Dr Sara Place is the Senior Director of Sustainable Beef Production Research at Beef Research in the USA. We spoke to her about the work she does researching sustainable beef.Dr Sara Place
There has recently been an explosion of interest in plant-based meat. What are your thoughts on this?
It’s great that people have different protein choices. Talking about plant-based proteins from a standpoint of sustainability, it’s not one product over another; rather it’s how these different products work together. It’s all connected. For example, a soy-based protein generates by-products that are typically fed to livestock and are otherwise not used.
We need to think about continuing to improve the integration between crops and livestock. There is no silver bullet that will change everything; we can’t eat our way out of climate change.
There is no silver bullet that will change everything; we can’t eat our way out of climate change.
What about the high carbon footprint of beef?
The carbon footprint of beef by country is extremely variable, and US beef can be up to 50 times less than in other parts of the world. We have had years of science, research and development focused on not just beef, but all of agriculture and making the process more efficient. We are adopting technology and new practices, looking to be better stewards of the land.
All livestock (pork, poultry, dairy and cattle) globally accounts for 14.5 per cent of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. Globally, beef accounts for six per cent, and US beef cattle emissions are less than one half a percent of the world’s GHG emissions. US farmers produce 18 per cent of the world’s beef with only eight per cent of the world’s cattle, meaning we are more efficient.
Compared to 1977, US farmers today produce the same amount of beef with one-third less cattle.
How do US farmers achieve a lower carbon footprint?
Cattle are the ultimate upcyclers. They take human inedible plants and convert them to high-quality food. But a part of that process is the production of methane. What drives our lower footprint is the fact that it doesn’t take as long to get the animal to the desired weight.
All cattle are grass fed for the majority of their lives. Typically, US cattle spend the last 4–6 months being finished on a mixture of grain and grass, where the goal is to get the animal to the ideal weight. A completely grass-fed animal will take much longer to reach the same weight, emitting GHGs for a longer period.
If you are being smarter by using your natural resources more efficiently, there is an alignment between sustainability and your profitability. For example, animal genetics means we are able to identify certain characteristics of cattle breeds that do well in certain areas, and farmers select those that have an advantage for their conditions.
For finishing, are we talking about animal feedlot operations? What about run-off and waste?
In the US, a large concentrated animal feedlot operation (CAFO) that has over 1,000 cattle needs to be a no-discharge facility. This is where regulations can be a good thing. It takes a lot of engineering to make sure all the run-off is collected in clay-lined lagoons. Then, typically, they will use that as a valuable fertiliser source for croplands – waste to worth.
Isn’t 100%-grass-fed beef better naturally?
It comes down to preference. Grass-finished beef is a niche market in the US. The beef is generally leaner, without the marbling that a lot of people like and with a slightly different fatty acid profile. It takes longer to produce and is more expensive.
Grain-finished beef makes a lot of sense for the US, due to our climate. We have a lot of parts of the United States where it’s not green grass 365 days of the year. Think about New Zealand – it makes a lot of sense to do what they do there as they have grass most of the year. But cattle eating grass do produce more methane.
What about carbon sequestration?
Carbon sequestration into the soil is something people are greatly interested in. We do not take this into account yet in carbon life cycle analysis (LCA).
White Oak Pastures is a unique case where they worked with scientists and measured their soil over a number of years to find that their farms stored more carbon than they emitted. We do not have every ranch in the US taking soil samples like this. But it is really important, and what we do know from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data is that all of agriculture plus forestry (some forest lands are grazed) in the US is a net sink of carbon. That’s very different globally, where it’s something like 24 per cent of global emissions.
And that comes back to that issue of what’s true in one country may not be true everywhere.
Beef Research provides research programmes on beef safety, human nutrition, product quality, sustainability and market research and planning. Browse their resources relating to sustainability.
For more articles like this, like Foodie on Facebook