Continuous improvement key to sustainability in beef industry

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to fixing what people deem wrong with beef production. Sara Place, Elanco Animal Health technical consultant in sustainability, spoke Dec. 5 at the Kansas Livestock Association convention in Wichita, Kansas.

“Cattle, they’re only responsible in the U.S. for 2% of greenhouse gas emissions, and it might be overinflated,” Place said. “It’s just not a big issue. Right? We’re doing a lot of research at land-grant universities, other places, it’s going to reduce emissions even further.”

Continuous improvement is the key to sustainability, Place said, and cattle producers are already doing things right.

“That’s why you come to things like this. You want to learn, you want to get better at your business. That’s what it’s about,” she said. “It’s just about getting better over time. Nobody’s expecting everybody to be perfect, right? We’re all dealing with different resource bases.”

It’s not one size fits all when it comes to improving.

“But it is about balancing those areas and getting better over time,” she said.

Sustainability is obviously a hot topic, and when it comes to consumer concerns it becomes even more important.

“I think we can all say this not going away. Sustainability is here to stay in terms of an issue, even if the words may change, the underlying issues are concerned to consumers,” Place said. “And if we’re thinking about being consumer focused, I think it’s important that we’re all up to speed on what some of those major issues are.”

To set the stage with sustainability, Place defined it.

“Sustainability itself is really about balancing three different areas,” she said. “First and foremost—economics. You would all agree, if we’re not economically viable, you’re not going to be sustainable. So economics is key.”

So are social and environmental issues. This includes everything from animal welfare to the livelihoods of rural communities to green house gases, she said.

“All of these things are at play when we’re talking about sustainability,” Place said.

Especially when beef producers encounter those kinds of conversations where consumers question beef’s sustainability. It’s tough to balance all three areas at once since they’re not all the same for every producer.

“I think it’s important to have some other context to when we’re thinking about this issue,” Place said.

There’s often the assumption Americans eat too much meat and need to cut back—at least according to the news media. Place said using the U.S. Department of Agriculture data from 1970 to 2019, people were consuming about 1.8 ounces of beef per person per day.

“This is one of those things always going to drive me nuts when people say we eat too much,” she said. “That’s not a lot of meat. Right? It’s not a lot of beef.”

Correlation is not causation, Place said. Just because beef consumption is going down, and obesity and type two diabetes and other diseases are going up, she can’t say these two things are related.

Total meat consumption has stayed pretty flat in terms of the last 40 years. And, Place said, when you dig into the data, when people get more money in their pocket, one of the first things they do is improve their diet.

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“It’s interesting to look at these trends globally,” she said.

Place found in Food and Agriculture Organization data, in terms of meat available per person per year, beef has been pretty flat for the last 50 years.

“I really doubt that this trend is going to change too much again, there’s way more people now,” she said. “But this whole idea that we’re going to eat a tremendous amount of beef per person in the world probably isn’t borne out by the data.”

Part of it is supply constraint driven. Beef is forage-based all over the world and producers are constrained by how much forage land they have available to produce beef for consumers.

“What’s grown is our monogastric species,” Place said. “You see those trends there in terms of poultry, meat availability, and pork availability has dramatically increased.”

Place said consumers hear they’re eating too much meat, but yet, in her opinion, animal protein is fundamental to human health. The University of Florida’s Feed the Future lab focuses on international work in terms of increasing the availability of animal source foods for people because there are real issues with micronutrient deficiencies around the world

“That really holds people back,” she said. “It has a huge impacts on humans flourishing.”

One statistic backs that up, she said, “globally, one in four children are stunted.”

“That’s a lot of kids that don’t get enough nutrients, to develop physically and mentally to their full capacity,” Place said. “There’s other issues at play there in terms of just sanitation, other things, but a lot of it is nutrient driven.”

Animal protein is more than just protein, but micronutrients that come from meat—things like iron, zinc, and B vitamins are very important to the whole picture of animal sourced foods.

“We know that when we increase animal source foods and children’s diets, we get pretty dramatic outcomes in terms of increase cognitive performance,” Place said. “So I think that’s very important. The social benefits of animals sourced foods really been downplayed in the in the mainstream press recently.”

Place said there are myths that are at the crux of the argument against animal agriculture, specifically beef. World population is expected to rise about 2 billion in the next 30 years, and there’s “a lot of people that are argue animal agriculture, beef specifically, they just use too much to feed these cattle.”

“They’re stealing food from the mouths of babes. We should just eat the plants directly,” Place said. “The whole world the better off, right? So that is something that gets repeated a lot.”

Place credits Tryon Wickersham of Texas A&M for coining the term upcycling, and what cattle are doing in the food system.

“You’ve all heard of recycling, right? Taking something of one value and making something of equivalent value, essentially,” she said. “Upcycling is taking something that’s a little or no value and making a higher value product. If we define it that way, that’s what cattle are doing every single day.”

Cattle take human inedible plants and make a higher value food product, in addition to other benefits that come from cattle—pharmaceuticals to leather.

“I think that’s really key is just thinking about this flow of energy through the system,” Place said.

And cattle already take what is unusable to some and produces a product; essentially they’re the technology.

“People don’t realize these basic things,” she said. “Again, it’s just highlighting that we already have this technology, it is the end product of evolution and selection by people.”

In the last five years the cattle industry has come up with something better than Silicon Valley.

“I think we need to be affirmative. Beef is sustainable today,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t get better. But beef is a sustainable food, right? Cattle—they upcycle protein, they add value to feed the land resources that there’s no way we’re going to get value from without them.”

Cattle are essential to the environment regardless if people eat beef or not she said.

“They may be wearing leather shoes or using pharmaceuticals or whatever else to come from cow,” Place said. “They need cattle, whether they realize it or not.”

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].