Many movements have begun on a college campus. Graduate students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln took the initiative to promote beef as a sustainable and nutritious protein choice by organizing a symposium, held May 9 on the UNL campus. The event highlighted trends in consumer preferences while examining “Sustainable Beef: The Future of Nutrition.”
Sam Watson, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in meat science at UNL, was one of the graduate students who planned the symposium. He acknowledged the “incredible amount of knowledge that is based on years of work done by professors, staff and students across all types of agriculture fields,” as he reflected on the significance of the event.
“I think sustainability can mean different things to different people all over the country, and that’s why events like this are important. For us, it was really important to talk about how beef cattle in particular can turn plants that we as humans can’t eat into one of the most important sources of food in the world,” he stated.
Many misconceptions surround the beef industry. A panel of UNL faculty and students offered research-based evidence to debunk some of the assumptions surrounding beef production and protein consumption during the symposium. Dr. Mike Boehm, vice chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at UNL, gave opening remarks. The keynote speaker was Dr. Tryon Wickersham, professor of ruminant nutrition from Texas A&M University.
Wickersham began his address by explaining cattle’s unique role in the environment. As ruminant animals, cattle have the microbes necessary to break down biomass indigestible to humans. Wickersham used the trendy phrase “upcycling” to describe how the ruminal microbes convert low-quality sources of protein, such as corn, into essential amino acids usable by the human body.
“In the beef industry, we are taking grass and byproducts and converting them into something that has a lot of nutritional value,” Wickersham said.
He shared statistics comparing the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS) of animal and plant proteins. A DIAAS of 100 is considered “perfectly balanced,” and most animal proteins score more than 100.
Not only does beef provide a complete source of protein, but it can be produced in a sustainable way. Wickersham illustrated how this is possible through examples of research conducted regarding net protein contribution (NPC) and human edible protein conversion efficiency (hePCE). The sustainability of both grazing systems and feedlot settings were analyzed.
When considering the sustainability of beef production, one must examine the beliefs surrounding the industry. Cattle are often blamed for greenhouse gas emissions. Wickersham noted a key aspect that is missing from the discussion about cattle production and methane. After about 12 years, methane becomes carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, but the methane from beef cattle is part of the biogenic cycle because the cattle are eating grass, unlike methane from a vehicle.
“It’s really important that we know that methane is converted to carbon dioxide because basically what that means is once I achieve a stable ruminant population, there’s really no increase in methane concentration,” Wickersham said.
Other environmental considerations discussed during the panel were impacts on wildlife, technology to deposit protein more efficiently and carbon neutral considerations, as well as land and water use in conjunction with both feed production and beef production.
“Our panel agreed that there is room for improvements, but producers should absolutely be commended for the improvements they’ve already made over the last handful of decades,” Watson stated.
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Beef producers have the responsibility to educate the general population about how beef is naturally nutritious and is raised in a humane and sustainable manner, as well as how it is naturally nutritious.
“Everybody involved in the beef industry has the responsibility to talk about this,” Wickersham said.
The panel also reviewed the trend of plant-based proteins. Often, what consumers choose to eat is based on their perception of nutrition and sustainability, not necessarily facts.
“We know there are a lot of inputs required to make meat alternatives,” said Leila Venzor, meat science doctoral student.
Nutrition labels reveal the added carbohydrates and sodium necessary to produce plant-based meat alternatives. Carbohydrates translate into added calories.
“What you are consuming is entirely different in terms of nutritional value,” said Dr. Jessie Morrill, assistant professor of meat science.
Quality of nutrition is an important concern. Morrill pointed out that there are 6,500 food deserts in the U.S. In Nebraska, more than 200,000 people are food insecure, including one in eight children. She added that the solution is to “improve the affordability and accessibility of animal-derived proteins” because the quality of amino acids is greater in animal food products compared to grains.
Wickersham identified how beef can be part of the fight against food insecurity. In summary, to raise one beef all the way through the feedlot requires 770 pounds of corn. By “upcycling” amino acids from corn through the rumen, that 770 pounds of corn—when fed to one calf—can meet the protein requirements of 17 children per year. In contrast, feeding 770 pounds of corn—directly to children—would supply the protein requirements of three children per year.
Nebraskans are fortunate to be surrounded by a steady supply of nutrient-dense beef. You do not have to go far to see a pasture of cattle grazing or a feedlot of market beef. Because the environment in the Midwest supports cattle production, beef is a sustainable food option here. As more consumers opt for locally-grown food supplies, this is good news for cattle producers in Nebraska.
“One of the biggest new trends coming up for beef products and food products in general is locally-sourced,” said Venzor.
She warned that locally-sourced does not translate into sustainable. In some parts of the country, raising beef is not the best option because of the amount of inputs required.
However, this gives beef producers in the Midwest a boost as they can sustainably produce a complete source of protein that is needed—and craved—by consumers locally and abroad.
Realizing the value of beef as a sustainable protein option is one trend worth following.
Reporter Kristen Sindelar has loved agriculture her entire life, coming from a diversified farm with three generations working side-by-side in northeastern Nebraska. Reach her at [email protected].