World Resources Institute “Shifting Diets” Fails to Recognize Differences in Production

by: Daren Williams, Senior Executive Director, Communications, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff
In April 2016 the World Resources Institute issued a report entitled “Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future” which suggests that “the average American could cut their diet-related environmental impacts nearly in half just by eating less meat and dairy.” The report goes on to recommend “solutions for the challenge of feeding a growing population by reducing animal protein consumption, especially beef.” Suggesting that American consumers could reduce the impact of their diet in half by cutting meat and dairy consumption fails to recognize the different ways in which cattle are raised around the globe. The fact is that global issues of greenhouse gas emissions and land use conversion, such as deforestation, are of far less concern in the U.S. than they are in other beef production regions.

In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) published a study entitled “Livestock’s Long Shadow” which stated in the executive summary that global livestock production is “responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions” … “a higher share than transport.” This statement led to media headlines claiming cows generate more greenhouse gases than cars. However, that comparison was later recanted1 by one of the report’s authors, Pierre Gerber, after a review of the study funded by the Beef Checkoff pointed out that the UN report compared every possible source of GHG emissions from livestock while only counting emissions from tailpipes for transportation (excluding other sources such as drilling for and refining oil, smelting steel, manufacturing vehicles, etc.).
A subsequent UNFAO 2013 publication, “Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock,” reported that GHG emissions from global livestock production had dropped to 14.5 percent (still much larger than the U.S. at 3 percent but improving nonetheless).2 This report concluded that further reductions by as much as 30 percent could be achieved through improvements in animal health and feed efficiency -- two areas in which U.S. producers excel. The U.S. beef industry has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world due to cattle genetics, the quality of cattle feeds, animal management techniques, and the use of technology.3

The U.S. beef industry is focused on continuously improving the way we raise beef. For example, the Beef Checkoff completed the NSF certified beef life cycle assessment (LCA), the most comprehensive of its kind, to provide a roadmap for the journey toward more sustainable beef. The Beef Sustainability Assessment examined the sustainability of the entire U.S. beef supply chain from pasture to plate and beyond, also examining the impact of food waste. This research identified several key areas for improvement, including continued improvement in crop yields grown for feed and in irrigation techniques to reduce water usage. Interestingly, the greatest opportunity for improved beef sustainability is reduced food waste. While beef is one of the least wasted foods in the U.S., at around 20 percent compared to 40 percent for all foods, simply cutting that waste in half could improve beef’s sustainability by an overall 10 percent.
In addition, the “diet shift” recommendations in the WRI report are based on an “average daily protein requirement” of 50 grams, which is the minimum amount required to prevent deficiency. All the latest research on protein and higher protein diets4 indicate that eating 25-30g of protein at each meal (75-90 grams per day) is a better target for ultimate body benefits.5,6,7 In fact, eating a diet higher in protein, within calorie goals, can help people lose and maintain a healthy weight8,9,10,11, support a healthy metabolism11,12 and age more vibrantly13, and is in line with current consumption in the U.S. The goal of any discussion on shifting diets for a sustainable food future should be to improve the diets of people around the world, not just meet minimum requirements.

Studies that use global livestock production numbers to make sweeping recommendations about the diet fail to recognize the different ways in which cattle are raised around the globe. The key to meeting the challenge of feeding a growing world population is to focus on improving the sustainability of livestock production globally through improved cattle genetics, feed quality, animal management techniques and the use of technology.
Additional Resources
  4. Protein Summit 2.0: Evaluating the Role of Protein in Public Health, Am J Clin Nutr June 2015 101: 6 1311S-1315S
  5. Leidy H, et al. Beneficial effects of a higher-protein breakfast on the appetitive, hormonal, and neural signals controlling energy intake regulation in overweight/obese “breakfast-skipping” late-adolescent girls. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013;97:677-88.
  6. Leidy H, et al. Increased dietary protein consumed at breakfast leads to an initial and sustained feeling of fullness during energy restriction compared to other meal times. Br J Nutr. 2009;101:798-803.
  7. Mamerow M, et al. Dietary protein distribution positively influences 24-h muscle protein synthesis in healthy adults. J Nutr.2014;144:876-80.
  8. Johnston C, et al. High-protein, low-fat diets are effective for weight loss and favorably alter biomarkers in healthy adults. J Nutr. 2004; 134: 586-91.
  9. Paddon-Jones D, et al. Protein, weight management, and satiety. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008;87:1558S-61S.
  10. Layman DK, Evans E, Baum JI, Seyler J, Erickson DJ, Boileau RA. Dietary protein and exercise have additive effects on body composition during weight loss in adult women. J Nutr 2005;135:1903–10.
  11. Merchant A, et al. Protein intake is inversely associated with abdominal obesity in a multi-ethnic population. J Nutr. 2005;135:1196-201.
  12. Noakes M, et al. Effect of an energy-restricted, high-protein, low-fat diet relative to a conventional high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet on weight loss, body composition, nutritional status, and markers of cardiovascular health in obese women. Am J Clin Nutr.2005;81:1298-306.
  13. Symons T, et al. A moderate serving of high-quality protein maximally stimulates skeletal muscle protein synthesis in young and elderly subjects. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109:1582-6.


Tags: Beef Issues Quarterly, Issues Updates, Summer 2016

June 23, 2016