Food waste and food insecurity are on the rise in the U.S., and the cost of meat is rising for consumers. Environmental concerns are also at the top of meat producers' minds. That's why it's so important to come up with a list of sustainability goals when it comes to meat production. While a great amount of food waste in the U.S. actually comes from homes and restaurants, about 18% of total food waste comes from the farms and food processors.

Additionally, food waste causes numerous environmental problems, including filling up landfills that go on to produce 11% of the world's greenhouse gases. Understanding where food waste comes from, how much food is produced and never consumed, and how food waste can be reduced can help mitigate environmental concerns, including food insecurity.

What is sustainable meat?

With all of the food that's thrown out at various points in the system from farm to consumer, it's even more important that farms are smart in their approaches to raising cows and other animals. One of the key components of having a sustainable plan for producing meat is to ensure that farms are raising livestock in ways that conserve water and re-nourish the land.

One of the most important parts of raising cows is to incorporate holistic grazing, which means that cows graze on one pasture and then move to the next so that each part of the grazing area has the opportunity to rebound naturally. Some other important parts of sustainably raising cows are having water recycling programs and using organic farming practices.

Other goals for sustainability in farming practices for meat production

While other types of meat production, such as the raising of chickens for meat consumption, are also important in terms of setting goals that will be better for the environment and the entire supply chain, cattle is one of the main focuses when making goals for greater sustainability because they require more resources to raise. They tend to require more resources because they're larger animals but also because they take more time to mature to an age and size where they can be harvested and processed.

In contrast, chickens can be raised in a carbon-neutral way because they’re an efficient way to convert feed to meat or eggs since they take less time and resources to raise. They can also be used for fertilizing the soil.

Some of the other practices that farmers need to implement to raise their cattle in more sustainable ways include using more organic farming practices, limiting pesticides, and grass-feeding livestock instead of grain-feeding them.

Manufacturers' roles in sustainable meat production

Along with having farms that are raising cows and other livestock using wise practices, it's also important that manufacturers that process the meat are involved in creating processes that decrease waste.

For instance, companies like JBS USA have made goals for the sourcing of their meat. JBS has goals set out for 2030 to 2040, and some of these goals include reducing water use by 15%, investing in emission reduction for the company's facilities, eliminating illegal deforestation in the Brazilian cattle supply chain, and investing in research and development projects that help support regenerative farming practices.

Work with retailers on meat options

Having retailers on board with making efforts to increase sustainability with meat production is also of paramount importance, and getting the large retailers is one of the best ways to do it. Without brick-and-mortar retailers, such as Walmart, distribution of meat products becomes more difficult and expensive, especially when considering shipping and packaging costs.

Major retailers and restaurants can help shape the way that manufacturers make their sustainability goals when manufacturers work with retailers to provide more and better quality meat offerings to the consumer.

Beyond Walmart, McDonald's is another major food company that has shown an interest in reducing its role in greenhouse gas emissions within the next several years.

Educating the public

One of the main hurdles to having less food waste and therefore providing a more sustainable food system is helping the public make good decisions when choosing when to keep and when to throw out food. Because of labels that are confusing to the public, many cans of food are thrown out even when they're still safe to eat because the public doesn't understand what the labels mean.

Labels that say “best by” mean something different from labels that say “use by,” but if the public doesn't understand that distinction it's more likely that they'll throw out raw meat that could be frozen until they were ready to use it.

Consumers are also more likely to throw out canned meat even if it's still consumable because they don't understand the labels. That's why part of the meat production process needs to involve the packaging and labeling of foods. It should also be aimed at ensuring that labels are clear to read and that consumers understand how to treat different labels.

In reality, many foods that are still viable for consumption but are no longer at their peak freshness can be donated to food pantries to help people who are in need of assistance, and both consumers and retailers can be involved in this process if they understand what to look for.

When coming up with a sustainability plan for meat production and consumption, it's important that all levels of meat production, manufacturing, sale, and consumption are taken into consideration to make the greatest positive impact on the environment and on people who are food insecure.

Coming up with a plan for the near future and for the next several decades out will take a lot of cooperation between farmers, manufacturers, and retailers so that we all can achieve the best possible outcomes for the environment and for consumers of meat.

Nicolle Portilla is RTS’s social media manager and contributes to the RTS blog, which serves to educate clients and industry players about RTS’ waste management technology and sustainability services.