A beef Checkoff-funded lifecycle assessment (LCA) shows the beef community has made significant progress toward a more sustainable future in just six years. This first-of-its-kind work was led by Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, Ph.D., director of sustainability research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and a contractor for the Beef Checkoff Program.  The LCA benchmarks the beef industry’s economic, environmental and social contributions in the United States. The Beef Industry Sustainability Assessment also uses science-based methodology to quantify industry improvements and identify areas where additional progress is possible.

“The completion of this project provides the industry, for the first time, the evidence necessary to lead conversations about the sustainability of beef,” said Stackhouse-Lawson. “The Beef Checkoff and the Beef Promotion Operating Committee had the foresight three years ago to see the importance of this work and make it a priority for the industry. By completing the LCA, the Checkoff has positioned beef as a leader among competing proteins and ensured our industry is on a path of continuous progress.”

She explained that this LCA is the most detailed examination of a commodity value chain ever completed.

“Overall, the results of the sustainability assessment tell a very positive story for the beef industry. In just the past six years the beef industry has achieved a 7 percent reduction in its environmental and social fingerprint,” said Stackhouse-Lawson. “When you factor in all facets of sustainability, which includes environmental, social and economic components, the beef value chain achieved a 5 percent improvement in its sustainability between 2005 and 2011.”

She explained that the LCA examines three separate time periods, utilizing data from a number of sources across the production process. The work examines the cow-calf producer, feedlots, packing plants and processors all the way through to the consumer’s impact on the industry.

“We examined all the inputs and outputs required to produce a pound of consumed, boneless, edible beef and we did that for the 1970s, 2005 and 2011,” said Stackhouse-Lawson, explaining that each of those time periods represents major shifts in beef production practices.

“The 1970s was chosen because that’s when we transitioned to boxed beef. We selected 2005, when we started feeding significant volumes of distiller’s grains and the 2011 calculations represent present day,” she said. “We went back and examined data from each of those years from pre- and post-harvest sectors and then utilized complex models to simulate the data and calculate indices that accurately measure industry sustainability.”

Stackhouse-Lawson worked closely with the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service, the USDA Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb., BASF Corporation and other groups to compile and analyze the data. The results of the LCA were certified by NSF International in July. NSF International certification provides stringent third-party evaluation, which lends to greater acceptance among stakeholders inside and outside the industry, including non-governmental organizations which have a growing influence in determining how food is produced in the United States.

“What we have found is that this work is being widely accepted and it’s positioning the beef industry to tell a proactive and positive story about our improvement over time. Because of this ground breaking work, we’re better able to find commonalities with our skeptics and work toward constructive solutions that haven’t been possible in the past,” Stackhouse-Lawson explained. “We’ve also seen the beef industry, across the entire production chain, come together around this work to work cooperatively toward solutions that will help us create a more sustainable future.”

Many people look at sustainability as simply the ability to pass a ranch or business from one generation to the next, but it’s more than just that piece, Stackhouse-Lawson explained. Sustainability also encompasses our contributions to the environmental and economic landscape, as well as the communities where the beef industry is an integral part of the social fabric. Beef producers contribute to the tax base, and the industry creates jobs and provides a number of additional environmental, economic and social benefits that the LCA helped quantify for the first time.

“There are pieces of the production puzzle that we just can’t do much about. Methane and ammonia emissions from our mama cows are an area where we can’t make much improvement and we recognize that. But there are other areas, like energy and water consumption, where we might be able to make improvements and those are really the areas where we want to target our efforts to help make the industry more sustainable in the future,” Stackhouse-Lawson said.

Some of the areas where the industry has already made improvements include major reductions in emissions to soil, air and water as a result of the installation of biogas recovery systems in packing plants. Those systems are designed to capture and convert biogas to energy, leading to reductions in electricity and fossil fuel use while adding to industry sustainability. Those improvements offset other areas where efficiencies and improvements are more difficult to achieve or quantify.

“It’s important to remember that this science is still relatively new and evolving,” said Stackhouse-Lawson. “There are some aspects of beef production where it’s difficult and often very expensive to benchmark sustainability. Measuring the intangible value that is created by the open space and wildlife on a ranch or the effects of wildfire mitigation that result from good grazing practices are things that we are still working on.”

Stackhouse-Lawson and her team are working on new tools to benchmark current and future improvements in many of those areas. Those measurements will help improve the science of present and future sustainability assessment work, she explained.

To view the full results of the Beef Industry Sustainability Assessment, please visit www.BeefResearch.org/BeefSustainabilityResearch.aspx.

A Path of continuous improvement

The recently certified Beef Industry Sustainability Assessment shows significant improvement in the sustainability of beef in the six year period between 2005 and 2011. Improvements in environmental and social practices have resulted in a 7 percent improvement in beef’s sustainability in a very short period of time. That improvement isn’t the only positive story being reported by the beef industry. The results of the holistic lifecycle assessment show the industry is on a sustainable path.

From 2005 to 2011, the beef industry reduced:

  • Emissions to soil by 7%
  • Greenhouse gas emissions by 2%
  • Emissions with acidification potential by 3%
  • Emissions to water by 10%
  • Water use by 3%
  • Land use by 4%
  • Resource use by 2%
  • Energy use by 2%
  • Occupational illnesses and accidents by 32%

With the benchmark information provided by the completion of this important work the beef industry is positioned to make progress on its path of continuous improvement for a more sustainable future.