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How Sustainable is Livestock Production?

Study aims to show cattle industry's true carbon footprint.

Published on: Feb 7, 2013

Outside forces from environmentalists, consumer advocates, to animal rights activists have power to change ways livestock producers produce meat protein, manage their businesses and protect the environment.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association launched an environmental initiative in response to Livestock's Long Shadow, a book claiming 18% of all manmade greenhouse gases come from livestock – worse than transportation. The effort has expanded to investigate and evaluate sustainability of the industry. Researcher Kim Stackhouse is leading the effort.

The studies used in the book, conducted by the U.N., differed from EPA reports. Stackhouse notes although EPA doesn't always work to the advantage of the beef industry, it still has statistics in its favor. "EPA estimates livestock contributes 3.5% of greenhouse gases," she notes. "Why are U.N. and EPA so different?"

CARBON TRUTH: Study aims to show industrys true carbon footprint.
CARBON TRUTH: Study aims to show industry's true carbon footprint.

Stackhouse says the book's studies are misleading. For example, 18% is the world average for livestock emissions – not just the U.S. She notes a map of places with the highest livestock concentrations. "India and China really stick out," she says. "In some parts of the world livestock production is exploding. Many third-world countries have more livestock than people. The third world has fewer cars. That means a higher proportion of greenhouse gas impact comes from food production.

Better methodology

U.N. and EPA studies look at livestock production from cradle to grave. Why? "They didn't do that for transportation, they just measured tail pipe emissions," Stackhouse says.

Stackhouse and NCBA, a contractor with Beef Checkoff, are working on a study to determine livestock's true environmental footprint over time. This is particularly important for beef and agriculture in general. World population is projected to reach nine billion by 2050. Consumers will need 70% more food.

"The world cannot feed nine billion people if livestock are not involved," declares Stackhouse. "We all have to be more efficient, make more with less. That's really what sustainability is."

Making livestock more sustainable will be challenging. The U.S. has the most complex food production system in the world, says Stackhouse. "That makes not only defining sustainability difficult, but also quantifying it." Quantifying issues associated with livestock production is even more challenging due to lack of data.

Stackhouse sees sustainability as a three-pronged approach. Livestock agriculture needs to:

·         Reduce the environmental impact

·         Improve the industry's economic stability

·         Provide social diligence for the current and next generation.

Stackhouse references NCBA president J.D. Alexander's quote stating it's better to be at the table than on the menu. It's better to be part of the beef conversation than let someone else who may not have the same interests drive it. "With this particular project, we're not just sitting at the table and we're not on the menu, we're actually setting the table," she says.

Collaborating with USDA's Agricultural Research Service and BASF Chemical Company, it will evaluate the animal's life from birth to slaughter to disposal. Three parts make up the study: A hotspot analysis, a life cycle assessment (LCA) and developing an LCA tool for the industry.

What is sustainability?

The hotspot analysis aims to find out what industry stakeholders, including Wal-Mart and McDonald's, think about sustainability. "It gives us an idea of the known story," Stackhouse says. "It allows me as a scientist to ask the right questions." She notes Wal-Mart and McDonald's may offer more insight here. "Those are the folks that are driving sustainability," she says. "The consumer can't define sustainability, at least not yet."

To stakeholders, sustainability means many things, from traceability to water quality, consumer health, animal health and welfare. Biodiversity was the number one environmental hotspot, a hard concept to define. "I don't know how to quantify that," Stackhouse says. "But I know that it's really, really important."

The life cycle analysis isn't finished, but preliminary results are available online. The project uses a process level model to show a representation of biological processes as they occur in nature. Typical models don't figure yield and associated factors.

"These process level models know that," she says. "It's can capture things like very wet years and drought years." This applies to ammonia, a key factor in emission levels, which has its own variables. "We know that ammonia emissions are seasonal," she says. "They depend on temperature."

Measuring real feedlot results

Until now, this research hasn't been validated on the full-farm level. This study will include a 30,000-head feedlot in Kansas and a 100,000 feedlot in Texas. The study will include specific regions of the U.S. Regions must be practical due to limited funding, yet small enough to be representative.

For now, Stackhouse says the outcome is uncertain. "I want to tell everybody beef producers are doing better," she says. "I hope that it's a perfect line of improvement." Even if it isn't, she says being involved in the first study to accomplish these goals and working to improve sustainability are important. "It's a journey, not a destination," she says. "It's about starting to run the race."

- Harris is a field editor for sister publications Wallaces Farmer, Kansas Farmer and Missouri Ruralist