Can US beef production be ‘sustainable’? A model for ‘sustainable’ US beef productionLeave a Comment
Nov 29 2017 Background blog perspective on this publication here
- We are not saying grass based beef is sustainable, or unsustainable, we are just asking “suppose it is sustainable, how much can the U.S. have?”
- Can US beef be sustainable? Depends on your metric of “sustainability”. We offer one preliminary, tentative metric of “sustainability”, and show that with beef conforming to this metric, we can meet just shy of half of today’s demand.
- Because we believe land use must rationally balance food production, wildlife conservation and ample supply of clean fresh water, among other societal objectives, we devise our main calculation so as to provide not a single answer to the above question, but instead a continuous beef availability function that spans the full range of pastureland utilization from no grazing to full occupation of the pastureland area U.S beef currently use, ≈275 million ha.
- In the latter most extreme case, we can have just under half of current beef supply. Amazingly (and somewhat less certainly), cutting used pastureland to half the current area will diminish this amount only trivially.
- Is this beef sustainable? Since agricultural sustainability is yet to be generally and cogently defined, the question is ill-defined and currently unanswerable. But we doubt that by the definition we will eventfully rally behind, using 2.7 million square km—about the size of Argentina or Kazakhstan—to produce 16 g protein person-1 d-1 (or 13% of the overall per capita daily protein intake of 120 g) while jeopardizing already imperiled wildlife or degrading western hydrology and fluvial geomorphology will prove sustainable. This doubt is what the quotes enclosing the title’s “sustainable” mean.
Eshol, G et al. A model for ‘sustainable’ US beef production. Nature Ecology & Evolution (2017) doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0390-5
ABSTRACT: Food production dominates land, water and fertilizer use and is a greenhouse gas source. In the United States, beef production is the main agricultural resource user overall, as well as per kcal or g of protein. Here, we offer a possible, non-unique, definition of ‘sustainable’ beef as that subsisting exclusively on grass and by-products, and quantify its expected US production as a function of pastureland use. Assuming today’s pastureland characteristics, all of the pastureland that US beef currently use can sustainably deliver ≈45% of current production. Rewilding this pastureland’s less productive half (≈135 million ha) can still deliver ≈43% of current beef production. In all considered scenarios, the ≈32 million ha of high-quality cropland that beef currently use are reallocated for plant-based food production. These plant items deliver 2- to 20-fold more calories and protein than the replaced beef and increase the delivery of protective nutrients, but deliver no B12. Increased deployment of rapid rotational grazing or grassland multi-purposing may increase beef production capacity.