Putting Beef Sustainability Into Context

By: Katie Allen

November 25, 2013

MANHATTAN, Kan. – In grocery stores across the United States, many favorite national and local brands of foods, particularly meats, might also bear labels that include “grass-fed,” “organic,” and “hormone-free.” With the varied products available, consumers undoubtedly have many food options to accommodate their preference and diet.

Jude Capper, Ph.D., who is an expert in beef sustainability, said she hopes consumers are aware of what the labels truly mean so they can make informed choices.

“I would hope that we buy any beef—whether it’s conventional, organic, local, grass-fed—whatever our choice is, it must be an informed choice,” Capper said. “It isn’t simply on the basis of, ‘Well, I think it must be better, because I feel like it is somehow.’ We have to base our choices on facts, and if we do, we are always making a good choice.”

Capper is an independent sustainability consultant who also has adjunct and affiliate positions at Washington State University and Montana State University. She was a featured speaker at Kansas State University on Nov. 19 and presented, “Is Your Hamburger Killing the Planet?” The presentation was part of the Upson Lecture Series hosted by the Food for Thought student organization at K-State.

Sustainable beef

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines sustainable as “able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed” and “involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources.”

In agriculture, turning forages and by-product feeds that we can’t eat into food, Capper said, is sustainability. Conventionally raised cattle might be treated with antibiotics when they are ill, fed genetically modified corn, or implanted to replace or supplement hormones to help them grow. Using these technologies to reduce water and land use helps make the conventional industry sustainable.

“The conventional industry has been sustainable and will continue to be sustainable, because we know now far better how to treat our cattle, how to feed them, how to breed them, how to calve them, than our parents and grandparents did,” Capper said. “Over the last 30 years, we’ve used 12 percent less water per pound of beef. We use 33 percent less land per pound of beef, and the carbon footprint per pound has come down by 16 percent. It’s a huge achievement on behalf of the industry.”

Capper said regardless of how farmers and ranchers raise beef, conventionally, organically or by another method, any beef production system can be sustainable given three things are in place: economic viability, environmental responsibility and social acceptability.

“It doesn’t matter if you have 20 cows, 200 cows or 2,000 cows, whether you have Angus, Hereford, Limousin or Belted Galloway, any system can be sustainable providing these three things are in place,” Capper said.

The most important of the three, she said, has always been economics. If a business is economically viable, that business will remain in place for years. The other two factors—environmental responsibility and social acceptability—have always been important, but they have become more important with the advent of social media and consumers having more access to information.

Capper said to effectively reach consumers and provide truthful information, beef producers need to listen to consumers’ needs and not just educate them. There must be a two-way conversation.

Making information easier to understand

Putting information into context for the consumer is key, Capper said. Most consumers care about air, land and water, but it is difficult to put those into context as they relate to raising cattle.

For example, Capper found in her research that using growth-enhancing technologies, such as implants in feeder cattle, reduce beef’s environmental impact by 10.7 percent. This means more than 4.2 tons of feed, an acre of land and 22,722 gallons of water are saved per 800-lb. beef carcass because of the use of those technologies. The cattle get to their finished weight faster and, therefore, don’t require additional feed, water and use of the land compared to cattle that are not implanted.

“Most of us can’t picture an acre of land or 4.2 tons of feed, but what we almost all care about is feeding hungry kids,” Capper said. “By the year 2050, we’re going to have about 9.5 billion people on the planet. At the moment, one in seven kids don’t have enough food. So, if we can express the benefits of improved efficiency and improved productivity in terms of feeding more hungry kids every single day, that should resonate with the consumer.”

Giving cattle, specifically steers, hormone implants allow them to grow faster, but not any faster than would be allowed by their genes, Capper said. The hormones given to these cattle replace the hormones that are taken out when the bulls are castrated into steers.

“Hormones are often thought about to the consumer as a frightening thing,” Capper said. “All foods contain hormones, with the possible exceptions of salt and sugar. If it’s an apple, pork chop or cheeseburger, they all contain hormones. We have to put those into context for the consumer.”

Looking ahead

If farmers and ranchers are working toward being more efficient, more productive, and using less land, water and fuel to produce a pound of beef for that consumer’s next hamburger, they are making the world a more environmentally better place for the future, Capper said. Social acceptability of agricultural technologies that improve the environment might be improved with more producer and consumer engagement.

“A picture tells a story of 1,000 words, and video clips even more so,” Capper said. “We can reach so many people through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, all of these sites, but we’ve got to do it in an effective manner to get our message across to the consumer every day.”

Capper frequently updates her website (http://bovidiva.com) with research-based information about beef and dairy sustainability. A video with Capper’s full interview is available on the K-State Research and Extension YouTube page (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6sve0oEPYY&feature=youtu.be).

Food for Thought works to bridge the gap between agriculture and consumers. More information about the student organization at K-State can be found on the organization’s blog (http://bloggingfoodforthought.blogspot.com), Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/fftgroup) or Twitter page (https://twitter.com/fftgroup).

The Upson Lecture Series honors Dan Upson, who taught at K-State's College of Veterinary medicine for 35 years before retiring in 1994.

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