Project Summary

Taking Stock of Social and Socioeconomic Research in the U.S. Beef Industry            

Principle Investigator(s):
Jasmine Dillon1, Hannah Gosnell2, John Ritten3, and J.D. Wulfhorst4
1Colorado State University, 2Oregon State University, 3University of Wyoming, 4University of Idaho
Completion Date:
December 2021
Key Findings

  • The beef industry is increasingly concerned with the social and socioeconomic sustainability of the communities of people that sustain U.S. beef production. 
  • A team of academics studying these dynamics made the following recommendations for helping to improve the social and socioeconomic sustainability of beef production systems:
    • Producers must be supported in maintaining physical and mental health 
    • Academics must be supported in helping the industry to understand the community dynamics that support ranchers and ranch personnel
    • The industry must be supported in developing disruptive, transformative solutions that overcome the economic challenges that serve as barriers to improvements to social and socioeconomic sustainability in U.S. beef production systems.


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. 

results and discussion

  • Social sustainability has to do with the degree to which individuals are able to enjoy a good quality of life in the context of communities that value equity, social justice, and the ability for all to participate in fair and just democratic processes. 
  • Social sustainability is related to phenomena at and across ranch, community, and industrial scales and is embedded in local and global economics. 
  • Considering social sustainability in the context of agriculture and food production has far-reaching implications spreading across the supply chain and requires attention to issues including good working conditions, decent wages, and diversity among those who control land and resources. 
  • The concept of social sustainability has received less attention from industry and academia than environmental and economic sustainability, but there is growing interest in incorporating the concept into sustainability programs related to beef production in the United States. 
  • The beef industry will benefit from paying more attention to social sustainability because of the relationship between consumer values and social aspects of production and the economic implications of maintaining consumer trust by tending to evolving societal concerns.

industry Implications

  • The beef industry should acknowledge, and further study, human health risks experienced by producers and beef industry labor and endeavor to provide necessary support. Physical and emotional human health of producers and consumers ties to production in direct ways. The beef industry should establish metrics and actively monitor relationships between beef production and human health to ensure social sustainability contributions.
  • Social sustainability relies on equity and inclusion within social interactions. The beef industry should develop innovative ways to actively embrace social equity and inclusion as functions of beef production, not as side or hidden benefits (or worse, not considering at all). Social sustainability in ranching cannot be achieved without rectifying inequities that exist within the beef industry. Three aspects of equity and inclusion need to be addressed. First, diverse representation in decision-making is needed and does not currently exist within most ranches and beef organizations. Second, structural inequities in land and resource access resulting from unjust historical policies and practices need to be rectified. Third, rural cultural norms and behaviors should be reworked to be more inclusive of non-majority identities such as people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ people.
  • Social sustainability also ties to family decisions about succession of operations and how community economics shape options for beef production at local and regional levels. The beef industry should develop programmatic efforts aligned to support individual producers and community related functions to facilitate ranch succession. The industry also needs to acknowledge the trend towards absentee ownership and rising land prices, and the impacts these trends will have on equity and inclusion in the beef industry.
  • Systemic changes are needed in order for the beef industry to better balance the three pillars of sustainability. Changes in economies of scale continue to impact beef producers, with disproportionately negative effects to smaller scale producers, and additional challenges constraining basic operations. The beef industry should enhance its sustainability program to conduct research on effective means to mitigate economies of scale affecting small- and medium-size producers’ long-term viability. Future research should also explore alternative future scenarios for the U.S. beef industry, including those that might emerge from a value system not built around efficiency and volume. 
  • Future efforts to evaluate social sustainability would benefit from an approach that creates space for qualitative insights, rather than focusing solely on indicators that can be measured quantitatively.