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Beef Industry Boasts Smaller Footprint

August 3, 2010

[Source: Feedstuffs]

Beef industry can take pride in these numbers

An op-ed by Trent Loos

We may be a little late getting to the dance, but the music is playing, and our moves are still quite good.

While attending the Cattle Industry Summer Conference last week in Denver, Colo., I heard plenty of buzz in the hall, but the biggest positive buzz was about the numbers.

The numbers to which I refer come from Dr. Jude Capper of Washington State University, who published figures that mean something in terms of what animal agriculture has been calling improved efficiency.

She compared the carbon dioxide emissions from beef production in 1977 to those in 2007, and guess what? The industry emits 18% less carbon per unit of beef produced now than 30 years ago!

In fact, when you break down the entire lifecycle of beef production, it gets even more interesting. On a per-pound basis, beef production requires 10% less feed energy, 20% fewer total feedstuffs, 30% less land, 14% less water and 9% less total fossil fuel energy now than it did years ago.

Let me start by saying that while the 18% smaller carbon footprint is impressive and should be pointed out to every policy-maker, it pales in comparison to those reductions in land, water and total feedstuffs needed to get the same beef output.

If we are truly concerned about how and on what land to produce food for 9 billion people by 2050, then we need to take a serious look at how the beef industry accomplished this feat.

While people may romanticize about yesteryear and the cattle drive era when we first became a beef-producing nation, that way just won’t cut it for meeting the food system requirements of today or tomorrow. In fact, you don’t need to go back 140 years. Just look at the huge improvements we have made in the past 30.

Capper’s report takes an in-depth look at the difference between grass-fed cattle and grain-fed feedlot cattle.

I find it truly amazing how the cow converts cellulosic material into human-consumable products, and I do not want to diminish that in the least, but Capper’s research is proof that taking market animals from the range to a feedlot to feed them corn is the most efficient way to get food for people.

The technologies that have been implemented in the feedlot structure are the answer to feeding the global population.

The U.S. excels at growing corn. We can grow it better than anybody in the world, so the supplies are and will always be plentiful. Why not use that corn as cattle feed to produce protein for the masses?

That reminds me of a recent piece written by Ryan Andrews, a certified strength and conditioning coach who is a self-proclaimed vegetarian. Andrews said he got tired of hearing and reading about all of the evils of the cattle feedlot system and decided to go visit one for himself.

Magnum Feedlot, owned by Steve Gabel, gave him the full-blown tour of a modern system.

While I can’t share with you how impressed Andrews was with every aspect of the operation, I think this statement tells the whole story:

“If I did eat meat, my visit to Magnum would have made me feel great about eating non-organic, non-grass-fed beef. Seriously. I can’t imagine that the quality of meat would be substantially better with organic and grass-fed, nor can I imagine that the living conditions would be substantially better for the cattle,” Andrews said.

The efficiency of today’s food production system is an amazing story that doesn’t get told enough. Thanks to Capper, we finally have the statistics to back up our belief that modern food production is not only good for the planet but is the best at providing nutrient-dense foods for a hungry human population as well.

Capper, J. L., R. A. Cady, and D. E. Bauman. 2009. The environmental impact of dairy production: 1944 compared with 2007. Journal of Animal Science doi:10.2527/jas.2009-1781

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