Eliminating technologies from beef production may have negative environmental effects

October 11, 2012

A study published in the Journal of Animal Science examines the consequences if U.S. farmers and ranchers no longer used productivity-enhancing technologies to raise beef cattle.

The researchers used a deterministic model based on the metabolism and nutrient requirements of the beef population to quantify resource inputs and waste outputs per 454 x 106 kg of beef. Two production systems were compared—one using growth-enhancing technologies (GET; steroid implants, in-feed ionophores, in-feed hormones, and beta-adrenergic agonists) where approved by the FDA at current adoption rates; the other without GET use. Both systems were modeled using characteristic management practices, population dynamics, and production data from U.S. beef systems. The economic impact and global trade and carbon implications of GET withdrawal were calculated based on feed savings.

This research, which also was presented at the 2012 American Society of Animal Science annual meeting, found that discontinuing use of U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved technologies would create sobering unintended consequences. To produce the same amount of U.S. beef annually without using these technologies, U.S. farmers and ranchers would need 10 million more beef cattle, 81 million more tons of feed, 17 million more acres of land, and 138 billion more gallons of water. In addition, 18 million extra metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent would be released in the United States alone.

“These effects are equivalent to imposing an 8.2% tax on U.S. beef farmers and ranchers, leading to a 17% reduction in U.S beef production by 2023,” said Jude Capper, Washington State University. “In turn, other countries would increase beef exports. Environmentally, this would mean the release of 3.1 billion more metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, and the destruction of 16.9 million acres of Amazon Rainforest and forests in the West Central Cerrado regions of Brazil. The bottom line is that losing the ability to use safe, approved technologies will create significant environmental and economic challenges that are undesirable and unnecessary.”