CSIRO confirms beef’s nutritional efficiency

New research by CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, has for the first
time quantified the contribution Australian beef makes to the protein supply for
human nutrition, paving the way to better understand efficiencies across
production of other proteins.

The team used the emerging ‘net protein contribution’ concept to measure the
quality and quantity of protein created by cattle compared to the protein they
eat, looking at both grain-fed cattle and grass-fed cattle that may eat small
amounts of grain.

They found typical Australian grain-fed beef production systems contribute
almost twice the human- edible protein they consume, while grass-fed systems
produce almost 1600 times.

It means the beef sector now has benchmark figures for the protein it
contributes to the food supply, which will help track improvements and
compare efficiency to other protein production systems when they are assessed
using the method.

Net protein contribution sources typical Australian beef production systems to make human nutrition
Source: CSIRO

Red meat is often criticised as having a very large footprint, taking up land that
could be used to grow crops for human food, or eating grain that humans could be eating instead, otherwise known as the ‘feed versus food debate’.

However, CSIRO livestock systems scientist Dr Dean Thomas said Australian beef
production is efficient at converting both low quality protein in grains that
humans can eat, as well as protein in grass that humans can’t eat, into high
quality protein for human nutrition.

Cattle are efficient upcyclers of grass and other feedstuffs not just in terms of the quality of protein they create. They contribute a greater amount of protein to our food system than is used in ther production as well.

The study, published in the journal Animal, is the first time the net protein
contribution concept has been applied in Australia. It rated Australian grain-fed
beef a score of 1.96 and grass-fed with a very small amount of grain a score of
1597, where a number greater than one means it has a positive contribution to
meeting human nutritional requirements.

To test the assumption that grain-fed beef competes with humans for protein,
the team modelled real world data in typical Australian beef production systems
including methane emissions, historical climate records and commercial feedlot

Cows eating from a trough in a feedlot
Source: CSIRO

Dr Thomas said the rations now fed to cattle in Australian feedlots can be quite low in human-edible protein sources.

“The feedlot sector increasingly uses locally available by-products such as spent
grain from bio-alcohol, feed-grade grain and cottonseed, while still meeting
nutritional requirements for cattle,” Dr Thomas said.

This research was undertaken as part of CSIRO’s Future Protein Mission, which
aims to improve the productivity and sustainability of new and existing
Australian protein industries through science, innovation and technology.

Future Protein Mission lead Professor Michelle Colgrave said that it was critical
for Australia to obtain these benchmark figures for the beef supply chain.

Research like this could help consumers assess their options in terms of what protein foods they choose in relation to sustainability.

“It also could be yet another positive selling point for Australian beef in export

For further information, head to CSIRO.

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