Industry News - AM

Sustainable beef presents challenges and opportunities

By Tom Johnston on 11/9/2022

DENVER — The challenges threatening the future sustainability of beef production are daunting, though efforts that beef producers have already made within the past decade provide examples of scalable success.

In setting the stage for the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef’s (GRSB) Global Conference here, Jason Weller, global chief sustainability officer at JBS, asked the audience to let this notion sink in: In order to feed an estimated global population of 10 billion people by 2050, the world’s food production system will have to produce as many calories in the next 30 years as it did in the preceding 10,000 years.

And they’ll have to do so with less arable land and while also reducing climate-changing carbon dioxide levels from their current all-time highs — a challenge that policy makers, business investors and consumers expect producers to meet.

“Feeding a world of 10 billion people, sustainably, is our call to action,” Weller said. “We must produce [more] with less, stewarding our businesses and natural resources for generations to come.”

The way forward, Weller said, are united and noncompetitive consortiums like GRSB that bring together a gamut of supply chain stakeholders to identify problem areas, find solutions, set targets, and measure and report progress.

“The reason why I’m optimistic is because we’ve done this before,” Weller said, explaining that the industry already has the tools and abilities to address each of livestock production’s sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Key to these efforts will be improving soil health, he said.

A primary example of large-scale success is that 2,300 ranchers, partnering with government and conservation groups, conserved 8.5 million acres of the sage brush biome in the Mountain West over the past 10 years. It’s become a high-functioning ecosystem to more than 350 animal species, and the cow is one of the indicator species of the health of that ecosystem, Weller said.

“The industry [has] shown how to do this at scale,” he said.

Meanwhile, Peter Byck, an Arizona State University professor of sustainability and journalism, presented some promising data associated with his documentary “Roots So Deep (you can see the devil down there).” In that project, which began 10 years ago, scientists studied the differences of adaptive multi-paddock (AMP) and conventional cattle grazing farms in terms of their effectiveness in sequestering carbon. 

Comparing five pairs of AMP and conventional farms in four Southeastern states, the team already has found primarily that AMP farms can capture 13% more carbon and 9% more nitrogen than conventional grazing farms. Byck enumerated a number of other significant advantages AMP farming has over conventional that aren’t yet publicly available.

The researchers also are awaiting results on methane and nitrous oxide, but Byck said results thus far give confidence that AMP farming can sink greenhouse gases on a large scale.

“I sound like a salesman, but I’m not a salesman,” Byck said. “I’m trying to think of pathways to make the planet a more resilient and better place to live. And I’m an advocate for farmers; I want them to make a living and not be in debt.”

Byck noted how farmers are among the most susceptible to die by suicide, because of debt.

“Let’s fix that,” he said. “Nature is the way to fix that.”

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