In recent weeks beef has made headlines worldwide. Most of the news appears to be rather negative about such an important source of protein.
Consumers complain of higher prices for cuts of meat, environmentalists are using data sources to point to major environmental damage caused by raising beef, and animal welfare activists are targeting domesticated animal agriculture as being cruel and abusive to animals. Organizations such as the American Heart Association are recommending less consumption of animal proteins such as beef to reduce risks of heart disease and other chronic illnesses.
In the United States beef consumption has declined greatly in the past 25 years, according to the USDA. In 1989, consumption was 69.3 pounds per person and in most recent available data searches consumption is at 61 pounds per person in the United States. Greater declines in consumption are predicted over the next few years as beef prices will jump due to lack of supply.
Supply has declined for many reasons. Floods, drought and swings in temperature have greatly impacted feed supplies for beef producers. Lack of profits to cattle producers have also discouraged beef production, and this is supported by an Iowa State University study that reports negative economic returns to beef producers in seven years for producers in the years between 1999 and 2008. Cattle numbers have dropped in 10 of the 12 top livestock states in the United States over the past year. Wisconsin’s decline was 3.9 percent. Wisconsin still has a cattle inventory of 3.3 million head.
The decline in cattle numbers in Wisconsin is a major hit on the Wisconsin economy. Recently a Cargill-owned meat processing plant was closed in Milwaukee and 600 jobs were lost. Less cattle in rural Wisconsin means less economic activity at farm cooperatives, feed suppliers, veterinary clinics, fuel suppliers, farm equipment dealers, and others that depend upon livestock producers. Wisconsin faces more economic hardship when fewer jobs are available and it continues the trend of fewer opportunities for all of us in Wisconsin.
Sorting fact from fiction is really a difficult task when researching the beef industry and the issues surrounding it.
Two sources on the web that I would suggest for those interested in the future of beef are animalfrontiers.org and epa.gov/agriculture. Both examine in detail the issues facing beef producers and consumers of beef.
Another factor in the debate is emotion. Many people are very emotional about their food supply and how it is produced. Many producers of beef are also very emotional. Emotions can lead to unintended consequences such as greater regulation that drives out many small producers and encourages great concentration of the production and processing of beef products.
In the past 30 years the US feedlot units have shifted to larger sizes with many over 32,000 head in size. Larger feedlots allow for easier and more rapid application of new technology and greater efficiencies of marketing and purchase of inputs compared to smaller operations. Concentration of feedlots has allowed for greater ownership control of feedlots and processing plants by just a few corporations. It is estimated that five beef packing companies control 70 percent of daily slaughter in the United States.
Consumers of beef have the final call in the debate about beef. Each decision made about the purchase or non-purchase of a beef product will dictate the future of the industry.
Will beef be sourced locally? Will beef be produced by grass-fed operations? Will the family budget support the purchase of beef as a protein source? Will suppliers of beef products provide traceability of the product from producer to consumer? Will diet choices impact the future of beef production? Will environment regulation end local production of beef? And will the move to a greater global economy end beef consumption for most citizens of the world?
These and more questions will be part of the ongoing debate. In the end consumers answer the beef about beef.