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Research addresses beef industry sustainability issues

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Beef sustainability has been on everyone’s agenda for many years. However, with the new administration, addressing sustainability has become a priority. Industry leaders are coming together to share the positive impacts the beef industry has on the environment.  

At the 2021 Wyoming Stockgrowers Association Summer Conference Ashley McDonald, senior director of sustainability at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), shared her insight on the problem.  

McDonald, optimistic on the future of the beef industry, starts by saying, “We have a demand for our product, and people love our product. We saw this displayed last year over and over. They want our product and they are going to pay for the product.” 

However, she knows the industry can do better. 

McDonald explains, “There is a lot going on in terms of sustainability of beef from whichever angle someone wants to look at it.  There is opportunity in this, too.” 

 Outlining the problem  

While those involved in raising animals have seen the issue for years, people further up the supply chain are realizing their part in improving sustainability.  

 McDonald shared, “There is a long list of beef selling and processing companies that are making commitments to their shareholders and their customers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their supply chain by 30 percent.” 

As exciting as this sounds, McDonald shows some concern, stating, “A lot of them have no idea how they are going to do this. However, they do know they are going to rely on the producer sector to give them this 30 percent reduction.” 

McDonald notes, 30 percent is a big commitment, so these companies are not going to take the chance of not reaching their goal. This means finding new ways to become more sustainable. 

 “These companies are going to put a lot of money and effort into it,” she continues. “They are creating whole sustainability teams with employees to drive toward these commitments.” 

Large scale beef companies are going out of their way to reach these goals. On the local scale, producers are playing their part. 

“Our very complex supply chain makes it difficult for an end user, retailer or restaurant to get much information from the front end of our supply chain,” McDonald shared. “The Nature Conservancy has come up with a playbook for our supply chain members to tell them how to engage all the way back down the supply chain.” 

With producers and retailers chasing the same end goal, McDonald is optimistic where beef sustainability is going. 

McDonald explains, “The finance industry has a billion-dollar fund where they dole out money to projects and pilot studies to find more sustainable ways. Because of the focus people have had on sustainability, and beef in particular, we actually gain some new allies.” 

These new advancements have made an impact on the beef industry. Already, consumers are finding the benefits of incorporating beef into the diet. 

“We are starting to see a lot more articles about how beef is a nutrient dense product and can be good for our health,” says McDonald. “We are starting to quantify the services we provide on the landscape – water quality filtration, water retention and carbon sequestration.” 

Sharing research 

Between collaboration and research, the beef industry can become more sustainable.  

“I think we need to think of collaboration further than within our industry.” McDonald continues. “Even our own research, which we know is the best science, is almost dismissed out of hand because it is industry-funded research.”  

By collaborating with the conservation industry, McDonald explained, “We have had the opportunity to educate people, give them good science and turn this science around to use their microphone to put a creditable stamp on beef that we cannot do ourselves. They can be our microphone to amplify our message.” 

McDonald and her team noted, sustainability research has grown because of interest and the need-to-know mindset. 

McDonald, explaining the beef lifecycle analysis project, said, “The science behind lifecycle analyst is focused on the negative impacts. What you want to see is a decrease in the negative impact overtime. It does not account for any of the positives.” 

While this has proved a challenge, McDonald recognizes their efforts to paint the full sustainability picture.  

McDonald describes NCBA’s efforts, noting, “By quantifying what we support, we can make sure this is a true and rounded sustainability picture of our industry. If we can pull it all together and utilize the collaborations we have, there is a shot of changing the game.” 

With the research McDonald and her team has completed, she is confident the beef industry can lead the charge in sustainable protein.  

To do this, McDonald concludes, “We have to come up with slogans that start to resonate with people. Then we have to make sure we have everything behind the campaign by utilizing partnerships and collaborations to make sure that we can get that message effectively out to everybody. This is how we are going to tell our story.” 

Savannah Peterson is an intern for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to 

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