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The U.S. beef industry has initiated several projects to explore environmental aspects of sustainability. These efforts have focused on quantifying and mitigating the impact of beef cattle production systems on the environment throughout the full beef life cycle, with an emphasis on the cow-calf and feedlot stages. More recently, sustainability assessments have begun to expand to include economic metrics, most of which are generated using limited economic modeling techniques such as enterprise budgets to estimate firm-level impacts with average price data, willingness-to-pay to approximate tradeoffs between environmental impact and social acceptability, or regional economic analysis to estimate the contributions of the beef sector to regional and national economies. These economic approaches tend to overestimate the financial sustainability of ranch-level enterprises, so we should continue to build upon them with analyses which are better able to predict the consequences of changes in climate, labor, or land values expected to occur in the coming decades. To date, analyses of sustainability have mostly excluded assessments of social sustainability, or the impact of beef production on the social relationships between individuals and within communities. Why does it matter for the beef industry to consider a social and community-based context for sustainable beef production? The term “social” refers to elements of human interaction such as social cohesion (connections between people in local places), interpersonal trust, equity, and well-being between families, neighbors, business partners, and competitors. Beef production systems rely on these social interactions in addition to a combination of integrated elements including natural resources, animals, infrastructure, and agricultural markets. These, together with macro- and microeconomic trends, are the foundation for functional beef production systems. Understanding their interconnectedness is critical to evaluating the long-term security, risks, and impacts of beef cattle production on communities. To achieve this understanding, research efforts must ultimately integrate robust social evaluations with environmental and economic analyses for comprehensive sustainability assessments. This study aims to discuss trends and highlight gaps in the understanding of social and socioeconomic dimensions of sustainability in the U.S. beef industry. This effort supports the development of a robust sustainability research portfolio for the U.S. beef industry. The objective of this report is to develop a high-level synthesis report on the current state of research related to social sustainability in beef systems.
An interdisciplinary team was utilized to collaboratively summarize the bodies of work on social and socioeconomic sustainability from the perspective of each discipline (sociology, economics, geography, animal science, and system analysis). Review included both scholarly and popular press literature. Information was synthesized, overlaps between perspectives were identified, and recommendations for next steps in social and socioeconomic sustainability research were developed for the U.S. beef industry.