Cattle grazing Amanda Radke

Research proves beef production nets positive use of natural resources

New research shows the net benefits of cattle production when considering natural resources used and the resulting protein source for human consumption.

The food choices our consumers make today are far different than those of previous decades. Instead of purchasing foods that are delicious, nutritious and affordable, many of today’s consumers feel compelled to make decisions based on noble causes. Ethics are closely tied to food, and we frequently see people ditch meat for ideologies based on perceived environmental impacts.

In making these choices, beef has been a longtime target. From the Meatless Mondays campaign to companies banning meat at the workplace, the message to consumers is clear — if you want to save the planet, eat less meat.

READ: Eat beef to benefit the planet

Of course, this message is based on poor science and personal vendettas against animal agriculture. And the resulting actions by consumers do very little to combat climate change or reduce greenhouse gas emissions, largely because they ignore the impacts of transportation and energy use when considering our daily consumption of natural resources.

The overarching theme of this messaging is you should feel guilty about eating a cheeseburger, but vegetables and fruits get a free pass. Ever consider how much water it takes to grow green beans or broccoli? Now factor in how much nutrition is derived from fruits or vegetables compared to beef, and it doesn’t seem like we’re getting the best bang for our buck.

A newly released whitepaper explores exactly this topic. Written by Jessica R. Baber, Jason E. Sawyer and Tryon A. Wickersham, representing Texas A&M’s Department of Animal Science, the report is titled, “Estimation of human-edible protein conversion efficiency, net protein contribution and enteric methane production from beef production.”

Here is an excerpt from the white paper that further explains the research: “Beef products are frequently maligned by consumers as a source of protein in human diets due to concerns surrounding feed-food competition, environment, or inefficient production systems. Low- quality proteins found within plant biomass and co-products are upcycled by cattle and converted into beef, a high-quality protein source for humans.

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“Understanding the protein quality of beef relative to other protein sources in human diets is essential to understanding the impacts of the beef value chain on human food supply. Beef products provide a more complete source of dietary protein (i.e., greater biological value) than plant sources, which contain insufficient levels of indispensable amino acids.”

In their research, Sawyer, Baber and Wickersham developed a model to estimate beef’s contribution toward meeting human protein requirements while also looking at net protein contribution and methane production. The net protein contribution was calculated by multiplying the human-edible protein in beef to the human edible protein in feedstuffs by the protein quality ratio, which describes the change in biological value of human-edible protein that occurs when plant-derived human-edible protein is converted to beef.

Without diving into the specific details of this research, the trio discovered that cow-calf production consumes the least amount of human-edible protein. That results in the greatest efficiency of human-edible protein conversion, which positively contributes to meeting human protein requirements.

The researchers concluded, “Mostly, methane and human-edible proteins were produced in the cow–calf sector, indicating that there are trade-offs between environmental costs and benefits of beef production. Of the three production phases evaluated, the feedlot sector competed the most with humans for human-edible protein and did not contribute more human-edible protein than consumed.

“However, as more human-edible protein was incorporated into feedlot diets, methane production was decreased. Despite relatively less efficient conversions of human-edible protein in the feedlot, this sector was still more efficient than non-ruminant systems that are typically reported to have more efficient feed conversion.

READ: How vegans got it wrong on cattle & climate change

“When evaluated as a whole, the beef value chain is a net contributor to the human-edible protein available for human consumption. Furthermore, the quality of the human-edible protein produced was enhanced throughout the beef value chain. The ability of cattle to upcycle protein from low quality to high quality allowed for these sectors to have a net protein consumption of greater than one.

“On the basis of the scenario of current industry diets and parameters, our results suggest that each individual beef sector and the entire beef value chain produce more high-quality human-edible protein than is consumed in production, as noted by a net protein consumption above one. The beef production system is a net contributor to the human protein supply and likely a more efficient converter than non-ruminant systems.”

This white paper was published by Oxford University Press on behalf to the American Society of Animal Science.

The complete study and results can be found here.

Now if the scientific jargon throws you off, the results are pretty clear — beef from the United States’ modern production model is an efficient use of natural resources that yields a net positive when it comes to feedstuffs consumed and the resulting protein-rich beef products that we can consume.

This is great news about today’s beef producers that is worth sharing and adds another layer to our story that proves cattlemen are natural conservationists and that cattle are an important part of the life cycle and the ecosystem.

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.

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