Matt and I care about the sustainability of our farm. We not only want it to endure, but to thrive. Our goal is to produce high quality products through the judicious use of natural resources. In our journey to continuously improve, we look to scientists like Dr. Stackhouse-Lawson for guidance.
Below is a Q and A with Dr. Kim where she answers my biggest questions relative to the topic of sustainability.
Anne: Why do you think that it is important for beef farmers and ranchers to understand issues related to sustainability in beef production?
Kim: The largest challenge that agriculture is faced with today is preparing to feed a growing population which is expected to surpass 9 billion people by 2050. This population will require at least 70% more food using fewer resources than we have today. Beef producers have a rich heritage of passing ranches and feed yards from generation to generation, however, sustainability is more than that. With the increasing pressure of producing more food with limited resources, it is more important than ever before to utilize research and science to help meet this challenge.
For this reason, the beef checkoff has funded the largest sustainability assessment ever conducted along a food supply chain. This study will ensure that U.S. beef producers will have the knowledge to continue to produce high quality beef while increasing our stewardship of land and resources.
Anne: Why is it important to have scientific documentation of the environmental footprint of beef?
Kim: It is important to have scientific documentation about our industry’s sustainability so that farmers can better utilize new innovations. It is also imperative that the beef industry be able to measure improvements. One of the real challenges with sustainability is that 100 people will have a hundred different definitions.
The beef industry’s definition is much larger than the traditional definition of just carbon footprint or measuring greenhouse gas emissions. To the beef industry, sustainability is about balancing environmental responsibility, economic opportunity, and social diligence.
Anne: Explain the scope of the beef sustainability study, as well as the initial findings. What are we doing well, and what do we need to work on?
Kim: We used a life cycle assessment to predict environmental, economic, and social impacts to benchmark the sustainability of U.S. beef in the past and present. Millions of data points were utilized to accurately capture all inputs and outputs along the beef value chain. Comparing sustainability over time allows us to understand how improvements in cattle management and changes in technology affect industry sustainability.
Since 2005 the sustainability of beef has improved significantly. Some examples of why U.S. beef industry sustainability has improved include: Improvements in crop yields, animal performance, and the increased utilization of bio-gas recovery.
This life cycle assessment method also allows us to identify areas where opportunities for improvement exist; some examples include: improving cattle utilization of protein in their diets, reducing packaging material, and reducing food waste.
Anne: What is the next step after the results are validated?
Kim: We are expanding the work to regionalize the data, so farmers can utilize the results to analyze their operation, regardless of where they raise cattle. This is a very important aspect of our sustainability project because a one-size-fits-all approach is not sustainable.
Different areas of the country have different resources available, and every producer faces a variety of challenges based on where they live and the climate they face. We are also working to develop a tool that will allow producers to assess individual approaches to improving sustainability on their farm.