Efficient cattlemen and women are a boon for the environment.

“I am absolutely not anti-grass-fed beef. There is a place for every single kind of system: grass-fed, grain-fed, local, organic and so on,” said Jude Capper, Washington State University animal scientist at the recent Certified Angus Beef LLC annual conference.

“What I am ‘anti’ is mis-marketing and the perceptions that are passed on to the consumer about what is and isn’t environmentally friendly.”

From farm publications and the Wall Street Journal to Cosmopolitan and mainstream women’s magazines, there is a constant stream of information about water, land and resource use. Beef is often held under the microscope, Capper told the crowd of more than 500 who gathered at the event in Sunriver, Ore.

“In every part of the world we’re going to face the issues of feeding more people on less land with fewer resources,” she said, citing estimates that by 2050 worldwide population will increase by 50 percent and we’ll need 70 percent more food to support that.

“On a global basis people are going to have greater incomes,” Capper said. “As people have more money, they want more meat, more milk, more eggs.”

Today’s conversations about sustainability are well-founded, she said, but some of the proposed solutions are not.

Take “Meatless Mondays” for example. “Even if we all went meatless every Monday, if we only ate lentils and tofu and magically didn’t give off any methane ourselves, it’s going to cut our national carbon footprint by less than half a percent,” Capper said.

And then there are important considerations, like where would animal byproducts like leather, tallow and pharmaceuticals come from?

Instead, Capper suggested one proven method for reducing resource use: increase efficiency. “If we can have our animals on the planet for fewer days before they’re harvested, in total we use less energy, less land and less water per unit of beef,” she said, pointing to examples over the years.

In 1977 it took five animals to produce the same pounds beef that it takes four animals to produce today.

Beef yield over that time has gone up fairly consistently,” she said, noting carcasses can’t keep getting bigger because of consumer acceptance and processing challenges. “What we can do is improve productivity, improve growth rate.”

The efficiency gains from 1977 to 2010 amount to a 19-percentage-point reduction in feed use, a 12-point decrease in water needed and a 33-point drop in land required per pound of beef.

“That’s not because ranchers and feedlot operators have implemented specific environmental technologies,” Capper said. “It’s because they’ve been doing what they do best, to improve productivity.”