A method for assessing sustainability, with beef production as an example.
A comprehensive approach to decisions about the use of land and other world resources, taking full account of biological and other scientific information, is crucial for good decisions to be made now and in future. The sustainability of systems for producing food and other products is sometimes assessed using too narrow a range of component factors. A production system might be unsustainable because of adverse effects on a wide range of aspects of human welfare, animal welfare, or the environment. All factors should be included in sustainability evaluation, otherwise products or actions might be avoided without adequate consideration of key factors or of the diversity of production systems. A scoring method that is based on scientific information and potentially of general relevance is presented here, using beef production as a example with a review of each of its sustainability components. This includes an overall combined score and specific factors that make the system unacceptable for some consumers. The results show that, in this example, the sustainability of the best systems is very much better than that of the worst systems. By taking account of scores for a wide range of components of sustainability in comparing beef-production systems, better quality policies about beef use can be formulated than when statements referring only to one system are considered. The least sustainable beef-production systems are extensive grazing that causes land degradation and the use of feedlots or indoor housing with grain feeding. Semi-intensive silvopastoral systems are the most sustainable beef-production systems, and well-managed pasture-fed beef from areas where crop production is uneconomic is also sustainable. This simple, scientifically based scoring system could be modified to use positive as well as negative scores and is of value for policy makers, researchers, producers, organisations aiming to improve sustainability, and the general public.