It could be said that marketing and sustainability of the Canadian beef industry are joined at the hip. Without one, the other suffers.
Dorothy Erickson, manager of veterinary services for Zoetis in Saskatoon, believes beef’s constructive marketing requires an understanding of its relationship to sustainability.
“When we look at the big picture, I think it’s suitable to think of sustainability as a commitment rather than an attainable goal,” says Erickson. “And when we’re sustainable, we’re marketable.”
Buzzwords are plentiful today, particularly surrounding food and the consumer’s acceptance of various production practices, but she says the answers lie deeper than in shallow terms.
“Rather than just a buzzword, sustainability is really a process. A big part of the process is the critical evaluation of our regular management practices and continual reappraisal of those practices. We need to ensure we’re doing what’s best for all partners factoring in production, animals, environment, and our business model. Continuous improvement is going to be at the core.”
Aspects of progress
Erickson defines the livestock sector’s maintenance and marketability as dependant on ensuring current practices are consistent with long-term viability. To make this possible, financial, environmental and social perspectives must be considered.
“It’s imperative we look at the different aspects and realize some are going to remain consistent between different operations and systems in geographical areas, but others will vary. No one universal set of criteria will determine sustainability in the livestock industry. What works in one geography may not work in another.”
Erickson believes both intensive production and niche marketing fit a sustainable model and says consumers will purchase food they feel directly aligns with their values. It may be due to environmental impact, processing or local sourcing.
“If it’s important to the consumer and they have the means to pay a premium for it, there will be a market for those smaller niche systems,” she says. “On a big scale though, intensive production is necessary to feeding a growing population.”
Erickson urges those in the beef industry to continue countering the misconception that big equals bad or that large operations automatically use poor practices and compromise animal welfare. Both good and bad occur independent of operation scope.
Common themes will push marketability and sustainability, but Erickson emphasizes the way participants in the production chain treat animals — welfare and handling — is non-negotiable. Regional and climate differences must be considered. For example, shade coverings are vital in some locations while not as essential in others. Geographic variations must be respected while common themes are underpinned, driving those initiatives across the markets.
Technology and interaction
Erickson says applying new technology is central to advancing production practices and ensuring sustainability. The industry is being asked to feed a growing population while also being pressured to increase production, all while limiting environmental impact.
“It’s crucial to evaluate technologies and examine how they fit into our sustainable practices,” she says. “In order for advances to truly support a workable model, they ultimately must be accepted by the consumer. If they don’t align with their values or aren’t understood, they will likely choose to stop purchasing our product.”
To address hesitancy and concern, she points out the need to continue sharing information to gain consumer trust and acceptance of technology. She explains financial advantage isn’t always the reason technologies are incorporated. At the core, the beef industry looks to protect the environment, animal welfare and all the different components keeping it strong.
At a recent general meeting of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, some interesting survey data reinforced that the voices of animal agriculture detractors are loud, but the majority of society is willing to listen and learn.
Most people are not diametrically opposed to meat and dairy, but there’s a disconnect and a lack of understanding of food production in general. There is mistrust and misinformation, but Erickson believes most consumers want to know where their food is coming from, how it’s produced and to feel confident it’s safe and supports their values.
“It’s essential we continue sharing the positives of the beef industry and what it’s doing well. Counter the negative messages and keep on telling the story of Canadian beef. We already have excellent practices in our industry helping drive all aspects of marketing and sustainability in the right direction.”