Livestock agriculture is green. It is time the industry stopped allowing itself to be pushed around and start using science-based information to tell what it is doing for the world, according to speakers at the recent Southwest Beef Symposium in Amarillo.
Dennis Avery, director of the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., told the crowd that as the world's population increases in wealth and size, farmers and ranchers will have to double global food production within 40 years.
"This is a bigger challenge than Dr. Norman Borlaug faced when he launched the Green Revolution in the 1960s," Avery said. "Since we already farm 37 percent of the Earth's land area, we cannot double food production simply by plowing more land and using more of today's inputs.
"We must find new ways to add yield and productivity on the best land. "
Avery said the push for grass-fed beef, organic foods and trying to grow a fuel supply with biofuels will become less popular.
Confinement feeding produces more meat per pound of feed, is kinder to animals and puts less carbon into the air than grass-fed beef, he said. Organic farming is not conservation-friendly and biofuels divert too much good land to produce tiny amounts of high-cost fuel, he said.
"During this period, farmers and ranchers must do something they have never done: Tell urbanites why they farm differently from their grandfathers--to feed the hungry even as we save land for nature."
Brent Auvermann, Ph.D., Texas AgriLife Extension Service environmental systems specialist, followed Avery with a discussion of agriculture's "carbon footprint" and the role carbon plays in the production of beef.
"Over the past 10 years, we've seen a shift in the terms the environmental community used to lead us into conversations about the health of the ecosphere, which is simply the air, water, soil and the living organisms that make their homes there," Auvermann said.
Early on, the talk was of sustainability--economic, environmental and social, he said. But no one learned to measure sustainability; it was an abstraction.
Next came the term "global warming potential," used to refer to the magnitude of the stress human activities were imposing on the world's climate.
"Global warming potential wasn't really a case of air pollution until Congress and the EPA got hold of it and the Supreme Court gave them elbow room," Auvermann said. "It didn't include other considerations like water quality or natural resource availability, either."
And, as global warming potential has lost its hold on the public's imagination, it has now been replaced by "ecological footprint," referring to the carrying capacity of an ecosystem, Auvermann said.
The ecological footprint is essentially an accounting procedure that adds up all the land and sea areas required to supply resources and assimilate wastes and divides by the number of people supported to get the per capita footprint.
"If we divide the global ecologically productive area by the global population, we get the global average of 4.7 acres available to each person on the Earth," he said. That means that some nations like Canada have room to grow, but that there are billions of people living in countries with far less bio-capacity than the global average.
The ecological footprint is derived from energy, cropland, pasture, sea space, forest land, built area and hydroelectric. The biggest portion of that is the energy footprint, Auvermann said. And that is where the carbon comes in.
The energy footprint is the area of land, predominately forest land, required to sequester the carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion, he said. So when speaking of the carbon footprint, it is actually a subset of the total ecological footprint.
A production and environmental quality model for beef production shows how enhancing product quality, increasing efficiency or reducing emissions is deeply embedded in a larger system characterized by feedback, time variation, human agency and mutual dependence, Auvermann said.
This life-cycle analysis shows how a product that hits the plate is the product of just about everything else involved in its production, including the resources consumed, the machinery built to process it, and all the labor, processes and resources required to dispose of the wastes within the manufacturing and supply chain, he said.
"While the whole process is complicated, the idea underneath it all is pretty simple and appealing: We can't just pretend that a product's environmental footprint is limited to the waste-disposal processes immediately downstream from it in the supply chain. There's more to it than that."
Auvermann said some of the carbon-intensive items involved in feeding cattle in confinement are the corn, natural gas used to manufacture nitrogen fertilizer, diesel fuel to rail corn from the Midwest and the coal or natural gas to produce electricity for irrigation pumps.
"The carbon footprint is but one piece of a much broader ecological footprint, but in many cases it is the dominant piece," he said. "These sustainability metrics need to be refined on the basis of more detailed knowledge and greater attention to site-specific influences."
Jim MacDonald, Ph.D., AgriLife Research beef cattle nutritionist, followed Auvermann by saying society is increasingly concerned about the impacts of animal production practices on the environment, human health and animal health.
This concern has resulted in increased monitoring and proposed regulations by the government, with special attention being paid to ammonia, greenhouse gasses and water quality. In the past five years, production practices such as the use of implants, ionophores, beta-agonists and antimicrobial agents have been questioned.
"One of the best things we can tell consumers is what impact the production practices we've adopted had," he said. "Reality is that if you were to tell us that we could no longer use technology in the beef industry, it would change the way we formulate diets."
These technologies have contributed to improved animal performance over the past 30 years by increasing dietary energy concentration, weight gain and carcass weight with marginal increases in dry matter intake, MacDonald said.
"The improvements in feed efficiency observed over this time period likely would not have been possible without the adoption of growth-enhancing technologies," he said.
"While the emission of ammonia and greenhouse gasses produced per head have remained stable, the emissions have been reduced when expressed on per pound of carcass weight," he said.
"Therefore, we conclude that the use of growth-enhancing technologies is vital in reducing the carbon footprint of a serving of beef."
Taking away one or more of the technologies would mean a loss of 150 pounds per animal, a loss of average daily gain and some feed efficiency, therefore costing more to produce a pound of gain.
The key here is that it is absolutely inappropriate to report these things on a per-head basis, MacDonald said.
"When you report on per pound of hot carcass weight, taking into account the improvement in efficiencies, the carbon footprint of that steak is less today than it was 30 years ago," he said.
"We make money in this industry by adding weight. We are more environmental friendly by adding weight. We are producing more with less," MacDonald said.
Those technologies allowed producers to reduce manure production 30 to 45 percent; ammonia losses decreased 11 to 14 percent; methane production decreased 12 to 30 percent depending on technologies used.
"So there is no doubt in my mind if you are interested in environmentally friendly beef, you would accept the use of technology in the feedlot," he said.
A constant beef supply requires fewer head therefore fewer cows. The animal population has been reduced, as has the feed energy, land use, water use, fossil fuel energy needed, methane, nitrous oxide and total carbon footprint, MacDonald said.
"We have made progress in terms of our environmental footprint. It's a mistake to allow components of society to try to force us to take away the very technology that has allowed us to do this."
Perhaps the most convincing piece of information is that over the past 30 years, the greenhouse gases per 10-ounce steak has dramatically decreased, MacDonald said.
"Don't let these issues be decided for you," he said. "The decisions that are being made are not being made based on science, but rather emotion. The beef industry has been silent far too long on these issues."