A model for ‘sustainable’ US beef production

Abstract

Food production dominates land, water and fertilizer use and is a greenhouse gas source. In the United States, beef production is the main agricultural resource user overall, as well as per kcal or g of protein. Here, we offer a possible, non-unique, definition of ‘sustainable’ beef as that subsisting exclusively on grass and by-products, and quantify its expected US production as a function of pastureland use. Assuming today’s pastureland characteristics, all of the pastureland that US beef currently use can sustainably deliver ≈45% of current production. Rewilding this pastureland’s less productive half (≈135 million ha) can still deliver ≈43% of current beef production. In all considered scenarios, the ≈32 million ha of high-quality cropland that beef currently use are reallocated for plant-based food production. These plant items deliver 2- to 20-fold more calories and protein than the replaced beef and increase the delivery of protective nutrients, but deliver no B12. Increased deployment of rapid rotational grazing or grassland multi-purposing may increase beef production capacity.

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Fig. 1: Per-capita weekly availability of ‘sustainable’ beef as a function of the utilized fraction f of current beef pastureland (approximately 0.3 billion ha).
Fig. 2: Alternative per-capita food energy and protein delivery associated with reallocating the ≈32 million high-quality ha currently used to produce crop-based feed for US beef cattle to the shown alternatives.
Fig. 3: Nutritional consequences of producing 'sustainable' beef (that use only industrial by-products and the full pastureland currently used by beef; that is, at f = 1) and the associated reallocation of cropland (currently used for producing feed for beef) to each of the shown alternatives.
Fig. 4: Resource savings associated with beef cropland reallocation to the shown plant- and animal-based alternatives.

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Acknowledgements

R.M. and E.S. are supported by the European Research Council (project NOVCARBFIX 646827); the Israel Science Foundation (grant no. 740/16); Beck-Canadian Center for Alternative Energy Research; Dana and Yossie Hollander; R.M. holds the Charles and Louise Gartner professional chair.

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G.E., A.S., R.M., S.G., D.G. and M.E.R. initiated the study. G.E. compiled the data, conducted all analyses, produced the graphics and wrote the paper. R.M. edited an initial draft. G.E., A.S., T.S., B.D.C., S.G., D.G., M.E.R. and R.M. edited and commented on subsequent drafts and discussed the results.

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Correspondence to Gidon Eshel or Ron Milo.

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Eshel, G., Shepon, A., Shaket, T. et al. A model for ‘sustainable’ US beef production. Nat Ecol Evol 2, 81–85 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-017-0390-5

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