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Opinion by Ann Wittmann

Beef Checkoff Sets Standard in Defining Sustainability

By Ann Wittmann, Executive Director, Wyoming Beef Council 

One would have to be living in a cave to have missed hearing the prediction that by 2050, the world population is expected to reach approximately 9 billion and food demand is expected to increase by 70 percent.  The growing demand for food, in combination with limited land and water resources, is forcing agriculture commodities to strive for more efficient food production.  And all it takes is one quick trip to the world wide web to see that for the U.S. consumer, “sustainability” has become a significant buzzword and is affecting expectations for today’s agricultural products.  To further aggravate this conundrum, defining what is sustainable is akin to defining what is beautiful, and the consumer definition of sustainable is often miles away from industry and academic definitions. This creates a significant challenge for all agriculture commodities including the U.S. beef industry.  

The beef checkoff has funded the only sustainability project that is focused on addressing both scientific and consumer concerns regarding sustainable food production along all phases of the beef chain. This sustainability project is the first and largest project of its kind and is setting the global standard for agriculture commodity sustainability research. The present U.S. Beef Sustainability Project will ultimately provide key information that will allow the industry to continue to improve U.S. beef sustainability and will be instrumental in the development of best management practices that demonstrate the industry’s ability to produce the highest quality beef in a responsible manner.

The beef supply chain is one of the most complex biological, economic and social systems in the world. To improve the beef industry’s sustainability, we must understand how the three pillars of sustainability – environment, economic and social – interact and influence the industry on a national and regional scale. The current U.S. Beef Sustainability Project is the only scientifically based, holistic sustainability study that focuses on the beef supply chain from birth through consumption of the product by consumers. 

To complete the current sustainability project, the beef checkoff has partnered with BASF, a leading global supplier of ingredients for human and animal nutrition and a leader in life cycle assessments (LCA) that include all three sustainability pillars.  Additional partners include USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb. and USDA Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Unit in College Park, Penn. The beef checkoff contracted with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) to develop and manage the project.  Kim Stackhouse-Lawson is the director of sustainability research at NCBA. 

The project consists of three phases: a hotspot analysis where data from a literature review and a stakeholder survey is evaluated; a comprehensive life cycle assessment of the beef production system from cradle to grave; and development of a tool for beef producers along the supply chain to enhance the sustainability of their operations. 

To date, the hot spot analysis and 75 percent of the LCA have been completed. The final phase, which includes the producer tool, relies on data generated from the LCA and will be completed as soon as the LCA is finalized. 

The hot spots were defined as potential areas for improvement within each sustainability area, including environmental, social and economic, by surveyed stakeholders. The following perceived hot spots were identified within the environmental area: water protection and use, land management and biodiversity, manure management and greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Hot spots within social sustainability included animal welfare, animal nutrition and health and food safety. The economic hotspots included traceability, product quality and profitability.

In addition to sustainability concerns, the hotspot analysis identified some positives, or non-issues, within the beef community. These include genetically modified crops, transportation, responsible advertising, working conditions, human rights and market integration.

This hotspot analysis provides an overview of the current state of sustainability in the beef industry and serves as a starting point for a detailed plan of action for improvement. Upon completion of the U.S. beef life cycle assessment and the hotspot analysis, the results will be joined with scientific findings to create effective and practical best management practices that address the concerns of all stakeholders along the beef value chain. 

This project is one of a kind and will combine the best science available to date. The results of this initial project will help guide our research efforts to continue to improve beef sustainability on a U.S. and regional scale. As this revolutionary checkoff-funded research progresses, the industry will learn more about practical environmental mitigation techniques and the importance of social responsibility and economic viability as sustainability measures. These holistic sustainability results will allow the beef industry to equally compare the tradeoffs associated with each of the three sustainability pillars so that the industry can maintain a continuous improvement of sustainability over time. Furthermore, this research will allow the beef industry to focus on areas within the supply chain where sustainability improvements are practical and can actually make a difference. 

“Sustainability should be viewed as a journey rather than a destination,” says Stackhouse-Lawson. “If the beef industry continues on this proactive and innovative scientific path, the industry will achieve the goal of a more sustainable beef product for many years to come.”  

For more information, read the Winter 2013, Volume Four, Number 2 issue of Beef Issues Quarterly article, “Meeting the growing demand for beef, sustainably,” by Kim Stackhouse-Lawson.