According to “Environmental Footprints of Beef Cattle Production ” a study recently published in the journal Agricultural Systems, widely accepted claims about beef cattle's environmental impact in the U.S. are often overestimated.
The lifecycle assessment, conducted by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service and the Beef Checkoff, was designed to scientifically quantify the sustainability of U.S. beef production. Researchers collected and examined feed- and cattle-production-related data from more than 2,200 cattle producers in seven regional production areas. They derived their conclusions by using a simulation model and regional production data to estimate national impacts on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, fossil energy use, blue water consumption and reactive nitrogen loss.
While these conclusions are compelling, a recent EAT-Lancet 50-page report suggests that the only way to save the planet is to eat less meat, eat more nuts and beans, or adopt a “flexitarian” diet (defined as flexible vegetarianism, eating more vegetables than meat). Frank Mitloehner, Ph.D., professor and air quality specialist for the Department of Animal Science at the University of California – Davis, says in order to meet EAT-Lancet’s solution of replacing meat with nuts, the U.S. would have to increase nut production by 580 percent.
“What we need are more nutrient-rich foods, like beef and eggs,” Dr. Mitloehner explains.
As others try to influence dietary guidelines throughout the world, Dr. Mitloehner cautioned that the often-cited data in the 2006 FAO report (Livestock’s Long Shadow) and other soon-to-follow reports will continue to make inaccurate claims about food production.
“The way you produce animals has a profound impact on environmental footprint,” Dr. Mitloehner says. “Although these reports are full of inaccuracies, don’t just disregard them as they will impact us for a long time. Check them for credibility and respond in a meaningful way.”
The fact is that beef production, including the production of animal feed, is responsible for only 3.3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. This is dramatically lower than the often-misquoted global livestock figure of 14.5 percent .
Dr. Mitloehner goes on to explain that global numbers have intentionally distorted the sustainability picture. Truth be told? By continuously improving their production practices, today, U.S. beef farmers and ranchers are able to produce the same amount of beef with one-third-fewer cattle than they did in 1977.
This is exactly why the checkoff conducted the lifecycle assessment – to give consumers and the industry the real story of beef sustainability – something everyone can read and believe.
"This lifecycle assessment delivers the most comprehensive and accurate assessment of the environmental impact of beef cattle in the U.S. to date," says USDA researcher and study co-author Alan Rotz.
This information was distributed via the wire to consumer-directed media outlets, and it is also currently featured on the “Beef in a Healthy, Sustainable Diet” page on BeefItsWhatsForDinner.com. For more information about beef production practices and sustainability, visit BeefItsWhatsForDinner.com.
Beef Sustainability: Fact vs. Myth
 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