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CSIRO confirms nutritional efficiency of Australian beef

30 December 2021

The study provides benchmark figures for protein and its contribution to the food supply

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. 

According to Australia's National Farmers Federation (NFF), 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. The researchers looked at both grain-fed cattle and grass-fed cattle. 

They found typical Australian grain-fed beef production systems contribute almost twice the human-edible protein they consume, while grass-fed systems produce almost 1,600 times.

The results of the research provide benchmark figures for the protein and the way it contributes to food supply. When assessed using the same method, researchers will be able to track improvements and compared efficiency to other protein production systems, said NFF.

Red meat is often criticised for its heavy environmental footprint. Detractors say red meat production takes up valuable land that could be used to grow crops for humans and uses grain for cattle rather than humans.

According to CSIRO livestock systems scientist Dean Thomas, though, beef production in Australia is efficient at converting both low quality protein in grains not fit for human consumption and protein in grass into high quality protein for human nutrition.

Published in the scientific journal Animal, the study is the first of its kind in Australia. Grain-fed beef received a score of 1.96, and grass-fed beef with a very small amount of grain received a score of 1,597. According to NFF, the greater the number the more positive the 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 diets. The rations fed to cattle in Australian feedlots can be low in protein that humans can easily consume, said Thomas. 

“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,” he said.

Michelle Colgrave, head of Future Protein Mission, which made the CSIRO study possible, said research like this could help consumers better assess protein options in terms of sustainability. 

“It also could be yet another positive selling point for Australian beef in export
markets," she said. 



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