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Sustainability and stability: WSGA convention looks at how a sustainable food system contains beef

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The theme of the 2020 Wyoming Cattle Industry Convention and Trade Show, held Aug. 24-26 in Rock Springs, was Providing Stability in a Time of Crisis. Sustainability and stability are closely related, especially in terms of the future of agriculture. 

Featured speaker and Chief Sustainability Officer for Elanco Animal Health, Dr. Sara Place, shared her thoughts on beef production’s role in a stable future in her talk, “Beef is Critical to a Sustainable Food System,” on Aug. 25.  

A complex topic, Place explained sustainability in her opinion focuses on economic viability, environmental stewardship and social responsibility.  

Changing meat demand

“A lot of conversation about sustainability as it relates to meat, red meat in particular, has focused on this idea that we eat too much,” said Place. “Many people believe we are overshooting the Earth’s carrying capacity in terms of what we can support, especially with regard to beef production.” 

According to the North American Meat Institute, American meat companies produced 26.3 billion pounds of beef in 2017. The leading meat industries at the time were chicken at 42.2 billion pounds and pork at 25.6 billion pounds. 

“I think we have to have context when people say meat demand is growing,” Place added. “We are eating a lot more poultry and a lot more pork around the world. It makes sense when we think about countries that have grown a lot, like China.”

“But, if we look at the United States and other developed countries, we are not eating more red meat,” she continued. “We peaked in the 1970s when beef consumption was around three ounces of beef per person per day. Today, we are eating around 1.7 ounces of beef per person per day.” 

Meeting nutritional requirements

“When we talk about sustainability issues, it is usually from the lens of wealthy countries in this world, and we forget about the fact that there is a lot of people in this world who still don’t have a quality protein source,” Place said. “One in four children under five years of age is suffering and will not meet their full physical potential because of a lack of high-quality protein which contains a lot of micronutrients.” 

“Food is more than just critical macronutrients like protein, carbs and fats,” she explained. “Micronutrients are incredibly important. There are two billion people in the world who have some sort of micronutrient deficiency.”

Beef is a source of 14 essential nutrients including protein, iron, zinc, selenium, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin D, phosphorus, pantothenic acid, magnesium and potassium, according to the Beef Cattle Research Council. 

“The takeaway is I don’t think we have enough animal protein for the people who need it,” Place stated. “That is the bigger challenge.” 

Human resource competition

Resource competition and greenhouse gases are two arguments Place hears most against the sustainability of beef production. While cattle production does require more feed resources compared to other species, people often don’t take into account most of those feeds are inedible to humans, according to Place. 

“The reality is, ruminant animals are up-cyclers in our food system,” Place shared. “Up-cycling is taking something with little to no value and making it into a valuable product.” 

“Especially in the western U.S., cattle are taking inedible plants and solar energy and making it available to us,” she explained. “We don’t market beef or lamb as solar energy products, but really, that is what they are.” 

“Regardless of how cattle are finished, approximately 90 percent of what they consume is not in direct competition with human food,” she added. “It is either mostly forage, or it is byproducts of forages we use for biofuels and other products.”

“The protein value, at an amino acid level, is where ruminants shine,” shared Place. “They are generating a higher-quality protein than what they are consuming.”

Place also mentions beef production provides products for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, leather, nutrient cycling services and fuel in some parts of the world. 

Greenhouse gas emissions

“Greenhouse gas emissions is where beef production gets a lot of attention when talking about sustainability,” Place said. 

She explained livestock contribute 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Beef and dairy production together represents roughly nine percent of worldwide global greenhouse gas emissions. She also explained total North American meat production is only responsible for one percent of all greenhouse gas emissions globally. 

“Cattle produce about as much greenhouse gas as a landfill,” Place said. 

Referring to resource competition arguments, she asked, “But how much would a landfill emit if beef production wasn’t removing food waste and byproduct from the equation?”

Place also mentioned the attention cattle production has received for methane production in her presentation. According to Place, cow “farts” are consistently aired in the media, as mentioned in the recent Burger King commercial, but she laughingly shared methane is actually produced from cow “burps.” 

“One thing that is not well understood, especially by the general public, is the relationship between methane production and concentrate feeds,” she said. “When cattle graze less digestible forage, methane production is higher. If we reduce methane, we increase feed efficiency in cattle.” 

Ruminant agriculture

“Despite noise of sustainability issues, people still like to eat meat,” she said. “We have not seen any evidence plant-based alternatives have had any effect on meat demand at all.” 

Place referenced a study which looked at what would happen if every person converted to a vegan diet. 

“What they found was that we would end up increasing daily calorie intake and consume more pounds of food in America, but we wouldn’t produce enough essential micronutrients to meet nutritional requirements,” she said. 

“Ruminant products are absolutely sustainable,” Place stated. “I think we need to turn the conversation around and show what producers are doing to be a solution. We should think about marketing differently.” 

“If we think about plant-based meat, we actually get all meat from plants,” she said. “It’s a technology powered by solar energy, it is a high-quality product and at the same time, it is producing high-quality fertilizer that feeds the soil and self-replicates.”

“This amazing technology is called a ruminant animal,” she concluded.

Averi Hales is the editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to roundup@wylr.net.

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