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The U.S. beef industry has invested considerable resources into evaluating the sustainability of beef production systems, focusing on environmental, economic, and now social impacts. Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a framework for addressing environmental impacts of the production and consumption of a good or service across the entire life cycle. Although first used to evaluate industrial processes, this method is increasingly used to evaluate agricultural systems due to its comprehensive cradle (raw material extraction) to grave (disposal, recycling, or repurposing) approach. The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) guidelines define sLCA as “... a social impact (and potential impact) assessment technique that aims to assess the social and socio-economic aspects of products and their potential positive and negative impacts along their life cycle. Ecologically, this focal system encompasses the mixed and shortgrass prairies, restored farmland, and forage crop systems east of the Rockies, north of Rio Grande in Colorado, and west of the mesic tallgrass systems in the midwestern states. Generally, the diverse NGP ecoregion is characterized by diverse grassland communities, a long evolutionary history of grazing by large and small herbivores, high levels of variability in weather and forage production, periodic fire disturbance, and extreme weather events such as blizzards and droughts. Range beef production in these locations centers on cow-calf and yearling operations (of various sizes and levels of intensification) dependent on rangelands for forage resources—primarily during the summer growing season—to produce calves and yearlings for feeding and slaughter. Considering rangeland beef production as social-ecological systems also takes into account the multiple uses and public demands for rangelands and beef production faced by ranchers, rural communities, and industry leaders on the ground. An interdisciplinary consideration of range beef production as social-ecological systems also allows us an understanding of both the diversity and specificity of the industry in the Northern Great Plains. This area of focus encompasses both public and private land management contexts for ranchers and farmers, who manage lands for multiple goals, including food production, lifestyle and cultural values, biodiversity conservation, soil and water conservation, and recreation and tourism, and other goals. Additionally, ranchers and rural communities face multiple forms of uncertainty, including dynamic global markets, policy and cultural change, and variable and extreme weather and climate, some of which have spatially and temporally unique implications. This research critically considers the boundaries and multifaceted characteristics of this broadly defined system, recognizing the diversity of actors, ecosystems, and production systems that are interlinked across scales in time and space through an increasingly homogenized economic-ecological system. The evaluation of range beef system social sustainability will instead require a holistic conceptualization of complex social-ecological systems, developed through the consideration of multiple disciplinary lenses, including social science. LCA practitioners tasked with considering range beef social sustainability lack a framework to help them match the context of the range beef system to current thinking about social and social-ecological processes and outcomes, which are pluralistic. In this paper, an interdisciplinary guide for designing an sLCA for the specific context of range beef systems is presented. This framework consists of a series of critical questions that will help practitioners with system definition, stakeholder identification, and indicator selection based on foundational concepts and recent advancements in social, ecological, animal, and sustainability sciences. The aim is to give practitioners an accessible tool for sLCA design that will bring the complexity of range beef production and social sustainability assessment together. The objective of this work was to establish core components needed to build a framework for conceiving a sLCA for rangeland beef production systems
The focus of this work is on the goal and scope definition phase of a sLCA intended to evaluate a range beef production system in the U.S. Northern Great Plains (NGP). Early in discussions and project planning, it became clear that in order to develop a framework for conducting a sLCA of a range beef production system, it was first necessary to stimulate guided discussion about how to identify stakeholders, how to select impact categories, and to evaluate whether or not sLCA is a suitable tool for evaluating social-ecological systems like range beef production systems. Researchers met for online workshops over five weeks and first used a 30-minute disciplinary discussion followed by a 30 minute interdisciplinary discussion prompted by a series of “seed” questions related specifically to conventional steps in the LCA method. For each question, disciplinary considerations were recorded from each disciplinary group and from the broader interdisciplinary discussion.
Though preliminary goals were to develop a framework, or step-by-step guide for conducting an sLCA of beef production systems, an initial important finding was that in order to complete a robust and informative sLCA of a range beef production system, a foundational guide was needed to detail a process to aid practitioners in their thinking and decision making in sLCA design. To do this, a team with expertise spanning social science, animal science, and rangeland ecology was assembled. The power of sLCA may lie beyond its utility as a technocratic method, and instead as a way to facilitate dialogue and difficult conversations about social, cultural, and historical issues and topics that in turn lead to more opportunities to change and move toward more robust understandings of sustainability. To unlock this potential, researchers developed and shared a series of “seed” questions and emergent considerations to guide future teams in conducting sLCA of range beef production systems.
This work laid the foundation for the consideration of sLCA as a method for evaluating the social sustainability of the U.S. beef supply chain. It details the process for designing the goal and scope definition phase of an sLCA of range beef production systems. In doing so, it lays the groundwork for the completion of a sLCA of a U.S. range beef production system.