An Agricultural Research Service (ARS)-led team has completed a comprehensive life-cycle analysis quantifying the resource use and environmental emissions of beef cattle production in the U.S. The aim is to establish baseline measures that the beef industry can use to explore ways of reducing its environmental footprint and improve sustainability.

“The environmental footprint of producing beef has long been debated. One challenge is that the impacts extend beyond just those associated with growing the animals and include the impact of producing feed and other inputs. This is further complicated by the diversity of ways that beef cattle are managed and fed,” said Marlen Eve, ARS deputy administrator for natural resources and sustainable agricultural systems. “It is important to have an accurate quantification of these impacts to provide a baseline against which production system sustainability can be assessed and improved.”

Led by ARS Agricultural Engineer Alan Rotz, the team’s analysis encompassed different types of cattle operations, spanned five years and seven cattle-producing regions, and used data from 2,270 nationwide survey responses and site visits. The team, which began its beef life-cycle analysis in 2013, also includes Senorpe Asem-Hiablie, a former ARS research associate; Greg Thoma of the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville; and Sara Place with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which is partially funding the study. Among the results to emerge thus far:

  • The seven regions’ combined beef cattle production accounted for 3.3% of all U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. By comparison, transportation and electricity generation together made up 56% of the total in 2016 and 9% of agriculture in general.
  • Fossil-energy (e.g., fuel) use in cattle production accounted for less than 1% of the total consumed nationally.
  • Cattle only consumed 2.6 pounds of grain per pound of beef-cut weight (butchered-carcass weight), which was comparable to pork and poultry.
  • Beef operations in the Northwest and Southern Plains had the highest total water use (60% combined) of the seven regions analyzed. Irrigating crops to produce feed for cattle accounted for 96% of total water use across all the regions.

“We found that the greenhouse gas emissions in our analysis were not all that different from what other credible studies had shown and were not a significant contributor to long-term global warming,” Rotz said.

The purpose of the analysis was to systematically measure the use of fuel, feed, forage, electricity, water, fertilizer, and other inputs to raise beef cattle throughout the country — from birth to slaughter.

As such, two areas for potential improvement are water use and reactive nitrogen losses. Water use is increased in the West where U.S. beef cattle are concentrated. Reactive nitrogen losses (at 1.4 teragrams or 15% of the U.S. total), mainly in the form of ammonia, can lead to such issues as smog, acid rain, and algal blooms and potentially pose a public health concern.

Using the Integrated Farm System Model, the team also estimated net releases of reactive forms of nitrogen such as ammonia from manure and urine, as well as the three major greenhouse gases (methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide). This analysis will be combined with postharvest data from other sectors of the beef supply chain (i.e., processing, packing, distribution, retail, consumption, and waste handling), using the open-source life-cycle assessment program OpenLCA. Together, these data will be used to generate a national assessment of the beef industry’s resource use, economics, net losses of GHG, and other emissions, providing a tool for sustainably producing beef as a source of lean protein and nutrients.

The first of two sets of study results were published in the January 2019 issue of Agricultural Systems.

Source: USDA ARS, Jan Suszkiw, Public Affairs Specialist


Olivier Le Moal | AdobeStock

Food and Ag Hold Critical Role in Feeding the Economy

A newly released, nationwide economic impact study, Feeding the Economy, has found that more than one-fifth of the U.S. economy is linked, directly or indirectly, to the food and agriculture sectors.

Further, it found that more than one-fourth of all American jobs are similarly connected. Commissioned by a group of 23 food and agriculture organizations, the research found that, with direct output of $2,819.79 billion, the sector has a total economic impact of $7.06 trillion.

To measure the total economic impact of the sectors, the analysis also included the indirect and induced economic activity surrounding these industries, which captures upstream and downstream activity. For example, when a farm equipment retailer hires new employees because farmers are buying more tractors, experts consider the new salaries as an indirect impact. Similarly, when a retail associate spends her paycheck, an induced economic impact occurs. Together, these impacts have a multiplier effect on the direct impact of food and agriculture.

Those direct and total impacts of the sector are shown in the table to the right.

“While more and more Americans are becoming interested in the food they eat, we must ensure they know the value of what farmers and ranchers do,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts. “Everyone can benefit from knowing of the great contributions of agriculture to our economy, to our rural communities, to our security, to our culture and yes, to our natural resources.”

The report was sponsored by organizations from all sectors of the food industry: American Bakers Association (ABA), American Beverage Association (ABA), American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI), American Soybean Association (ASA), Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), Corn Refiners Association (CRA), Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), Food Marketing Institute (FMI), North American Meat Institute (NAMI), National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA), National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG), National Chicken Council (NCC), National Confectioners Association (NCA), National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), National Grocers Association (NGA), North American Millers Association (NAMA), National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA), National Restaurant Association (NRA), SNAC International, The Fertilizer Institute (TFI), The Sugar Association (TSA), United Fresh Produce Association (UFFVA), National Chicken Council (NCC), National Confectioners Association (NCA), National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), National Grocers Association (NGA), North American Millers Association (NAMA), National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA), National Restaurant Association (NRA), SNAC International, The Fertilizer Institute (TFI), The Sugar Association (TSA), United Fresh Produce Association (UFFVA).

The full report is available here.
Africa Studio | Adobestock

UF Scientists Seek Vanilla Varieties For U.S. Cultivation

The U.S. leads the world in imported vanilla beans, but with about 80% of the world’s vanilla grown in Madagascar, which lies thousands of miles from the companies that buy vanilla beans and convert them to extract, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) scientists are trying to develop new vanilla varieties to grow in Florida.

Led by Alan Chambers, assistant professor of tropical fruit breeding and genetics, and Elias Bassil, assistant professor of plant stress physiology, both of the Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead, Fla., the team established a vanilla collection with 112 potentially unique individual plants.

These individuals create the basis from which to select the best plant for commercialization and genes needed to produce ideal vanilla varieties through conventional breeding, Chambers said. With the new findings, researchers can see which types of vanilla grow best in Florida and which might have useful genetics for plant breeding.

In their research, scientists also constructed a “draft genome” of vanilla DNA, a basic version of all of the DNA in vanilla. For vanilla, this includes functions such as how to make leaves or roots, how the plant responds to pathogens and how the plants make the aroma of the beans, Chambers said. Describing their findings and the implications in simple terms, he said, “If a genome was a car, a draft genome would be a basic vehicle with no frills — no radio, no air conditioning, no power windows. It does some things just fine, like getting you to work. The next step is to go from the basic vehicle to a luxury sports car. So, while it’s only a draft genome, it’s a great resource for the scientific community.”

Some surprises from this study included the identification of vanilla hybrids between different species, Chambers said. In the U.S. and Europe, extract from only two types of beans (vanilla planifolia and Tahitian vanilla) can be labeled as vanilla extract. This study identifies those individual plants that would fall within these labeling requirements and allow a grower to access premium markets within the current regulatory framework.

Chambers envisions specialty market opportunities for South Florida farmers who want to grow vanilla. “Alternatively, the identified hybrids could represent a unique branding opportunity if a grower wants to produce something unique in all the world,” Chambers said. “These hybrids will most likely have distinct aromas and disease resistance. Now we can focus on a handful of promising vanilla types to accelerate our objective to bring vanilla cultivation in Florida one step closer to reality.”

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports and is available here.

Source: Newsroom, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences


ASA Earth Observatory, Joshua Stevens
A phytoplankton bloom off the Atlantic Coast.

Efforts To Reduce Carbon Emissions Could Sacrifice Water Quality

Strategies for limiting climate change must take into account their potential impact on water quality through nutrient overload, because some efforts at reducing carbon emissions could increase the risk of water quality impairments. This, according to a new study from Carnegie’s Eva Sinha and Anna Michalak, published by Nature Communications.

Rainfall and other precipitation wash nutrients from human activities, such as agriculture, into waterways, and when these get overloaded with nutrients, a dangerous phenomenon called eutrophication can occur. This can sometimes lead to toxin-producing algal blooms or low-oxygen dead zones (hypoxia).

For several years, Sinha and Michalak have been studying the effects of nitrogen runoff and the ways that expected changes in rainfall patterns due to climate change could lead to severe water quality impairments. In this latest work, they analyzed how an array of different societal decisions about land use, development, agriculture, and climate mitigation could affect the already complex equation of projecting future risks to water quality throughout the continental U.S. They then factored in how climate change-related differences in precipitation patterns would contribute to this overall water-quality risk.

The researchers found that climate change mitigation efforts that rely heavily on biofuels could have the unintended consequence of increasing the amount of nitrogen entering U.S. waterways, causing water-quality problems. Scenarios that required a large expansion of domestic food production would fare even worse, they said, by increasing both fossil fuel emissions and water-quality problems.

But win-win solutions are possible. “It is entirely possible to fight climate change in ways that don’t have unintended consequences for water quality,” Michalak said. “We need an approach that takes multiple benefits into account in the planning process.”

The most successful scenarios considered in the study relied on sustainable growth and conservation. Looking at regional differences within the U.S., Sinha and Michalak found that the impact of excess nitrogen due to both land-management decisions and climate change-related precipitation changes would be the strongest in the Northeast. Globally, Asia would be at the greatest risk of eutrophication due to projected increases in fertilizer use and anticipated precipitation increases.

The full study is available here.

Source: Newsroom, Carnegie Institution for Science