Data show cattle produce more protein than they consume
Within ag circles, the upcycling ability of the beef cow is recognized as one of the most fundamental values of beef. From a consumer standpoint, greenhouse gas emissions and environmental footprint concerns can eclipse the numbers.
Dr. Sara Place, a sustainability expert, said she has spent a number of years using math to prove to people that agriculture producers aren’t massively irrational. Place, formerly at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said sustainability is a melding of environmental, economic and social issues. She told producers gathered at the Colorado Livestock Association’s Northeast Livestock Symposium Nov. 13 in Fort Morgan, sustainability conversations are complicated because it involves those issues, in addition to value judgments and uncertainty.
The myths surrounding the beef industry and sustainability, she said, overlook the upcycling ability of the beef cow. Although cattle are able to convert human inedible forages into high-quality protein, Place said the argument is often made that the feed consumption required to finish cattle is too high. Over the life cycle of a grain-finished beef animal, 82 percent of their diet is forage, a statistic Place said that is often surprising to consumers who assume it is lower. Another 7 percent is byproducts from human food, food production and biofuels, enhancing the sustainability of other industries. The remaining 11 percent is grain that could, technically, be consumed by humans.
“This whole idea that cattle are stealing food from the mouths of babes isn’t what the data shows,” she said.
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Data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization on feed consumption globally of all ruminants total about 4 percent grain portion of the ration. In terms of sustainability, Place said cattle are producing more protein than they are consuming, more than exists without them. Monogastrics, however, compete more with human edible foods. In short, the country’s range and pasturelands can be utilized for food and fiber production only by grazing by ruminants. The cropland required to grow corn for beef cattle feed is about 8 million acres.
“We generate more high-quality protein by taking that corn and running it through cattle to make beef, than if we were to eat that corn directly,” she said.
The greenhouse gas emissions associated with beef production, frequently in the mainstream media, is about 2 percent. Compared to electricity and transportation which contribute 50 percent of total emissions, and all of agriculture production at 9 percent, the assumption that removing cattle from the U.S. would reduce emissions, is false. Globally, beef production is responsible for less than 0.5 percent of emissions from a life-cycle perspective.
Methane is produced by all ruminants, including giraffes, the world’s largest ruminants, who all expel it through belching. Place said a common misconception assumes that cattle on a concentrated ration produce higher levels of methane, but the opposite is true. The feedlot industry in the U.S. is one of the reasons the carbon footprint of cattle is smaller here than in other countries due to efficiency reaching market weight and lower methane emissions while on a grain-based diet.
“All this is relevant from a practical perspective in terms of methane is actually a loss of feed energy,” she said. “So, if you can reduce methane, you’ll be increasing feed efficiency so that’s one of the practical outcomes of all this.”
Since alternative products are utilizing sustainability claims in their marketing, Place said it’s important to understand. Beyond Meat’s marketing is based on their missions of improving human health, positively impacting climate change, addressing global resource restraints, and improving animal welfare.
Place said consumers and marketers compare carbon footprints but do it incorrectly. If every American — including animals — were vegan, it would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2.6 percent. The consequences of this would be a lack of a dietary source of vitamin B12 and the lack of manure would result in a higher demand for synthetic fertilizer to grow crops including an increased amount of legumes for protein. Comparing carbon footprints, she said, is more complicated than marketing campaigns admit and it results in a thinly veiled attempt to “suck people into the narrative.”
Even the ingredients in plant-based proteins, she said, are dependent upon livestock production whether it’s manure for fertilizer or the by-products of the ingredients upcycled through utilization as livestock feed.
While the founder of one of the companies has stated his goal is to eliminate animal agriculture by 2035, Place said he’s really unable to eliminate animal agriculture from the company’s supply chain currently. The percentage of the population that adheres to the strict vegan diet, she said, is very small. Most consumers choosing plant-based proteins also eat meat and marketing that alienates those consumers, drives them away from beef.
Consumers are choosing to decrease meat consumption do it for health reasons, their perceptions of animal welfare, concerns about factory farming and sustainability. She also noted that after the introduction of the Impossible Whopper, Burger King did increase sales in quarter three, selling approximately 45 of the plant-based burgers per day, per location. Traditional beef Whopper sales have also increased in the same period, indicating that including the vegetarian option on the menu eliminates the veto vote from diners who want to have access to traditional and plant-based products in the same trip through the drive through line.
Beyond Meat’s stock price experienced a peak and has since returned to about the level of its public trade introduction.
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at email@example.com or (970) 392-4410.
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