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Good In The Long Run

For those in the beef business, we are used to someone out there throwing rocks or slinging mud on us for the product we produce – beef. We’ve all heard the stories. Cows are bad for the environment, and beef is bad for you. The list goes on and on. We always have the correct answers to the false statements, but at times, we just get tired of listening to it all and ignore it, thinking that some cattle organization or someone else will take it up.

All of this leads up to a 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization called Livestock’s Long Shadow-Environmental Issues and Options. From the start, we are all suspicious about any report coming from the United Nations, knowing that it is not going to be in our favor, and when you throw in cows, hang on to your hat. 

The report came out in 2006, and it suggested that cattle were responsible for 18 perent of all man-made greenhouse gases, a bigger factor than all of the world’s transportation pollution. And you can imagine how some of the press in the United States picked up on that and praised the report. As the local newspaper in Kearney, Neb., and even Time Magazine, described a 16-ounce T-bone steak as like “a Hummer on a plate,” going on to say the consumer could shrink their carbon footprint by 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide per year by becoming vegetarians. 

Now, those are fighting words.

At least a Kearney newspaper had an article about the Nebraska Cattleman’s convention that took place in November, where Kim Stackhouse-Lawson was a speaker at the Cattleman’s College at the convention. During the time the United Nation’s report came out, Stackhouse-Lawson was at the University of California and her instructor, Frank Mitloehner, an animal science associate professor and air quality specialist, asked her to help check the United Nation report’s accuracy. 

As the newspaper goes on to say, the California team’s findings published in 2009 revealed a major scientific flaw, an inaccurate and unfair comparison of cattle or livestock to transportation. Despite that and an EPA determination that the actual livestock contribution is 3.4 percent, but the 18 percent figure continues to be circulated by media and across the internet. The Beef Sustainability Project research looked at environmental issues such as water, land and air quality, social issues that include animal welfare, food safety, occupational health and safety, and economic issues such as consumer price, producer profitability and traceability. 

Speaking recently to a group of Yale students working on doctorates in sustainability, Stackhouse-Lawson said, “They didn’t understand that a zero impact is not possible in food production, transportation, housing or anything else.” The beef study used “life-cycle assessments to trace inputs and outputs for the different industry segments.” As an example of the detail, she said it included the amount of toilet paper used at a processing plant.

The good news is the Beef Sustainability Project is still doing more producer surveys by region with Nebraska and the Dakotas in 2014. Kim Stackhouse-Lawson now is the director of Sustainability for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in Denver, Colo. We’re lucky to have her on board, right time and place.