The water-economy nexus of beef produced from different breeds of cattle
Beef production is well documented to have a very high water footprint (WF), leading to recommendations that consumers should eat less beef in order to decrease the pressure on the scarce freshwater resource. Given the importance of beef production to the South African economy, in the context of severe freshwater scarcity, it is important to understand the water-economy nexus of beef production in order to ensure the ecological stewardship and economic prosperity of the sector. The primary objective of this research was to analyse the WF and economic value added (VA) of different breeds of beef cattle, produced through the same production method, with the aim of identifying the breed with the best economic water consumption (EWC) figures in terms of beef production. A bottom-up approach was followed to analyse the WF and economic VA for the different links along the value chain. Seven different cattle breeds (Afrikaner, Brahman, Bonsmara, Simbra, Angus, Simmentaler, and Limousin) were used for the analyses to determine the EWC for each breed for an extensive cow-calf production system, a feedlot, and an abattoir, representing the complete value chain of beef production. The WF approach was followed to estimate the green, blue, and grey WF of each breed for every step in the value chain in order to quantify the freshwater consumption. Economic VA, as the difference between the total revenue and the cost of those intermediate production factors, of which the WF was not included in the total WF of the production process, was used as the economic indicator for every step in the value chain. The EWC of the different breeds was then expressed as the total WF per unit of economic VA in litre/R. The EWC for a kilogram (kg) of beef for different beef cuts was then estimated according to the value factor (VF) of each cut in relation to the total value (TV) of the slaughtered animal. In order to treat all the breeds the same, a simulation model was used for the extensive cow-calf enterprise that simulated the feed intake and reproduction data of each breed according to the breed’s average performance data. The feedlot data were gathered through an experiment whereby 35 bull calves from each breed (245 in total) were fed according to their profit-maximising feeding period (PMFP), while the processing (slaughter and deboning) data were collected when the fattened calves from the feedlot were slaughtered and processed. The results show notable differences between the different breeds in terms of their WF, economic VA, and EWC. It was interesting to note that while the Angus had the lowest overall EWC for the whole value chain, it was not the breed with the lowest EWC for any of the individual stages in the value chain. The Bonsmara revealed the lowest EWC in terms of the extensive cow-calf enterprise, while the Limousin and Simmentaler exhibited the lowest EWC in terms of feedlot fattening and abattoir processing respectively. Similar contradicting results were also found when comparing only the WF or the economic VA of the different breeds for the whole value chain to that of the separate links along the value chain. These contradicting results showed the benefit of a bottom-up approach compared to a top-down approach when estimating the WF, economic VA, and EWC of beef. The results further showed that there is a large difference in the WF of different cuts of beef, with the high-value cuts having a much larger WF than the lower-value cuts. As such, the results show that a consumer can decrease his/her overall WF by consuming lower-value beef cuts. The conclusion from this research is that the calculation and reporting of the WF, economic VA, and EWC, especially for products with more than one value chain link, is much more complicated than a top-down analysis based on the whole value chain. By estimating only one value for each of the abovementioned factors for the whole value chain and then making recommendations on that value, one could easily be guilty of the fallacy of division since the recommendations may have a negative influence on some links in the value chain. Each link in the value chain should therefore be assessed individually to identify problem areas in the WF and economic VA context that can be improved by recommendations for the specific value chain link. It is further important to keep the water-economy nexus in mind and analyse the WF and economic VA in a holistic framework as recommendations to decrease the WF of a product may lead to a less desired economic situation and vice versa. The estimated WFs of the different beef cuts provide new knowledge and can be used to create awareness among consumers, but even if consumers switch to cheaper beef cuts with a lower WF, it will not help to improve the overall WF of beef. It is thus concluded that the optimisation of production from the available freshwater sources for each link in the value chain should be prioritised as it will decrease the overall WF of the product, increase the economic VA, and improve the EWC.