NCBA CEO: Looking to solve the world’s food system woes? U.S. cattle producers are the answer.

| September 24, 2021

Op-Ed by NCBA CEO Colin Woodall

Sustainability has always been a central component of cattle production in the United States. Multigenerational farms and ranches across the country pass on knowledge and management practices that ensure successful businesses rely on the health our natural resources. Cattle farmers and ranchers work tirelessly to protect the land, water and air resources in their care. Through countless improvements in genetics, grazing management, manure handling and the adoption of many other technologies, sustainability remains at the core of our industry.

It’s easy to consider the three legs of sustainability – environmental stewardship, economic viability and social duty – without considering their relation to each other, especially when developing policy. But the pillars of a sustainable farm, supply chain or global food system cannot be considered in silos.  Addressing our global concerns in the spotlight of this week’s U.N. Food Systems Summit – food security, nutrition and climate change, require a holistic, integrated approach. Cattle production in the United States can play a central role to addressing these worldwide issues if farmers and ranchers have the freedom and resources to implement innovative solutions.

This year, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association solidified U.S. cattle producers’ commitment to environmental, economic and social sustainability with the announcement of U.S. cattle industry sustainability goals. By setting goals, the cattle industry is publicly committing to continuous improvement and setting targets that allow us to measure and document those efforts.

Beef producers in the United States are already the global leader in sustainable beef production. In fact, beef cattle only account for 2% of greenhouse gases in the U.S., according to the EPA. Since 1996, the U.S. has had the lowest GHG emissions of any beef supply chain in the world. The goals for the U.S. cattle industry include:

  • Demonstrate climate neutrality of U.S. cattle production by 2040.
  • Create and enhance opportunities that result in a quantifiable increase in producer profitability and economic sustainability by 2025.
  • Enhance trust in cattle producers as responsible stewards of their animals and resources by expanding educational opportunities in animal care and handling programs to further improve animal well-being. 
  • Continuously improve our industry's workforce safety and well-being.
The U.S. beef supply chain is well on its way to achieving our climate neutrality goal, having reduced emissions per pound of beef by more than 40% since 1961. But closing the gap will require access to the most accurate and up-to-date science, while simultaneously ensuring that the management and conservation of our grasslands is economically viable for landowners. In many states across the country, ranchers are the last line of defense against eager developers. With every new parking lot and building, we lose valuable grass, trees and soil that store carbon. Ruminant grazing is not only a necessary income stream for families across rural America, but also increases grassland carbon storage potential.

Economic viability of farms and ranches and the preservation of nature and greenspace truly go hand-in-hand. We can’t achieve climate neutrality if cattle ranching is not an economically viable enterprise. Our economic sustainability goal seeks to ensure that all cattle producers can participate in a favorable business climate. Farms and ranches are businesses, and cattle producers cannot afford to see their operations choked out by burdensome regulations and tax policies that harm the generational transfer of these family businesses. If the work of Congress and this administration harm the financial sustainability of farms and ranches, we lose vital grasslands and any progress made by the industry is moot.

Cattle producers’ priority – the foundation of their operations – is the health and wellbeing of the animals in their care. NCBA’s ongoing commitment to ensuring the highest standards of animal care is the foundation of our formalized social sustainability goal. The Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program’s guidelines, in combination with experience and environment-specific needs, help farmers and ranchers ensure animal welfare through daily husbandry and animal care. As we consider the long-term sustainability of global livestock production, BQA can provide a blueprint for producer education and quality assurance.

The shared story of U.S. cattle farmers and ranchers is one of perpetual innovation and improvement. Cattle are key to preserving land, sequestering carbon, mitigating drought and wildfires, and providing wildlife habitat. With these goals in mind, U.S. cattle production is a holistic and sustainable solution to the food system issues at top of mind around the globe.