The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

The Evolving Beef Industry

The Evolving Beef Industry

In the News

April 30, 2014

Ensuring a sustainable food supply to feed the growing population requires balancing efficient agricultural production with environmental, social and economic impacts. A recent study conducted by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and funded by the beef checkoff, reveals the complex biological processes of the beef food system. We talked to Kim Stackhouse, PhD, Executive Director, Sustainability Research, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, about the great strides the industry is taking in improving their production efficiency and impact on the planet.

How can the beef industry face the challenge of feeding the growing population while simultaneously improving and staying committed to sustainability?

The beef industry recognizes the important role it plays to produce food in a more sustainable manner and has committed to a journey toward more sustainable beef. As a first step, the Beef Checkoff Program launched a comprehensive sustainability assessment to quantify and benchmark all environmental, social and economic aspects of beef industry sustainability. The results of the life cycle assessment highlight the industry’s significant achievements over time and help identify areas for future progress and innovation. That dedication to improvement has persisted among cattlemen and women for generations in the United States and it drives the beef industry to look openly at its production practices to find new ways to innovate. 

Can you explain the changes in efficiency in the beef industry in the 1970s, 2005 and 2011? 

The Beef Industry Sustainability Assessment was designed to capture how industry changes and improved management practices have affected beef’s long-term sustainability. Significant changes in industry practices led to the selection of benchmark years. The 1970s were chosen because they reflect the shift to the production of boxed beef. The benchmark year of 2005 was selected to reflect the widespread use of ethanol co-product in feedlots. The final benchmark year, 2011, represents the present day beef value chain.

Initially, the intent of this project was to benchmark the 1970s, which represented a time in the industry of increased carcass utilization and fabrication, known as the “shift to boxed beef.” While high-quality data for the pre-harvest sector is available dating back to the 1970s, data is not available from the post-harvest segment. Therefore, since the 1970s benchmark data focuses solely on the pre-harvest sector, we have not been able to measure the specific impact of the shift to boxed beef. The pre-harvest sector achieved a 12 percent reduction in environmental and social impact between 1970 and 2011. These improvements were primarily the result of improved efficiency of crop and animal production.

Due to the complexity of beef production it is difficult to understand the sole implications of feeding distillers grains. In some instances environmental impact was increased as a result of their use (increased acidification potential) and in other instances impact was reduced (reduced greenhouse gasses). While the year 2005 was selected to reflect this change in feeding practice in the beef industry, other shifts in production have also contributed to improved sustainability; namely, improved crop yields and animal performance, wider adoption of precision farming techniques, and the advent of biogas capture within the packing sector.     

Both consumers and industry members have concerns about the emissions that result from beef production. Your assessment revealed a 2% reduction in emissions, which is an important improvement. How can we further improve these numbers? (A recent report from Oregon University found that worldwide, livestock accounts for about 14.5% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, with cattle contributing the most.)

The 14.5% value referenced is a global contribution of livestock to greenhouse gases. In that study the, data used was from 2005. Our results are specific to the United States and the beef industry. As a point of reference the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that livestock are responsible for 3.4% of man-made greenhouse gases in the United States.  

To further reduce the carbon footprint of beef, the industry could continue to increase use of recovered biogas and right-size packaging which results in less fossil fuel use, continue to increase crop yields resulting in less fossil fuel inputs to feed production, and continue to improve animal performance which maximizes feed to gain ratios and reduces energy lost as methane. 

How important has been the Beef Quality Assurance adoption and third party audits in improving animal welfare? Why is animal welfare so important to overall beef chain sustainability?

Animal welfare ranked as the number one most important attribute related to the social sustainability of the beef industry. Within the sustainability assessment improvements in animal welfare were documented by participation in the Beef Quality Assurance Program and results of third-party audits. Farmers and ranchers know caring for animals is an obligation, not an option. Consumers expect every animal to be treated properly and healthy animals perform better at every stage of their lifecycle, which increases efficiency. So ensuring good animal welfare is not only the right thing to do, it also improves sustainability and makes good business sense.

Why does evaluating the beef industry sustainability require a holistic assessment of the industry? 

Beef production is extremely complex and conducting a holistic assessment is crucial to understanding how our food system can meet demand and minimize unintended consequences. The completion of a sustainability assessment requires the use of life cycle assessment methodology to measure the impacts of production. A life cycle assessment is essentially an accounting system that uses complex models to quantify all inputs and outputs involved in producing beef, from birth of the animal to the consumer’s plate. Inputs along the entire value chain were included, from the pre-chain production of fertilizer, packaging, chemicals and others; to primary inputs like feed and water, through consumption and disposal of packaging materials by the consumer. These impacts were quantified against a consumer benefit that equates to one pound of boneless, edible, consumed beef. 

The completed Beef Industry Sustainability Assessment has been subjected to extensive third-party and peer review. The pre-harvest segment results are published in the Journal of Animal Science, and The U.S. Beef – Phase 1 Eco-efficiency Analysis, which examined the entire beef value chain, was certified by NSF International in July 2013. 

What improvements can still be made in the future?

As a result of this work, the beef value chain has identified several target areas to focus its efforts, outlined in the Table below.

Realized and existing opportunities by sector

Realized Opportunities

Existing Opportunities

Crop farm 

  • Improvements in crop yields 
  • Increased adoption of precision farming techniques
  • Improved nutrient management 


  • Continue to improve crop yields
  • Continued adoption of more water efficient irrigation systems 
  • Continue to optimize nutrient application to soil 


  • Higher performing cattle through improved genetics and health
  • Improved nutrition  


  • Continue to improve management of cattle and resources to promote improved production efficiencies 


  • Improved cattle performance through better management, nutrition, genetics, health and technology
  • Improved manure management 


  • Optimize the use of distillers grains in diets
  • Continue to improve efficiencies
  • Continue to optimize manure management techniques to reduce fertilizer inputs


  • Biogas recovery 
  • Closed loop water cooling systems 
  • Waste water recovery 


  • Continue to optimize biogas recovery systems, closed loop water cooling systems and waste water recovery systems in plants

Case Ready 

  • Right-size packaging 
  • Plant optimization 


  • Explore new packing alternatives that further reduce inputs and are accepted by the consumer 


  • Lack of participation 

  • Provide data to the study 
  • Reduce greenhouse gas leakage from refrigeration units


  • Reduce food waste 


The list is meant to provide high-level opportunities for each segment to contribute to industry-wide improvement. The list is not meant to be exhaustive, instead it outlines priorities for future improvement that were identified by the life cycle assessment. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for improvements in beef industry sustainability and each individual along the value chain has a role to play. Increased efficiency is undoubtedly the greatest contributor to increased sustainability and it will continue to be the beef value chain’s best opportunity for future progress.

The completion of the life cycle assessment also identified food waste as a significant opportunity for improvement, one where individuals can make a difference. An estimated 40 percent of all food produced in the United States is wasted, contributing to losses in efficiency across the entire food value chain. Food waste costs the average American family approximately $2,500 annually. Although beef waste is significantly lower than all food waste, at about 20 percent of total production, it is still a significant burden and represents a major opportunity to improve the sustainability of the beef industry. By cutting beef waste in half, the full beef value chain would achieve an approximate 10 percent improvement in full-chain sustainability.

Several of the opportunities for improvement identified in this assessment require additional research to better understand how changes and improvements can be adopted by individual producers. For example, in order to begin providing practical solutions that producers can implement in their own operations, we need to conduct region specific research to identify management practices and other solutions to help producers evaluate and improve their individual sustainability. 

In addition to further research, there is also a need to capture and quantify some of the less tangible benefits of the beef value chain. These intangibles include important attributes of beef production such as the preservation of open space and wildlife habitat. As the science of life cycle assessments continues to improve over time, improvements that are being made by the beef value chain may be more fully understood and quantified in the future. That work will further showcase our contributions to responsible beef production and a more sustainable industry.