Beef is healthier and more sustainable than ever before

Cattle contend with a winter storm while walking in between cornfield rows Thursday, March 27.

Recent reports question beef’s role in a healthy, sustainable diet. Beef is healthier and more sustainable today than at any point in time. History and well-established research have consistently shown that practical, balanced dietary patterns grounded in science promote health and sustainability, not eliminating single foods, like beef.

The U.S. is the leader in sustainable beef production.

Research recently conducted by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and The Beef Checkoff, and published in the journal Agricultural Systems, found that data commonly used to depict beef cattle’s environmental impact in the U.S. is often overestimated. The study, which is the most comprehensive beef lifecycle assessment to-date, evaluated greenhouse gas emissions, feed consumption, water use and fossil fuel inputs. In all these areas, beef’s environmental impacts were found to be less than previously reported. Specifically, the report found:

• Beef production, including the production of animal feed, is responsible for only 3.3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

• Per pound of beef carcass weight, cattle only consume 2.6 pounds of grain, which is similar to pork and poultry.

• Corn used to feed beef cattle only represents approximately 9 percent of harvested corn grain in the U.S., or 8 million acres.

• On average, it takes 308 gallons of water, which is recycled, to produce a pound of boneless beef. In total, water use by beef is only around 5 percent of U.S. water withdrawals.

• Total fossil energy input to U.S. beef cattle production is equivalent to 0.7 percent of total national consumption of fossil fuels.

Not only does this data demonstrate that cattle’s environmental impact is less than often reported, thanks to cattle’s unique digestive system they can actually help mitigate food waste.

“Cattle are natural upcyclers, which means most of what cattle eat can’t be consumed by humans and would otherwise end up in the landfill,” Said Sara Place, senior director of sustainable beef production research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff. “At the end of the day, cattle generate more protein for the human food supply than would exist without them because their unique digestive system allows them to convert human-inedible plants into high-quality protein.”

It’s also important to note that beef continues to become more sustainable in the U.S. thanks to innovation and production efficiencies. In the U.S. today, the same amount of beef is produced with one-third fewer cattle as compared to the mid-1970s, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. If the rest of the world were as efficient as the U.S., global beef production could double while cutting the global cattle herd by 25 percent.

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