The nation’s largest beef industry group says it wants to demonstrate the sector’s ability to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas production in less than 20 years.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association rolled out sustainability goals Thursday at the Cattle Industry Convention in Nashville, where the group’s leaders underscored the importance of producer involvement in achieving the goals.

“We’ve got to be bold and audacious,” Marty Smith, the organization’s past president, said as he unveiled the goals Thursday. “If we’re going to do this, let’s do it and let’s hit it hard.”

NCBA’s goals include ambitions encompassing social, environmental and economic sustainability with broad statements in each of the categories.

The climate neutrality goal is based, in part, on modeling conducted by Jason Sawyer, an associate professor at the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management at Texas A&M, Kingsville. The 2040 target is based on an annual methane reduction of 1.5%, something Sawyer noted is feasible while also conceding that methane emissions can never truly be eliminated in cattle production.

“Methane cannot go to zero without obviating beef production totally,” he said. “So elimination of methane is not the goal; managing it is the goal.”  

He said technological approaches like feed additives and improved genetics can mitigate methane emissions, but also told reporters his modeling is limited to certain steps in the production process. As such, emissions changes that could come through more fuel-efficient trucking or more climate-friendly corn, for instance, are not considered in NCBA’s goals. 

“(The producer’s) ability to control the inputs into those upstream emissions are relatively small, so we chose to focus what I would describe as preliminary or potential mitigation pathways on things that are directly in hand,” he said.

The projection is also limited in its consideration post-harvest; Sawyer said his estimates did not include “packaging and further distribution.”

“I needed a place to draw a line,” he said. “It was more convenient to be able to translate that on a carcass basis rather than trying to attribute that to the multiple number of SKUs that are derived from a carcass.”

The metrics used to determine climate neutrality are still being determined.

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The organization also has goals to improve its communication of efforts already underway in the industry, including a goal to “enhance trust in cattle producers as responsible stewards of their animals and resources by expanding educational opportunities in animal care and handling programs to further improve animal well-being.” There’s also the economic goal to “create and enhance opportunities that result in a qualifiable increase in producer profitability” by 2025 and an effort to “continuously improve the industry’s workforce safety and well-being.”

"As producers, we have talked about sustainability for years now, and we have been all over the board," NCBA CEO Colin Woodall said Thursday. "We've talked about it from the eye of being skeptical and just being a fad; we know it's not a fad, it's not going away. It's here to stay. 

"We've talked about it from the perspective of seeing this as more rules, regulations, bureaucratic red tape being placed on us," he added. "Now, I think we're seeing it for what it truly is, and that's an opportunity to showcase what we're doing."

Other ag sectors and companies have also rolled out sustainability efforts, notably the dairy industry’s goal to achieve net-zero production by 2050.

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