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The Beef on Sustainability in the Cattle Industry by Marie Burcham

Posted by: | March 30, 2011 Comments Off on The Beef on Sustainability in the Cattle Industry by Marie Burcham |

Agriculture is one of the more important businesses in the United States – it’s the basis for not only food, but also fibers for cloth, fuel and valuable raw materials that go into products exported around the world. In the article Ecosystems, Sustainability, and Animal Agriculture, the authors define sustainable agriculture as “ecologically sound agriculture [that can be] narrowly defined as eternal agriculture, that is, agriculture that can be practiced continually for eternity.”[1] Though coal and oil are hot topics when it comes to unsustainable natural resources, the agricultural industry also has serious sustainability problems. The beef industry in particular is ecologically unsustainable because of its harm to the local and global environment. It’s also economically unsustainable because it relies on government farm subsidies of that keep the price of beef unnaturally low in the name of “cheap protein.”

The majority of beef production in the United States is done through high-intensity feeding programs where the cattle are “finished” on feed lots. These cattle are fed large amounts of grain (usually corn) which has to be produced in massive amounts to support the animals’ rapid growth. Because these cattle are typically kept in cramped, stressful situations and fed such a rich diet, they are particularly prone to disease, and are thus given antibiotics and chemicals to keep them healthy. Around forty percent of these feed lot operations have 32 thousand or more cattle at their facilities – and the trend is for fewer, larger facilities throughout the United States.[2] This trend will only amplify the environmental impact of having so many large ruminants in one area. Of particular concern is the impact that manure has on water quality, and how these cattle operations are regulated through the Clean Water Act by the EPA and States. Some of the manure from feedlots can be spread on crop land as fertilizer, but as the EPA notes in its analysis of Clean Water Act planning and control for these high-intensity feeding operations, feedlots rarely have access to farmland that can use all the manure they produce. Other water-quality related problems include fish kills due to algae blooms, contamination of the human water supply, and transmission of waterborne disease to both humans and other animals.[3] The fish kills and algae blooms are related in that high-nitrogen runoff from manure causes plant life in water to take over, suffocating the fish life. Manure also contains contaminants and disease that can seep into groundwater or runoff streams and pollute human drinking water. On top of the manure problem, cattle also create large amounts of methane, a significant contributor to global warming. In fact, according to the EPA’s 1998 environmental impact study of concentrated feeding operations, the methane produced by the animals accounted for about ten percent of the methane contributing to global climate change (methane itself being about 20 percent of the total contribution to global warming).[4] Aside from the direct environmental impacts the cattle feedlots have, the industry is also reliant on fossil fuels for transportation of cattle between the different stages of production and eventually to slaughter plants. All of these associated environmental “costs” are not internalized into the cost of beef at our supermarkets since the meat includes only the direct costs of production, rather than the global effect on climate and local effects on air and water quality.

Sadly, the beef industry is as unsustainable economically as it is environmentally. Apart from the externalized environmental costs, high-intensity feeding operations are subsidized indirectly by the federal government. This “indirect subsidy” goes primarily to corn growers — which reduces the market prices of this valuable cattle feed. Understandably, as the USDA’s 2010 overview of the cattle industry illustrates, the prices of beef follow the fluctuations in corn prices closely, so if corn is subsidized and is sold short of its true cost, corn-fed beef will also be sold more cheaply. Ironically, cattle are being fed other food-industry waste because corn is still the expensive route for fattening up beef cattle quickly. So without this indirect economic boost from the government, it is arguable that much of the cattle industry would be forced to incorporate the real costs of feed and potentially the environmental costs as well, at which point the cost to produce beef under the current system would be prohibitive.

The reality is that these subsidies hurt the American public. Even though they are touted as the answer for keeping food prices low, they also enable environment-damaging high-intensity cattle industry practices that would not be possible without government handouts.[5] What’s the alternative to the feed-lot method of beef production if America is not ready to give up beef altogether? Is the answer in grass-fed, free-range cattle? In some respects, this alternative sounds more sustainable — free-range cattle are healthier individuals (not requiring antibiotics or hormones) and meat from grass-fed animals is generally found to be higher in protein, lower in fat and lower in cholesterol. However, it is important to distinguish between cattle who are “finished” on grass – meaning they eat grass until they reach the appropriate weight for slaughter – and those cattle that are simply started on grass and finished on the feed lot. Grass-finishing private ranches have to internalize all the costs associated with cattle production, and they also pay these costs longer since cattle finished on grass take considerably longer to fatten up. However, these private farms (like this one) are few and the market for their high-quality-but-expensive meat is limited. “Free-range” is another slippery term – it can mean that the cattle were raised on private ranches, but the reality is that most free-range cattle are run on public lands managed by the BLM and Forest Service. The environmental impacts they have on what would otherwise be largely untouched rangeland are significant. For example, free-range cattle cause stream degradation by congregating in riparian environments. There is also – you guessed it – a government subsidy for ranchers running their cattle on public land.[6]

What could make the cattle industry more sustainable? The reality is that internalizing costs and regulating the industry more strictly would make the industry sustainable in the environmental sense. Americans don’t need to eat all that meat — the argument that these subsidies are needed to give people a cheap source of protein doesn’t make sense in today’s world. According to the USDA, Americans consume about 27 billion pounds of beef each year and are not only the largest producers of beef but are also the largest importers as well.[7] However, consuming less beef and being willing to pay more for the higher quality when we do consume it would radically change how the beef industry operates. This kind of change, while ecologically ideal, would shut down many producers, change the traditional high-intensity agricultural methods and require a significant change in American diet. All of the above changes are unlikely to happen because they would require major alteration of law and policy, and therefore will be very unpopular.

Alternatively, to help the beef industry be more environmentally sustainable while retaining a reasonable level of economic viability, we should look to scientific solutions and government subsidies that incentivize conscious management. For example, renewable energy is one potential source of income for cattle operations. Methane capture is a viable option to capture the harmful greenhouse gas for use elsewhere, though the startup costs would be high. Another route would be to dry any manure that is not used as fertilizer for use as biomass fuel. Having strict regulation through the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act coupled with incentive programs to adopt green technology will probably leave some of the beef producers insolvent. However, it’s hardly the government’s place to keep unproductive businesses alive through legal wrangling – instead the laws should encourage innovation moving towards sustainable practices. Besides, by using the high-intensity nature of feedlots to produce renewable energy materials, some operations could find themselves with a new stream of revenue. In today’s highly volatile market, such a shift may make the industry more sustainable both economically and environmentally – and Americans could have their beef and clean air.

[1] R. K. Heitschmidt, R. E. Short and E. E. Grings, Ecosystems, sustainability, and animal agriculture, J Anim Sci 1996. 74:1395-1405, 1398 [Accessed 1/25/11]

[2] http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/Cattle/Background.htm [Accessed 1/23/11]

[3] National Enforcement Initiatives for Fiscal Years 2008 – 2010: Clean Water Act: Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Accessed from http://www.epa.gov/compliance/data/planning/priorities/cwacafo.html. 1/24/11.

[4] Environmental Impacts of Animal Feeding Operations, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Office of Water Standards and Applied Sciences Division. December 31, 1998. Page 28 of 81, [accessed through http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/guide/feedlots/envimpct.pdf, 1/15/11] 

[5] Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Perverse Food Subsidies, Social Responsibility &(and) America’s 2007 Farm Bill; Windham, Jodi Soyars . 31 Environs: Envtl. L. & Pol’y J. 1 (2007-2008)

[6] CRS Report  For Congress: Grazing Fees: An Overview and Current Issues. Carol Hardy Vincent: Specialist in Natural Resources Policy Resources, Science, and Industry Division. Order Code RS21232. Updated March 10, 2008. [Accessed through http://ncseonline.org/NLE/CRSreports/08Apr/RS21232.pdf on 1/23/11.]

[7] USDA beef industry statistics: http://www.ers.usda.gov/news/BSECoverage.htm [Accessed 1/22/11]

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