It’s this ability to look at the health of the grasslands on a broad scale that makes ranchers in the Northern Great Plains some of the best land stewards on earth. This may come as a surprise to some who associate beef production with its high greenhouse emissions, water use, and land conversion. However, as with many conservation issues, things aren’t always black and white.
Across the Northern Great Plains, which span 183 million acres across five U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, grassland preservation can be attributed, at least in part, to ranchers such as Dale and Janet. This vast landscape evolved in harmony with large herbivores such as bison and elk, and must be grazed in order to remain healthy. Without grazing, woody vegetation such as juniper and cedar creep in and choke out plants that threatened species such as grassland birds need to survive.
Unfortunately, today’s ranchers are facing pressures from an increasingly complex world in which agricultural policies and new technologies incentivize conversion to cropland. In 2014 alone, over 1.4 million acres of grasslands in the Northern Great Plains were plowed for crops such as corn and soybeans. This loss is occurring more rapidly than Amazonian deforestation. WWF is partnering with ranchers to keep grasslands intact. When ranchers manage land for long-term ecosystem health, we all benefit from resilient communities, rich soil, clean water, lush grasses, and abundant wildlife.
Looking Beyond the Northern Great PlainsOf course, beef production does have significant environmental impacts, as it is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and deforestation and land conversion than other sources of protein. That’s why WWF worked with some of the biggest players in the beef industry to found the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB). With the input of hundreds of large and small businesses, environmental NGOs, and other stakeholders, the GRSB created the first set of principles and criteria for sustainable beef, which create a framework for the beef industry to conserve natural resources, limit waste, protect communities, promote animal health and welfare, ensure food safety, and advance innovation and greater efficiency.
WWF is also a founding member of the U.S. and Canadian Roundtables for Sustainable Beef, both of which are focused on turning the GRSB’s principles and criteria for beef into actionable indicators and metrics that ranchers, processors, packers, and retailers can use to curb water pollution, increase water efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and protect wildlife, among other environmental, social, and economic measures. And is also working in Latin America to engage beef producers to eliminate deforestation in three of the continent’s most important ecosystems: the Amazon, Cerrado, and Gran Chaco.
As the world’s population increases and incomes grow, demand for high-impact foods like beef will increase. It is vital that people understand how their diets affect the planet, and the impacts of animal protein production in particular. It is equally important that we improve the production of these foods so that they can provide more nutrition to more people with a smaller ecological footprint.
- Habitat conversion;
- Overgrazing – decreased plant biodiversity, low residual plant cover and soil erosion;
- Greenhouse gas emissions;
- Water and air pollution;
- Impacts from feed production (grass versus grain-fed);
- Reduced greenhouse gas emissions;
- Improved food safety and nutrition.
“The roundtable brings the interests of diverse stakeholders together to solve a common problem. It’s an issue for big businesses, which understand that unsustainable production is a big threat to the industry. It’s an issue for the many small producers who are trying to make a living on marginal land and need help to get ecosystems functioning again.
And because beef production uses such a large area of land in almost every ecosystem, it’s a vital issue for all of us.”