A good hamburger is as American as apple pie and baseball. But unlike apple pie and baseball, hamburgers create challenges with the environment. In 2018, Americans consumed 12.6 million metric tons of beef, accounting for more than one-fifth of the world’s total. It takes a lot of cattle to satisfy the country’s appetite for beef, and those cattle need a lot of land. Last year, the U.S. had nearly 95 million head of cattle that used up roughly half of the country’s agricultural acreage. While herd size fluctuates from year to year, it is not by much. All of these cows have an impact on the environment, primarily through grazing, methane emissions and the machinery and transportation needed to produce and distribute beef through the supply chain.
Notably, the beef industry has taken steps to reduce its carbon footprint and adopt more sustainable practices. Much of this work has been spearheaded by the Integrity Beef Sustainability Pilot Project, established three years ago by the Noble Research Institute, Integrity Beef Alliance, Beef Marketing Group, Tyson Foods, Golden State Foods and McDonald’s.
For two years the project has tracked cattle throughout their life cycle – “from birth to burger,” as the Noble Research Institute describes. A total of 36 cow-calf producers are involved in the program, and more than 4,300 calves have been tracked. These calves produced more than 3.5 million pounds of beef worth about $6 million, while the producers themselves manage more than 92,000 acres.
Self-assessment tools were made available for each of the production segments in the beef industry, from ranchers to retailers. Each segment’s assessment included questions about specific management practices related to metrics developed by the United States Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB). The tools were designed to let producers benchmark their current sustainability practices and make improvements over time.
One rancher at the forefront of the movement is Meredith Ellis of Rosston, Texas, who manages 200 mother cows across 3,000 acres along with her father, G.C. Ellis, and ranch manager Mike Knabe. About two-thirds of the Ellis family’s acreage includes trees and native grasslands, with the other 1,000 acres devoted to pasture areas for the cattle. To prevent soil erosion and invasive species, Ellis has shied away from cutting down trees, planting cash crops, or increasing the ranch’s herd size – even though doing so would have made financial sense.
“The benefit of increasing your herd size just does not outweigh the cost,” Ellis told the Dallas Observer. “We haven’t done any clearing on our land. It works incredibly well.”
Ellis and other farmers and ranchers have allied with groups like the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium to take proactive steps toward sustainability. Among other projects, the consortium – led by Executive Director Debbie Reed – is working on an innovative trading system that matches farmers with corporations.
Under this system, corporations can earn carbon credits, while farmers can charge money for storing carbon on their land. A carbon credit is basically a permit that lets companies emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide and other forms of greenhouse gas. With one credit, a company can emit a mass equal to one ton of carbon dioxide. Corporate members of the consortium include agri-business heavyweights Bunge and Cargill and high-profile food companies like General Mills and Land O’Lakes. Other members include the National Farmers Union, American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Reed expects a 2022 rollout for the credit trading system for carbon, water quality and water quantity.
Ellis told the Dallas Observer that the consortium “is a huge leap forward” in terms of reducing carbon footprints at ranches and farms. One advantage for ranchers is that their soil retains moisture more efficiently, helping to produce vegetation during droughts and lessen the need for hay to feed cattle and other livestock.
“If you buy beef in North America, it will be from a ranch that has carbon numbers attached to it that says this ranch is sequestering this many tons of carbon annually,” Ellis said.
Efforts are also underway to manage grazing and minimize emissions. Instead of letting cattle graze grass and vegetation down to the soil – which releases carbon and creates soil erosion that can pollute waterways – Reed’s program calls for ranchers to let cattle graze in one pasture and then move to another pasture so the first one can recover.
Meanwhile, ranchers and farmers are also taking a more active role in the legislative arena. One of the leaders in this movement is Zippy Duvall, a rancher and farmer in Georgia who also serves as AFBF president. Duvall says his industry should be “at the table” when Congress meets to discuss resolutions such as the Green New Deal, which would overhaul both the transportation and agriculture industries as part of an effort to reach net-zero emissions within the next decade.
The AFBF and other farming organizations, under the banner of a new group called Farmers for a Sustainable Future, met with members of Congress earlier this year to discuss climate policy, sustainability and climate issues.
“We’re here in the House Agriculture Committee room because we know discussions around climate policy are ramping up,” Duvall said in an interview with Roll Call. “The House and Senate Agriculture committees will play a real important role in the days to come.”