Measuring Sustainable Beef Production

The term “sustainability" means different things to different people, so before we can make sustainability claims, or demonstrate progress toward sustainability goals, we need objective measurements.

With that in mind, the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB), which launched in 2015, set goal for identifying high-priority indicators in 2016 and developing sustainability metrics in 2017. Following the recent USRSB conference in Kansas City, the group released its summary of metrics and indicators for sustainable production up and down the beef value chain.

The process has focused on six high-priority indicators, with metrics for measurement tailored to each production sector, such as cow-calf, auction markets, feeders, packers and retailers. The six indicators are:

  • Animal health and well-being
  • Efficiency and yield
  • Water resources
  • Land resources
  • Air and greenhouse gas emissions
  • Employee safety and well-being

The metrics for each indicator tend to focus on efforts toward improvement, rather than specific numeric goals, especially those for the producer segments. For cow-calf producers for example, under “Water resources,” the report asks whether a grazing management plan (or equivalent) that maintains or improves water resources is implemented. For “animal health and well-being it asks whether Beef Quality Assurance or similar program principles are incorporated into management of the farm or ranch.

For the packer/processor and retailer/foodservice sectors, the metrics are somewhat more detailed, each with three levels of compliance reflecting a scale of commitment to goals and documentation of results.

For 2018, USRSB has listed a goal for developing Sustainability Assessment Guides directly tied to each metric and high-priority indicator. These guiding documents intend to assist sustainability efforts by providing site-level assessment tools, decision support systems, resources and materials. Once those guides are complete, the USRSB will solicit public comment on its entire program inclusive of the high priority indicators, metrics and sustainability assessment guides. Beginning in 2019, USRSB’s efforts will focus more on outreach and education, including member-led pilot projects to demonstrate applicability of the program’s resources. The USRSB plans to continue using ongoing “life-cycle assessment” research to assess progress and adapt the indicators and metrics toward continuous improvement.

The report’s authors note a need for animal identification as a tool for measuring success and improvements in sustainability. The organization embraces a goal of animal identification “for purposes of disease traceability, herd security, consumer confidence, quality improvement, international market access, and a means to participate in supply chain programs that can offer value-added benefits.” Those goals exceed the intent of the current national Animal Disease Traceability (ADT) program, which focuses exclusively on traceability as a tool for mitigating disease outbreaks.

Read the summary report here.