Can beef really be part of a sustainable food system?

The speakers on a webinar hosted by the Beef Checkoff in partnership with Climate Week NYC 2021, said yes, beef can really be part of a sustainable food system.

The event gave industry experts a platform to talk about how beef can be part of a sustainable food system. Speakers included Jessica Gilreath, Ph.D., postdoctoral research associate at Texas A&M University; Jen Johnson Livsey, cattle producer at Flying Diamond Ranch in Kit Carson, Colorado; Lamar Moore, celebrity chef and winner of Food Network’s Vegas Chef Prizefight and Nicole Rodriguez, RD, NASM-CPT in New York served as moderator.

Gilreath, is originally from northwest Missouri and grew up on a cow-calf operation. She’s been at Texas A&M since she started her undergraduate degree. She’s most recently moved into a postdoctoral research associate role, where her research focuses in on identifying management practices that improve the environmental sustainability of beef cattle.

Livsey is a cattle producer in eastern Colorado on her family’s ranch that her great, great grandfather established in 1907. The fifth-.generation rancher is raising the sixth generation on the ranch. Livsey along with her three younger brothers and parents own and operate the ranch today.

Moore is an executive chef in Chicago and has been in the food industry for more than 21 years. The beef side of his culinary journey started when he worked at a steak and seafood restaurant for 10 years in California, later moving to Las Vegas where he opened his own steakhouse, Bugsy Meyers, in the Flamingo Hotel. He’s recently made it back to Chicago to 1111 restaurant.

Rodriguez asked each panelist what sustainability in the beef industry means and why it touches all professions of each. Gilreath started by defining sustainability.

“When I look at sustainability—as far as producing beef in a manner for our industry that allows our industry to exist and provide beef for many generations to come,” she said. “And so a lot of what my job is focused on quantifying and documenting the sustainability and all the pillars of sustainability, whether that be the environmental side, the economic side or the social aspects of that.”

Gilreath said American farmers and ranchers are the leader in being able to produce more beef all while reducing herd numbers over the last 60 years.

“With these improvements since 1996 we’ve seen U.S. beef production having the lowest greenhouse gas emissions intensity,” she said. “This is really a result of our industry’s continued sustainability efforts and improve resource use, on those different operations.”

Sustainability is very personal for Livsey because it means her family will be able to sustain the business and keep the same piece of land for future generations.

“Can we continue to produce a product that the world demands in a way that doesn’t damage our underlying land asset?” she said. “That we believe actually, if we do a good job, improves our grassland asset and that is grazing cattle.”

For Livsey, cattle producers can adapt to changing markets, changing weather, changing aspects of society and continue to operate profitably.

“And benefiting the foundation of our ranch, which is our land,” she said. “That is our definition of sustainability.”

For Moore on the culinary side, sustainability means being in touch with the farmers and understanding how the cattle are raised. This helps him with menu development and including those meats, like liver, that aren’t normally offered.

“I know definitely for me from a restaurant standpoint, and being able to understand how sustainable it is for us as chefs in being able to take what we call pasture to the plate and getting guests to understand that we are in close proximity of the farmers,” he said.

Moore said he works closely with Certified Angus Beef to curate the best beef possible through local companies. Since his restaurant is small, he’s able to work with small farmers and purveyors. It magnifies the levels of sustainability that are out there.

“We’re constantly getting things fresh and understanding the feeding of the cows and how the families work toward that,” he said. “Because I know when we look at a lot of recipes that I create some of them are family oriented and a lot of the farmers and the farmer’s families are very family oriented as well and wanting to make sure that this industry is sustainable.

As a dietitian and nutritionist Rodriguez said the word sustainable means a lot in terms of a nutritious diet.

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“Because if we’re going to get people to adhere to a nutritious diet it also has to be delicious,” she said. “And quite frankly, beef is just that. But it also serves as a vehicle to increase conscious consumption of other foods that Americans really don’t get enough of which is produce unfortunately. So beef plays a really integral role.”

Rodriguez also recognizes how beef cattle can take plants that are inedible to humans and upcycle them into “that delicious protein that is also packed with zinc, iron, B vitamins and a host of other nutrients.”

“I really appreciate all that you do to bring beef to everyone’s plates,” she said.

Clearing the air

She said consumers are still understandably confused about how beef is being portrayed as a bad actor of the environment. Rodriguez asked Gilreath to clear up what this means and how beef production contributes to the environment. According to Gilreath, the Environmental Protection Agency reports beef cattle are really only responsible for about 2% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

“If we were to compare that to say, transportation, or electricity use they’re somewhere around 29% to 25% of those greenhouse gas emissions in the United States,” she said. “So really I would say no we’re not major emitters. We’re only 2% of the whole picture, right, and really cattle are part of us natural carbon cycle.”

Cattle live on the grasslands, and are actually helping the carbon sequestration process—which she said is the process of those grasslands removing and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.

“Grasslands are really one of the few places on Earth where carbon is actually sequestered,” she said. “The U.S. grasslands are actually going to be somewhere around 10% to 30% of soil organic carbon. And so I would say overall no, probably not major emitters of greenhouse gas emissions.”

For Livsey, the grasslands are near and dear to her heart as her ranch operates almost completely on grassland.

“I don’t think a lot of Americans see a lot of grasslands because they’re largely in the middle of the country. They’re not heavily populated,” she said. “But they are an amazing ecosystem and landscape, and they evolved with ruminant animals. They actually need them in order to be healthy.”

Because the cattle interact with the grasses on the landscape at such a large scale, they help maintain a healthy watershed to maintain the carbon sink to act as a wildlife habitat.

“If we removed cattle from these millions and millions of acres, it would actually over time degrade the landscape,” Livsey said. “Cattle are necessary to maintain the healthy cycle on grasslands, and I feel very positive about cattle’s place in our overall ecosystem health.”

Gilreath agreed and said the grazing lands and ranches provide a whole host of ecosystem service that benefits society.

“Additionally, especially in the West, our cattle help with wildfires suppression and making sure that forage is consumed and there’s not forage readily available to start spreading fires,” she said. “When we look at the value of the services these cattle provide in relation to that, it’s somewhere around $25 billion overall, or if we put that in terms of pounds of beef. It’s going to be $1.24 per pound of beef.”

Rodriguez said the beef industry is making a lot strides toward sustainability in all the pillars—economic, environmental and social.

“We know climate change is a big global problem,” she said. “So how can we help other nations become more sustainable?”

Important to diet

Including beef as part of a diet can be an answer, according to Rodriguez.

“If you’re wondering if it can be part of your diet, the answer is a resounding yes,” she said. “So, if it’s not about reducing our meat consumption, what can consumers do to improve sustainability with their food choices?

Gilreath said a simple way we can reduce methane commissions is by managing our food waste.

“I usually make sure I eat all my beef first, that sort of thing,” she said. “But really wasted food and any type of food, when it’s thrown away it accounts for about 22% of what’s in our landfills here in the United States.”

In the landfill, all the food ferments and is mixed with other matter. Those emissions amount to about 14% of the methane released in the U.S.

“I think starting at the home and making sure we’re eating our leftovers and that sort of thing,” she said. “Making sure we’re not throwing too much food away.”

Moore said in food service he has to keep himself informed. Sourcing the right information and actually understanding the processes of where and how beef is raised before it makes its way to his restaurant.

“So as I educate myself, it’s the same thing with the guests and understanding what your diet is trying to be,” Moore said. “I try to be as healthy as I possibly can and I don’t mind consuming beef as I’m working throughout my day.”

For him, it’s all about balance. Whether you choose a certain cut of beef at the grocery store over another maybe because of perception.

Livsey would like the everyday consumer to know that the people producing the beef are doing their very best by the animals, by the land and by their families.

“We’re not bad guys out to produce an unhealthy product,” she said. “We are hardworking people who are trying to improve every day and be more and more sustainable, and we feel good about the product that we are producing. We consume the product we are producing.”

Livsey feeds beef to her own kids and for her it’s part of a healthy diet.

“It is a very important part of a healthy diet, and I think America would benefit from kind of that shifting paradigm,” she said.

For Moore, it’s all about support.

“Support the farmers, definitely support the restaurants that put out a lot of great beef, a lot of great products,” he said. “And then, supporting the movement in the stores.”

Rodriguez suggests including beef as part of your overall meal plan.

“It’s a sustainable way to help you live your best and healthiest life,” she said.

For more information about beef sustainability and cattle’s role in the climate solution, visit

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