Purpose: The need to assess the sustainability attributes of the United States beef industry is underscored by its importance to food security locally and globally. A life cycle assessment (LCA) of the US beef value chain was conducted to develop baseline information on the environmental impacts of the industry including metrics of the cradle-to-farm gate (feed production, cow-calf, and feedlot operations) and post-farm gate (packing, case-ready, retail, restaurant, and consumer) segments.
Methods: Cattle production (cradle-to-farm gate) data were obtained using the integrated farm system model (IFSM) supported with production data from the Roman L. Hruska US Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC). Primary data for the packing and case-ready phases were obtained from packers that jointly processed nearly 60% of US beef while retail and restaurant primary data represented 8 and 6%, respectively, of each sector. Consumer data were obtained from public databases and literature. The functional unit or consumer benefit (CB) was 1 kg of consumed, boneless, edible beef. The relative environmental impacts of processes along the full beef value chain were assessed using a third party validated BASF Corporation Eco-Efficiency Analysis methodology.
Results and discussion: Value chain LCA results indicated that the feed and cattle production phases were the largest contributors to most environmental impact categories. Impact metrics included water emissions (7005 L diluted water eq/CB), cumulative energy demand (1110 MJ/CB), and land use (47.4 m2a eq/CB). Air emissions were acidification potential (726 g SO2 eq/CB), photochemical ozone creation potential (146.5 g C2H4 eq/CB), global warming potential (48.4 kg CO2 eq/CB), and ozone depletion potential (1686 μg CFC11 eq/CB). The remaining metrics calculated were abiotic depletion potential (10.3 mg Ag eq/CB), consumptive water use (2558 L eq/CB), and solid waste (369 g municipal waste eq/CB). Of the relative points adding up to 1 for each impact category, the feed phase contributed 0.93 to the human toxicity potential.
Conclusions: This LCA is the first of its kind for beef and has been third party verified in accordance with ISO 14040:2006a and 14044:2006b and 14045:2012 standards. An expanded nationwide study of beef cattle production is now being performed with region-specific cattle production data aimed at identifying region-level benchmarks and opportunities for further improvement in US beef sustainability.