Hunting for more meaningful meat

Sustainable beef industry runs up against few definitions, variable solutions

Corn-fed cattle produce less methane than grass-fed.
Photo by Doug Wilson/USDA

Food systems contribute 19 percent to 29 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2012 study by scientists from the University of Copenhagen, Oxford and the Natural Environmental Research Council. Of that amount, agriculture production and changes to the land caused by production contribute up to 86 percent.

When people look to make food choices that lower their personal carbon footprint, meat and its viability as a sustainable diet choice often take center stage. The personal decisions consumers make about eating free-range, grass-fed, organic or hormone-free meat are the same decisions industry professionals, from ranchers to fast food chain executives, are discussing around the world as they try to target what exactly sustainable meat means.

“Can we say we’re buying any sustainable beef today?” Bob Langert, McDonald’s Corp.’s sustainability vice president, said in an interview with Bloomberg last year. “No, we can’t. Could we be buying sustainable beef? We might be. What I mean by that is that there are no standards, measures, accountability and traceability to make those claims today.”

Consumer spending habits often drive change, but guidance on what consumers should demand from their meat producers can be confusing when there are so many different terms associated with sustainable meat — organic, local, free-range, grass-fed, hormone-free.

While there are several issues to consider, a good starting point is how ranchers mitigate methane produced by their livestock. Livestock accounts for about 28 percent of global methane emissions from human-related activities, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane on climate change is more than 20 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.

Ranchers in parts of California and the Midwest are leading the way to reduce their methane output. By implementing biogas recovery systems into their property, ranchers can store manure in a tank and use the methane from the manure’s anaerobic breakdown as fuel for electricity. But for ranchers in areas like Colorado, an area rich in coal and natural gas, biogas recovery is less practical.

“Areas in the Midwest, especially around Chicago, have very successful biogas operations,” says William Wailes, extension dairy specialist at Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “But it’s a stretch to have one in Colorado at this point because energy costs here are cheaper than they are in Midwest. It ties together the energy-cost equation.”

For producers, “We recycle our poop” might not be an easy selling point to capture consumer interest. A less active method of reducing current livestock methane emissions is by moving livestock through production as quickly as possible — a strategy that, for many ranches, means a corn-fed diet.

But while a corn-fed diet might mean less energy spent on an animal product with a shorter life span, it ties the animal to the environmental effects of industrial corn production.

Colorado’s Best Beef, a local ranch based out of Boulder, has adopted a system that works well for a smaller operation. The 600-animal outfit starts all its cattle on pastures to be grass-fed, then moves them to a corn-finish in a feed lot, allowing the cow to go to production in about 15 months rather than the 24-36 months expected of grass-fed beef.

“The corn-finished cattle are actually much younger when they go harvesting,” says Gina Elliott, part owner of Colorado’s Best Beef. “With grass-fed, you own them a lot longer, so you actually use a lot more resources than the corn finished.”

While Colorado Best Beef grows its corn locally in Fort Morgan, and during the winter gets hay from local farmers, industrial feed lots need more feed, and that much corn doesn’t come from the small farm down the road.

The environmental consequences of industrial corn run deep, and its connection to cattle production is partially to blame. There’s the dead zone in the gulf of Mexico, a result of excess phosphorus and nitrogen from corn-belt fertilizer run-off that fuel algae blooms, alter the food chain and deplete oxygen in a zone the size of Connecticut, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Then there is the degradation of soil health, habitat encroachment and carbon dioxide emissions associated with shipping and freight.

The alternative to corn-fed cattle is grass-fed, but can ranchers support the monstrous demand for meat on a grass-fed diet, without compromising soil quality and habitat?

“Think about Africa. Picture in your mind the savannah, where you have all these big herds running around — where lions are causing all the gazelles to stay bunched together and they move with the seasons. Birds are following along eating insects that are spawning in dung of all these animals, scratching it into the soil,” says Chad Adams, vice president of Bio-Logical Capital, a Denver-based company that manages large environmental assets. “What we’re doing is taking all the animals and putting them back on grass. And doing it together so that cattle and pigs and birds are basically in an orchestrated dance across the landscape.”

Whether corn-fed or grass-fed, consumers and producers will ultimately need a consistent definition of sustainable meat. One of the largest groups working to achieve that goal is The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, a group of parties across several fields, from Cargill and McDonald’s to the World Wildlife Foundation and Rainforest Alliance.

“It is imperative that a full range of subject matter experts in the many areas of beef sustainability be involved in this process. We need to assure that all areas and points of view are represented so that the definition developed is as accurate and complete as possible,” Bryan Weech, a member of Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef’s executive committee and director for livestock at the World Wildlife Fund, said in a press release.

The committee is expected to wrap up its work by late 2013, and present its results at the net Global Conference of Sustainable Beef, set to take place in early 2014 in Brazil.