Better off with Beef in a Sustainable Food System

Posted: April 20, 2022

May is Beef Month so let’s talk about beef sustainability

Not only is beef delicious and nutritious, but the beef industry continues to implement numerous proven sustainability practices that contribute to the way beef is responsibly raised today.

Though the path to sustainability is never complete it is a continuous journey by farmers and ranchers responsible for raising and supplying beef to the U.S. and across the world. Today, a sustainable food supply balances efficient production with environmental, social and economic impacts.

Let’s focus on the environmental impacts during Beef Month – protecting and enhancing natural resources, ecosystem services, and ecological health.

The environmental impact of the beef industry has received increased attention from the public because of perceptions of its effects on climate change.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

According to the U.S EPA’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) report, 2% of U.S. emissions come directly from beef cattle (methane from cattle belches, methane and nitrous oxide from manure).

Total direct emissions from all agricultural production, crops, and livestock collectively, were 8.4% of U.S. emissions in 2017. Compare that to transportation which emits 25.3% in greenhouse gases.

Fewer cattle required for a given amount of beef produced means fewer GHG emissions and fewer natural resources required to produce meat. The U.S. beef industry is a leader in beef production efficiency because of advancements in beef cattle genetics, nutrition, husbandry practices and biotechnologies.

Many plant-based food advocates promote vegan diets to lower their carbon footprint. However, research has demonstrated that removing all livestock and poultry from the U.S. food system would only reduce GHG emissions by 2.6 percent.

Conservation & Land Use

Conservation principles are used at every point in the beef lifecycle, starting with pasture-based cow-calf farms and ranches, to the cattlemen and women who feed cattle at feedyards.

Their commitment to the land is highlighted by the fact that 91% of beef cattle operations are family-owned, and 78% of beef farmers and ranchers intend to pass their operation on to future generations.

Range and pasture lands are located in all 50 states. Livestock grazing is the primary use of approximately 29% of all U.S. land including grassland, pasture and rangeland. Often, the land cattle graze on is not suitable for growing other food products.

While some argue that cattle use too much land, these arguments do not consider the countless, invaluable ecosystem services that cattle on grazing lands provide. Managed grazing can support biodiversity, provide wildlife habitat, enhance carbon sequestration, and contribute to nutrient cycling.

A recent study using Census of Agriculture data found that the economic value of ecosystem services from U.S. beef cattle ranching was an estimated $24.5 billion annually.

Water Use

Taking into account all water from farm to fork, it takes 308 gallons of water for every pound of edible consumed beef produced in the U.S. Approximately 95% of this water used in cattle production is for the irrigation of crops used for feeding cattle.

The water cattle use for drinking represents about one percent of the total water used in beef production.
Keep in mind that water used for cattle is not used up. The water cycle works. Water percolates into aquifers, it runs down streams into lakes and oceans. It evaporates and returns in precipitation, and cattle pastures provide land to filter this water and return it to the ecosystem.

Many cattle ranches implement water conservation and environmental efforts. Ninety-four percent of cattlemen indicated that protecting natural resources like water was a very high priority for them. An increasing number of ranches are also collecting rainfall or using underground wells to save water and make sure the environment is sustainable for future generations.

The beef production system works in harmony to produce the most sustainable product, balancing all of the trade offs that come with it. Each sector of the supply chain plays a critical role.

The bottom line is that beef is part of a sustainable food system.