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The beef industry has big climate impacts. A new plan lays out a more sustainable path

The U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef has released a wide ranging plan to reach more sustainable practices to raise and produce beef.
Kristofor Husted
Harvest Public Media
The U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef has released a plan to reach more sustainable practices to raise and produce beef.

A coalition of groups ranging from beef producers and processors to environmental interests have laid out a collection of goals and action items to make raising cattle more sustainable and less taxing on the environment.

The U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef released the planlast week, after working on it for years.

Beef cattle are responsible for 18% of methane emissions in the U.S., and the U.K. climate change website Carbon Brief reports that’s twice as much as lamb, the next most polluting meat, accounts for.

The roundtable’s plan sets a goal of making the U.S. beef supply chain neutral by 2040. The group says one way to do that is to change pasture management to include more grasses that do a good job of carbon sequestration.

“More grass, better grass on the pastures will lead to more carbon in the soil. Then the soil is healthier and is enriched. The plants are healthier and the diversity is better,” said Steve Wooten, chair of the roundtable and president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. “It just makes good sense to do these kinds of things.”

While the plan does have the support of many in the beef industry, all of the goals and action items are voluntary. Wooten said the intent is to do the right thing while also letting the industry determine the best course of action instead of waiting for federal regulations to be established.

“We need to get out ahead of this and wrestle with errant greenhouse gas emissions – take it apart and figure out what you’re able to do to improve the situation overall,” Wooten said.

The wide-ranging plan also addresses land use, water resources, employee safety and animal health and welfare.

Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, a former chair of the roundtable and currently a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, said she supports the goals but adds there needs to be more science behind such efforts.

“I’m frustrated by the absolute lack of funding to research this and to develop solutions that are actually scalable on the landscape,” she said. “We haven’t had funding to look at enteric methane mitigation from federal dollars since 2010.”

The roundtable is offering free resources to help meet the plan’s goals, including sustainability modules and resource toolkits specific to different parts of the industry.

But the plan hasn’t escaped criticism.

The website EcoWatch called “sustainable beef” an “oxymoron.” While the environmental group lauded the roundtable for its efforts, EcoWatch officials said it was not realistic to think changes in practices could make up for the damage to the environment.

“The vast amount of resources it takes to produce enough beef for the country on a commercial scale will never truly be sustainable,” EcoWatch stated.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM.

Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.