What is Sustainability
What is Sustainability
By Michael Flood
McDonald’s, the world’s largest purchaser of beef, has begun to demand that all of the meat it sources everywhere in the world be produced sustainably. Given McDonald’s influence on producers, the effects of this decision are going to be felt everywhere from the smallest to the largest ranch, and from the individual homestead to the boards of giant corporations.
But what does “sustainability” mean, anyway? Is it just a fuzzy, feel good term that environmentalists love? Is it an advertising slogan? Or is it something concrete that can make a real difference to farmers, consumers, and the environment?
For something to be sustainable means that it can be used for a long time, possibly generations. Ranchers and farmers already intuitively understand environmental sustainability – you don’t strive to wring every last dollar out any single season but preserve your capacity to make more in future years so that both you and your children and grandchildren can enjoy the benefits of your hard work. An unsustainable practice is one that damages the land or the herd’s ability to produce value in the future – if you overgraze the pasture you won’t be able to host as many cattle on it next year, and if you pump the well dry you’ll have to get your water from somewhere else at greater expense. 1
Under that broad idea – being able to continue to get value out of something without using it up entirely – we can start to understand different types of sustainability: social sustainability, financial sustainability, and nutritional sustainability. Knowing about all of these can be of value to a rancher and, with growing demand for certifiable sustainability, will become necessities in the near future.
Nutritional Sustainability – One key question for the beef industry is whether we are feeding our animals sustainably. This is not as much of an issue for ranchers, whose animals get the majority of their nutrients from highly sustainable grass (after all, the same cattle that eat the grass also fertilize it). It’s more of an issue for feedlot operators who finish cattle with trucked in corn and other crops which are grown in ways that deplete soil and depend, for their viability, on transportation costs remaining low.
Along with their stewardship of their land this is another talking point ranchers can use in their discussions with the public – that a cow grazing on Alberta pasture is just about the most sustainable food system there is. 2
Financial Sustainability – This is a point that will resonate with every rancher, and one that we hear a lot about in our discussions with them. They want to know whether sustainable practices will cut into their bottom line so much that they’re ranches will become unviable. For this reason producers need to be involved in the discussion of sustainability standards and help define what is a reasonable demand and what is an unreasonable one. 3
Social Sustainability – Solid, material things like oil and land aren’t the only things that are consumable. You can also “use up” good public opinion by seeming to be irresponsible or unresponsive to public demands. If you do it for too long, people won’t buy what you sell anymore. Sustainability in this area means making sure that you are seen favourably by the public by being open and upfront about your industry rather than secretive or evasive. It’s admitting when you have problems or need to do better rather than attempting to hide or lie. It’s also vital important to promote the good practices that we already engage in.
We’re lucky that some smart people in the industry, both in Canada and the United States, have helped developed a comprehensive set of ideas about what we need to sustain and how to do so. In Canada we have the Canadian Roundtable For Sustainable Beef (CSRB) that is working hard to develop attainable definitions of sustainability that balance the needs of ranchers with those of the environment and society at large to find ways for everyone to benefit. 4
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* For Test Period | ** Economic Selection Index $ Value
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