Beef Industry and Feeding the Planet

By: Christy Belton

I recently read a fantastically entertaining, often hilarious and totally eye opening book about one man’s self-challenge to raise enough food to sustain him for one month.  He converted his 800 square foot of backyard space into a mini farm/ranch in Brooklyn…New York.  He assumed the role of traditional farmer on a small scale and experienced many of the same challenges producers on all levels face. Although he was not dependent on his farm for his livelihood, not even part of it, he raised the question of how practical it would be to be truly self-sustaining.  He successfully answered the question, but you’ll have to read the book to find it out: My Empire of Dirt by Manny James.

This experiment is timely considering the increased emphasis society has placed on sustainability, the environment and healthy food.  The desire to know where your food comes from and the cost to the earth to produce it has resulted in great new technology that allows cattle operators to produce more beef on less land with less impact.  A study published in the December, 2011 Journal of Animal Science found that raising a pound of beef in the United States today uses 33% less land, 12% less water, 19% less feed and 9% less fossil fuel based energy than in 1977.  The resulting carbon footprint was also reduced by over 16% in that same time period.  As with most other competitive industries, the beef industry takes advantage of new technologies to increase profits.  By applying these advancements to their operations, farmers and ranchers have been able to raise more beef from fewer animals by maximizing resources while simultaneously reducing the impact to the environment.

beef industry

As I read the book, it became pretty evident that in spite of the fact that I help feed more than just my family, I never really considered what it takes to feed Earth’s inhabitants. The world population recently reached 7 billion and is expected to grow to 9.5 billion by 2050. As the demand for land and resources increases, the efficiency of a farm/ranch becomes increasingly critical. The beef industry is well positioned to meet growing consumption demands.  Beef is an important component of efficiently meeting nutrition needs for humans; it provides more than 10 percent of recommended value of 10 essential nutrients and vitamins for less than 10 percent of daily calories.  That’s a tremendous bang for the buck!

As demonstrated in the author’s experiment, raising food for human consumption is challenging regardless of whether it’s for one man, for one family, for a community or for a planet.  As the author so colorfully learned, “It’s one thing to know the farmer, it turns out—it’s another thing entirely to be the farmer.”  Next time you sit down to a nice steak you can feel good that you’re not only eating an excellent source of tasty and healthy vitamins and nutrients, but that you’re also supporting an industry committed to responsible, safe and sustainable food production.

Christy Belton is the 2012 President of the Routt County Cattlewomen.  She helps her husband raise cattle in the Elk River Valley.

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