The positive environmental impact of beef cattle
Sustainability – you have probably been hearing this word a lot lately. It is a hot topic around the globe right now, and beef industry sustainability is at the center of the conversation. As Dr. Jude Capper puts it, “all of us within the industry, regardless of what our role is, have to think about and have to be talking about [sustainability] going forward, because it really isn’t an issue that is ever going away.”
Capper, who has been working in the sustainability space for about 15 years, shared some thought-provoking insights into what should be considered going forward in the world of sustainability during the Alltech ONE Conference (ONE). Let’s discuss four key points Capper made in her presentation.
1. We need to define “sustainability”
“There are honestly as many definitions of this word as there are people in the universe, almost,” Capper stated. “But from a scientific point of view, and particularly when we’re talking about food and farming systems, it’s generally considered to be a balance between three things. And those are environmental responsibility, economic viability and social acceptability. And all of those things, in the long term, have to balance.”
Right now, however, the global focuses are clear: greenhouse gas emissions, climate change and net zero. This is demonstrated by companies worldwide regularly announcing some degree of net-zero-type commitment. However, what this has led to, according to Capper, are graphs and metrics being produced that attempt to measure sustainability but that neglect to accurately represent the global beef industry and its various systems around the world.
“We see a huge variation,” Capper said. “We can’t make global averages, or global commitments or globally say we’re going to implement practice ‘x,’ whatever that might be because there’s so much variation in the system.”
To further this point, she cited some data from Gerber et al. in 2013, showing a global lifecycle assessment of beef systems. The bar chart is partitioned out by region and represents greenhouse gas emissions/carbon footprint in terms of carbon per kilo of deadweight. True representation is difficult here — when you look at the world average compared to each region, it supports the opinion that we cannot expect the same systems and practices to work globally.
“We can have very clear goals, but the way that we achieve those goals is always going to vary according to the system, the region, the market, the culture and the opportunities we have there,” Capper explained. “We should always see, if we do it in a carefully considered, well-thought-out way, the positive correlation between improving efficiency, having lower carbon footprint, lower resource use and at a lower cost as well. So, there’s a positive correlation between the economics and the environment.
“But the thing that we always have to bear in mind is that just because it’s environmentally beneficial or at a lower economic cost doesn’t always mean that it’s socially acceptable.”
2. Beef producers are utilizing sustainable practices
Capper went on to lay out ways to improve the productivity of our systems and stated that most producers are already actively pursuing these goals. However, she reiterated that there is no “one size fits all” system.
When it comes to system efficiency, Capper touched on a few data points to put it into perspective. In her calculations, one cow in a cow-calf system needs just under 4,000 kilograms of feed, takes in just over 20,000 liters of water, and emits almost 2,500 kilos of carbon dioxide every single year. With this in mind, it could be easy to promote cutting cattle numbers and assume the world would benefit.
But, as Capper states, we must consider all of the positives that we get in terms of biodiversity, landscape maintenance, soil quality and using land where we simply cannot grow anything else to produce high-quality, nutritious food. The opportunity for showing the benefit cattle have on the environment is hard to quantify right now, but it is there. And even so, there are still ways beef producers can improve sustainability (converting crop land to grazing land, focusing on genetics, etc.).
3. Cattle can contribute to global cooling
Capper shared some data from Oxford University that clarifies some of the differences between methane and other greenhouse gases.
“In the past, we assumed that, as with carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, any methane that we emitted into the atmosphere just builds up and builds up and builds up over time,” Capper explained. “So that was under a metric called ‘Global Warming Potential,’ or GWP 100.”
GWP 100 got us one step closer to standardizing the effects of greenhouse gases. However, it did not consider the differences between methane (a short-lived climate pollutant) and carbon dioxide (a long-lived climate pollutant). GWP*, the new metric, is seen as an improved way to measure the effect individual greenhouse gases have on global warming. This is important as methane emissions from beef production are recycled as part of the biogenic carbon cycle. To keep it simple: the biogenic carbon cycle is when plants take in and store carbon dioxide that is consumed by cattle and released as methane. Then, after a dozen years or so, that methane is converted back into carbon dioxide, and the cycle continues. Because plants need carbon dioxide and cattle can consume plants like grasses, cattle are vital to this cycle. And it is even possible that cattle can contribute to global cooling through this.
“Methane can only contribute to global cooling if methane emissions actually decline over time,” Capper stated. “And it only has to decline by a tiny bit, but they have to keep coming down rather than getting more and more and more every year (…) So that means that if we do things to improve productivity, fertility, pasture management, all of those things that I talked about earlier, such that we can make the same amount of beef, for example, with [let’s say 1% fewer cattle], then we could have a really positive effect in terms of global cooling.” Even with this approach, it is important to account for beef cattle's vital role in balancing our ecosystem and utilizing otherwise unproductive lands.
4. We need a standard carbon footprinting tool
A challenge the industry faces is creating a standard carbon footprinting tool. Ideally, one that can transcend across global regions and various production systems. There are tools out there, but we need one that is standardized and more all-encompassing. If we can accomplish this as an industry, we can confidently not only contribute to global cooling but also give producers more opportunities to market their cattle as consumers ask for data-backed sustainability claims in the meat at the grocery store.
By addressing this and the other points Capper mentioned in her presentation, she believes that the beef industry can accurately represent itself in the global sustainability space and properly demonstrate its positive impact, now and into the future.