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ARS Home » Northeast Area » University Park, Pennsylvania » Pasture Systems & Watershed Management Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #397420

Research Project: Sustainable Intensification of Crop and Integrated Crop-Livestock Systems at Multiple Scales

Location: Pasture Systems & Watershed Management Research

Title: A comprehensive environmental assessment of beef production and consumption in the United States

item PUTMAN, BEN - Consultant
item Rotz, Clarence - Al
item THOMA, GREG - University Of Arkansas

Submitted to: Journal of Cleaner Production
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 3/10/2023
Publication Date: 3/15/2023
Citation: Putman, B., Rotz, C.A., Thoma, G. 2023. A comprehensive environmental assessment of beef production and consumption in the United States. Journal of Cleaner Production. 402:136766.

Interpretive Summary: Beef cattle production in the US has long been guided by efforts to increase productivity, decrease costs of production, and minimize environmental impacts. There is increasing public awareness and concern regarding the environmental effects of agriculture with particular interest in cattle production. A life cycle assessment of beef was conducted to determine the total impacts from the production of resources used through consumption and the waste created for a comprehensive set of environmental impact categories. For many of these categories, electricity consumption across the supply chain was a substantial driver of environmental impact. Food loss and waste were major contributors to all categories making waste one of the greatest impacts for environmental sustainability. This highlights the importance of engaging the full supply chain in understanding the impacts of the industry. This assessment establishes a current profile for the environmental sustainability of US beef which provides a baseline to quantify potential national benefits as mitigation strategies are developed and implemented.

Technical Abstract: Life cycle assessments have been completed documenting the environmental sustainability of beef, but these studies have focused on cattle production with an emphasis on global warming potential and sometimes included a couple other impact categories. A need exists for a full life cycle assessment of beef production through consumption in the United States for a more complete and comprehensive environmental assessment. Process level simulation of archetypical cattle production systems throughout the nation were combined with information gathered for harvest, processing, retail, and consumption of beef to provide inventory data for a full cradle-to-grave life cycle assessment. A set of 18 environmental impact categories were quantified, and important sources of each were identified. In 13 of the categories, the major sources of impact were related to cattle production, and for 10 of these categories, cattle production and related upstream sources contributed more than half of the total impact. These categories were fine particulate matter, global warming, land use, mineral resource scarcity, ozone formation, stratospheric ozone depletion, terrestrial acidification, and water consumption. Categories where most of the impact occurred post farmgate were fossil resource scarcity, freshwater ecotoxicity, freshwater eutrophication, human carcinogenic toxicity, human non-carcinogenic toxicity, ionizing radiation, marine ecotoxicity, and terrestrial ecotoxicity. Mitigation strategies for reducing these environmental impacts were normally specific to the impact category. Because electricity use is an important contributor to many of the potential impacts throughout the full chain, reducing electricity use is an important mitigation strategy. A major contributor to all impact categories was food loss and waste. A 50% reduction in food waste by the consumer resulted in an across-the-board reduction of approximately 11% in each of the impact categories. This overall impact makes waste reduction one of the most important strategies for improving the environmental sustainability of beef. This assessment provides a current baseline for evaluating mitigation strategies and measuring future improvements in sustainability for the beef industry.