The “S” word (sustainability) has been in popular use for several years among industry and developers and it has recently undergone a major surge of interest in the beef industry. Sustainability really reflects the long-term viability of the industry in terms of the three pillars of the environment, economics and social demands.
It would be fair to say that the most common use of the word “sustainable” refers to the environmental impact associated with farming and ranching. After all, we live on a finite planet and short of sending cows to the moon, we are constrained by Mother Nature and how well we take care of her. This is also the area that gets most of the focus in the news, either positively or negatively and is associated with the majority of funding programs (eg.: Growing Forward 2), regulations and penalties. The environmental component of sustainability really looks at whether our practices can be continued within the bounds of nature for the indefinite future.
Economic and social aspects
I think that most producers who are still in the business after the last decade can also appreciate the economic aspects of sustainability. While there are a lot of ways to measure productivity and success, at some point the economics of beef production boil down to the ability to make a living, but also to attract and retain capital in the industry and generate enthusiasm and renewal. The exodus of producers over time clearly represents an easily understandable challenge to the sustained ability of the industry to generate net incomes that support generational turnover. Also important is the transfer of billions of dollars worth of assets to upcoming generations.
Social aspects of sustainability are also a huge consideration. There are several intertwining levels, including both public awareness and engagement with agriculture and the implications thereof, the level of influence a declining number of voters in the industry have, the overall social licence to apply technologies to the industry and how we approach those issues and emerging social media. There are also household-level social issues, which include an aging producer population and challenges of farm succession.
Face the facts
Sustainability is a vastly complex issue for our industry to grapple with, however it is also vital that we do not shirk the responsibility of addressing it. What I find particularly interesting is the overall sustainability of the industry is built one operation at a time. The importance of understanding and identifying what sustainability means in your own operation is vital if we are to participate in the discussion rather than just protecting the status quo.
Because sustainability deals with the long-term future, we need to think long term and plan for unforeseen future risk and events. Building flexibility and ensuring resilience in our decision-making processes is very important to consider. Sometimes this may come at the expense of immediate profit but creates a longer-term profit potential. It also means as we discuss the issues as an industry we need to focus on process and outcomes rather than rigid rules for how to achieve “sustainability goals”.
It is pretty tough to measure sustainability when it is by definition a forward and not a rear-view mirror goal. In other words, we can look back and see if things have gotten better or worse, but at any point in time, sustainable is a future term. For this reason it is important to measure trends and monitor how things are changing. In a lot of ways it is easier to see if we are missing the mark, than if we are achieving it.
It is really important to consider the issues around sustainability on a personal and business level since we will be intimately involved in the discussion. It is also important to keep the discussion somewhat grounded in measurable, repeatable results.
Using good science is a key. We cannot expect to productively engage in a broad industry-wide discussion without giving forethought to the topic, and certainly without engaging many of the solutions proposed and imposed in the name of sustainability are going to be unsustainable. We need to objectively identify positive progress and rapidly correct negatives. Active demonstration of our commitment to the future of feeding people is one of the best ways we can ensure that we have a long-term future.