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Why Greener Beef Will Mean Less Grass, More Feedlots

As the beef industry grapples with ways to make its product more environmentally sustainable, one of the things that's likely to happen -- besides more obvious steps like methane capture operations and using manure to generate electricity -- is that many beef producers around the world will migrate towards the U.S. model of confined feeding and hormones.

This counterintuitive, and perhaps misguided, solution is one of the ideas coming out of a beef conference this week in Denver. Sponsored by World Wildlife Fund, McDonald's (MCD), Cargill, Walmart (WMT), Schering-Plough Animal Health (PFE) and JBS, the world's largest beef company, the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef, which BNET attended, represents the industry's first global gathering devoted to figuring out ways to lower beef's large environmental footprint.

The notion of addressing sustainability, at least in part, by putting cattle in feedlots and giving them hormones highlights just how complicated and devoid of easy answers the problem is. Currently, most beef cattle -- some 97% worldwide -- spend their entire lives roaming on pasture and eating grass, resulting in the type of grass-fed operations U.S. foodies cherish.

But from a land use point of view, this model is inefficient. Pastured cows need to graze on lots of land for 3 to 4.5 years and they still don't produce as much meat per animal as feedlots do. In American beef production, cattle are put on pasture only as long as they need for musculoskeletal development -- for about one year. After that, they're trucked off to a CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) where they're given hormone implants that help them grown faster, as well as a high-energy diet of corn and soybeans until they are slaughtered at 18 to 24 months.

CAFOs make environmentalists and food activists cringe, but they enable the U.S. beef system to be the most efficient in the world, producing more beef from less land and fewer animals. In comments that presage where Brazil, the world's second largest beef producer after the U.S., is headed, Fernando Sampiano, sustainability coordinator for ABIEC, Brazil's beef export association, noted that the U.S. produces more beef than Brazil, yet has less has half the cattle herds. "We need to produce more with less," he said during a PowerPoint presentation.

Chandler Keys, chief lobbyist for JBS, which is headquartered in Brazil, was more blunt. "In the next 20 years, you're going to see more cattle in Brazil come off grass and going into grow yards," he said during a press briefing.

While CAFOs and hormones are compelling from a land use point of view, they come with a host of problems, which include:

  • Runoff from accumulating manure that pollutes waterways
  • The additional energy, chemicals and land needed to grow corn and soybeans
  • E. coli-laden manure that collects on the animal's hides
  • The fact that grass, not grains, is a cow's natural diet
  • The nutritional superiority of grass-fed beef
  • The animal welfare implications of not giving cattle the ability to roam
The beef industry is looking at ways to create friendlier feedlots, but it's hard to imagine they'll be able to deal with all of these issues. JBS' Keys, for instance, explained that cattle in Brazil could be fed with various agricultural by-products, such as sugar cane waste, cottonseed hulls and citrus pulp, so that no additional resources are used to grow feed. The mountains of manure could be burned to power nearby beef processing plants, something JBS is doing at its facility in Greeley, Colo.

One subject not up for discussion at the conference, for obvious reasons, was how to get people to eat less beef, which would be one of the biggest ways to reduce beef's global footprint. Jason Clay, sr vp of market transformation at the World Wildlife Fund, said that global demand for beef will double by 2050, with all of the increase coming from developing countries that have never had the access to affordable beef that Americans and Europeans do.

Is it arrogant for Americans and Europeans to tell everyone they shouldn't eat beef because doing so will wreck the planet? Keys, who is based in Washington, DC, certainly thinks so. "We can go ahead and eat less meat, but that meat is going somewhere, to China, Indonesia, North Africa. You can't stop it."

Image by Flickr user Paul Mayne

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