Myriah Johnson, Ph.D., senior director of beef sustainability research at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, spoke recently at the NCBA Winter Reboot about analyzing beef’s sustainability and conveying that message to the public.
“In thinking about how to feed people, there’s a desire to be able to do that in a way that doesn’t just destroy everything we have, but that is sustainable so we can keep going for generations in the future,” Johnson said. “The fundamental value proposition of beef is strong because we are able to take those lower value resources, like grasses that you and I can’t eat and turn those into a very high-quality protein that is absolutely delicious, but also provides us with micronutrients that we need and a whole host of ancillary products.”
Johnson said sustainability is difficult to define and if 20 people were pulled off the street and asked for a definition, there would be 20 different answers. However, within those answers there would be some general themes that would stand out. There are three pillars to sustainability, which consist of social, environmental and economic.
“I think it is really important for us to remember that sustainability is comprised of all three of those; however, a lot of times we really just focus on the environmental pillar,” Johnson explained. “When we or others just focus on one pillar, we’re missing a lot. With sustainability, if we can view it in a holistic manner and focus on all three pillars it really helps us to capture all the nuances that occur in the industry and to understand the tradeoffs that may exist.”
Within each layer of sustainability, there are depths that come with each individual pillar. Johnson said the elements of economic sustainably that quickly come to mind are financial benchmarking, passing the ranch from one generation to the next, tax contributions, donation, job creation and economic growth. Some elements of economic sustainability that are not considered as often are the ability to support a defined level of economic production, supporting other businesses and reducing poverty in rural communities.
According to Johnson, some of the more familiar components of social sustainability are the fact that beef is a source of nutrient rich, high-quality protein, it creates job opportunities, worker safety and animal health and safety. Some of the less talked about elements of social sustainability include maintaining or improving prosperity, safety, health and food security, enhancing rural livelihoods, participation in the community, community resilience, minimizing risk, maximizing transparency and ensuring effective stakeholder participation, safe and decent work environment, labor rights, cultural preservation and recreation.
Environmental sustainability includes biodiversity, carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services, like water purification, fire mitigation, soil health, wildlife habitats and weed control.
“Environmental sustainability is the most talked about of the three pillars and is the one that gets spotlighted in the news the most often, especially around methane and land use, but there is much more to the environmental pillar than just those two pieces,” Johnson said.
Unfortunately, sustainability is not very quantifiable and there is not grading scale, making it rather subjective. Because of this, the beef industry must prove its sustainability with justifiable research and facts.
“There is really no one way we measure sustainability or an end-all, be-all analysis that gives us all the answers, but there is a number of methodologies that we can engage in that will give us a different view of sustainability,” Johnson explained.
Johnson recommends conducting an economic analysis to provide facts backing up the beef industry’s sustainability factors.
“With this we’re trying to capture all the ways in which beef influences our economy and how we help drive growth,” she said.
Some examples of the gross contributions the analysis measures include: value of sales, jobs, employee compensation and value added within the beef industry.
“There are also ripple effects from the beef industry that we like to measure, which are known as base contributions,” she explained. “Base contributions give credit to the beef industry for bringing in new dollars into the region and moving product from one region of the country to another.”
Another area measured is export support, which represents the economic activity not related to the direct production of beef, but includes the value of beef products used as inputs for the production of good for export by other industries within the region. NCBA recently completed an economic impact assessment of the United States beef industry to analyze beef cattle on-farm production and post-farm harvest and processing activities to determine their roles in driving economic growth or maintaining the current economy through the support of local economies. The outcome quantified the economic contribution of the U.S. beef industry to the country as a whole and to the seven U.S. production regions.
According to Johnson, the report found that the beef industry produces approximately 27.155 billion pounds of beef annually, which provides 144 billion servings of beef and the U.S. beef production and processing contributed $167 billion in gross sales. Additionally, sales from the U.S. beef industry support a labor force of more than 721,400 workers, generating $10.8 billion in wages and the industry generated $30 billion in total value added to the economy. The facts and figures gathered from reports like these give measurable data to support the elements of each pillar, allowing the beef industry to make their undeniable case for sustainability.
Lacey Newlin can be reached at 620-227-1871 or firstname.lastname@example.org.