and desirable protein. Cattle are exceptional upcyclers because they are ruminants — the same reason their environmental footprints tend to be higher.

2. Cattle consume forages/roughages (whole plants like grass) that are grown on lands unsuitable for cultivation, thereby expanding the land base available for food production.

Most forages consumed by cattle are produced on lands unsuitable for cultivation, or from lands that if cultivated would be highly erodible. In the United States, about 800 million acres of land are considered range and pasture lands. This land area represents 35 percent of the country, and the only way to generate human food there is to convert the plants growing on these lands to human-edible products with ruminant livestock — cattle, sheep, and goats.

3. Cattle consume plant leftover feeds from the food, fiber, and biofuels industries.

Considering human food alone, it’s estimated that for every 100 pounds of human food produced from crops, 37 pounds of human inedible plant leftovers are produced — feeding these leftovers to cattle generates multiple benefits. Plant-based leftovers fed to cattle generate human nourishment, wealth and manure which is a high-quality organic fertilizer. In the United States, about 47 million tons of these feeds are upcycled to livestock annually.

4. Integrating cattle into row-crop plant agriculture systems can have environmental and socioeconomic sustainability benefits.

Benefits of integration depend on (PDF) the production system, soils and climate, but can include improved nutrient cycling, added farm enterprise diversity (a form of risk management), and the generation of multiple human-usable products (both plant and animal products) from a given land area. An example of cattle-crop integration is grazing winter wheat with stocker cattle in the Southern Great Plains. About 2 million cattle graze winter wheat pasture each year, which subsequently can be harvested for human-use and milled into flour. One leftover of the wheat milling process, wheat middlings, can be fed back to cattle — again, this highlights the upcycling role that cattle play in our bio-economy.

5. Beef cattle producers play an important role in the agricultural economy and the social fabric of rural America.

In 2012, there were 2.1 million farms in the United States and about 38 percent were cattle operations. The cattle industries are responsible for about 2.1 million jobs (PDF) and $165 billion in added value to the U.S. economy. Because cattle operations are often in regions unsuitable for significant cultivated agriculture, they can serve as economic hubs to rural economies supporting other businesses and local services. Additionally, well-managed cattle grazing operations are generating wealth and nutrition from landscapes in a manner than can be highly resilient (PDF) and viable for the long-term, in contrast to the boom-and-bust cycle of some natural resource development.

6. Cattle produce more than edible beef — they are also a source of a variety of ancillary products from leather to pharmaceuticals. 

Edible beef sold as muscle meat cuts and ground beef is about 42 percent of the animal’s live weight, whereas 44 percent is available for byproduct production (PDF). Byproducts from cattle are used for a variety of purposes including adhesives, ceramics, cosmetics, fertilizers, glues, pet food, chewing gum, photographic films and leather products. Additionally, glands and tissues from cattle can be sources of epinephrine, insulin, serums, vaccines and antigens. Virtually no existing environmental assessments of beef have examined the economic, social or environmental consequences if these byproducts derived from cattle were severally limited or eliminated from a food system without cattle production.

Do the social costs of beef outweigh the benefits? While this is the embedded assertion of many arguments to dramatically reduce beef consumption, no true full accounting of social costs vs. social benefits of beef production exists. If we are to make bold changes to our food system, we need to be more comprehensive in our evaluations. Reductionist approaches can give us simplistic solutions to complex problems; and these simplistic solutions can have unintended consequences, both positive and negative, that should be considered. We need to think more about the whole food system, not just its individual parts in isolation — otherwise, we’re missing the forest for the trees.

The takeaway is that our food system is complex and integrated. Animal and plant agriculture are interdependent, and our food system interacts with biofuels production (corn ethanol, soy biodiesel) and fiber production (cotton). Whether focused on beef or any other food item on our plate, our goal should not only be to reduce the food’s environmental impact, but also enhance how it fits within our circular bio-economy — taking waste and making it something of worth.

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