A first step toward improving sustainability in beef production is to define what sustainability actually means. A panel of experts offered their thoughts on sustainable beef, including a variety of definitions, during the International Livestock Congress in Denver this week.
John Pollack, PhD, who serves as director of USDA’s Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska, defined sustainability simply as “the capacity to endure.”
Cristain Barcan, who directs sustainability efforts at BASF, defines sustainability as practices that “fill the needs of today without compromising the future.”
Kim Stackhouse, PhD, directs sustainability research for NCBA. She emphasized that sustainability requires three components – economic viability, environmental stewardship and social responsibility.
Cameron Bruett, chief sustainability officer for meat packer JBS, elaborated on those “three pillars,” noting that JBS strives to reduce the environmental impact of its plants and feedayrds while contributing to the communities in which they are located. The company also values its people and works to provide employees with benefits and a good working environment. But first, the company needs to operate profitably in order to invest in employees and communities or make facility improvements for environmental protection.
Stackhouse adds that the “social responsibility” aspect of sustainability is the most difficult to measure, and probably the least understood in terms of beef production. We can objectively measure whether a practice contributes to profitability in beef production, and whether it has a positive or negative environmental impact, but effects on communities or society as a whole are less clear and more subjective.
The issue of sustainability in agriculture generates debates over the relative merits of organic or natural production versus conventional production practices. Or whether crop production is more sustainable than animal agriculture or whether chickens are more sustainable than cattle.
Bruett says the industry should take a comprehensive, holistic view of sustainability. He believes organic, natural or grass-finished systems have their place, but high-yield systems utilizing available technologies for higher productivity per unit of input are indispensable for agriculture to meet the needs of growing world populations. And systems that use technologies to produce more beef while reducing the required number of animals and amount of land, water, feed and time can be fully sustainable.