The Beef Checkoff sponsored this blog post. Visit http://factsaboutbeef.com to learn more. Dr. Kim Stackhouse-Lawson is the Director of Sustainability Research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff, and is currently leading the Beef Checkoff sustainability effort, which marks the first and largest sustainability project that has ever been attempted in the beef community. She received her PhD in Animal Science from the University of California, Davis, and was a postdoctoral fellow with the Beef Cattle Institute at Kansas State University.
SB: What was the impetus for the Beef Checkoff’s sustainability project? Farmers and ranchers recognized the need to benchmark the sustainability of beef production and better understand sustainability improvements from the past in order to produce more sustainable beef in the future. So in 2010, they chose to invest their own dollars, through the Beef Checkoff, in research to benchmark the environmental, economic and social sustainability of beef.
SB: Why is a sustainability project for the beef community needed? What are the benefits? As a result of the life cycle assessment, which was the most comprehensive LCA ever conducted on a food system, we are better able to understand how management changes over time have affected the sustainability of beef production. With those benchmarks in mind, the beef community can utilize that knowledge to produce more sustainable beef in the future. The level of detail in the LCA allows farmers, ranchers, feedyard managers, processors, retailers and others along the beef supply chain to understand specific impacts of management decisions so they can focus time and energy on tangible changes that improve sustainability. Ultimately, the project allows beef to create a road map to more sustainable beef in the future and build consumer trust in beef. Raising responsible beef is as important to farmers and ranchers as it is to our beef consumers.
SB: What effect does sustainable beef have on social, economic and environmental issues? To us, sustainability means balancing environmental responsibility, economic opportunity, and social diligence while meeting the growing global demand for beef. Within each of the three pillars, there are multiple components including worker safety, water, soil and air quality, and resource use, just to name a few, and the beef community has made improvements in nearly all of them in the past six years. The beef community improved its environmental and social sustainability by 7% from 2005 to 2011. These are just two examples of the many improved practices leading to greater efficiency:
- Improving water quality by 10% as a result of precision farming efforts.
- Reducing contributions to landfills by 7% due to less fertilizer use.
SB: Is all U.S. beef sustainable? We believe sustainability for beef production should be measured through the lens of continuous improvement. In other words, a beef operation is sustainable if it continues to improve its sustainability over time. Unlike other consumer goods, beef production varies greatly depending on the natural and nearby resources available to farmers and ranchers. A rancher in Florida has different resources available to raise cattle than a rancher in Montana, a one size approach to sustainability in beef is simply not sustainable.
SB: Are consumer segments such as organic or grass-fed beefs influencing the sustainability efforts? If so, how? In consumer research conducted by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff, neither organic nor grass-fed beef are perceived by consumers to be more sustainable than conventional beef. Consumers may choose these beef options for other reasons, but our current research would not suggest that it is for reasons of perceived sustainability. That being said, organic and grass-fed beef production plays an important role in our industry by providing consumers with choices. The sustainability of these niche products is really not different than conventional beef. Every farmer or rancher has a different set of challenges and opportunities based on the resources they have to work with in their area of the country. Organic and grass-fed systems utilize many of the same resources as conventional beef production, such as processing, storage and transportation and they too have continued to improve their sustainability over time.
SB: What are the biggest issues facing sustainable beef today? I think the perception that beef is not sustainable is our industry’s single biggest challenge. We hope that the efforts made by the Beef Checkoff and the beef industry in the area of sustainability will begin to change these perceptions. The transparency and progressive approach being taken by the beef community is second to none. We are confident that our industry will continue to produce high quality beef while continuously improving sustainability.
SB: How are these issues affecting cattlemen/ranchers? How are they affecting consumers? Farmers and ranchers have been sustainable over time; some of these families are fourth and fifth generation ranchers. They are good stewards of the land and they work hard to utilize resources responsibly while producing high quality beef. They are excited about the ongoing research efforts that will provide them with additional knowledge to help them do a better job managing these finite resources. They too hope that perceptions will begin to change about beef production. Consumers today want to know more about where their food comes from, we hope that this sustainability initiative will provide them with the opportunity to learn about beef in a more transparent way than ever before and we hope that ultimately enhances trust in beef.
SB: What strategies are in place, or will be put in place, to address the issues facing sustainable beef? In order to continue making improvements it is imperative that we provide each segment of the beef supply chain with the tools they need to make improvements that work within their operations, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Currently, we are expanding the sustainability research objectives to include region-specific data to better provide specific information which will help farmers and ranchers make individualized management decisions. We are also reaching out to our partners in the retail and restaurant sectors to incorporate more consumer data. One current gap in our LCA work is the lack of primary data from retail impacts. The incorporation of that data will allow us to work with interested stakeholders in those segments to help reduce all impacts across the value chain, adding to the sustainability of beef. The bottom line for the beef community is we understand consumers expect us to improve sustainability, and we are committed to meeting their expectations. By documenting improvements over time, we will be able to tell a transparent sustainability story to our beef consumers and your customers.