Earlier this week, we ran an article titled “Redefining sustainability,” outlining a presentation by Washington State University animal scientist Jude Capper, PhD. The opening sentence of the article stated that sustainability means different things to different people. Boy, were we right.

The premise of Capper’s presentation was that increased per-unit productivity offered by intensive beef-production systems can reduce overall resource consumption, environmental impact and greenhouse gas emissions compared with more extensive production systems, thereby improving sustainability.

The article attracted numerous comments on our Web site and via e-mail, which is great – we love reader feedback and dialog. A few of the comments included personal attacks on Dr. Capper, for producing research results the readers don’t like, or against Drovers/CattleNetwork, for reporting on her research. We’ll stay out of that particular sandbox, and focus on insightful, meaningful comments submitted by adults.

Several readers questioned whether linking sustainability with productivity or production efficiency tells the whole story.

“While the title makes you think the article is about sustainability, she spends the majority of the work talking about efficiency” writes one reader. “The two may be related, but, in my opinion, are not the synonyms. I don't doubt her numbers, but they miss the point, which is that we are too dependent on inputs (fossil fuel and otherwise) to be sustainable, regardless of how efficient we have become.”

A reader from Colorado makes some related points. “All of these comparisons have some assumptions attached, and some of hers are that there will be plenty of fossil fuel available, that soil erosion or depletion of soil health will not become a factor limiting sustainability, that the ramifications of grain-based fats on human health is not an issue to be considered, etc.  I think there will never be one way that is best in all situations.  In places with high availability of byproduct feedstuffs that have high levels of fiber, gossypol, etc. feedlots with ruminant animals would probably be a very efficient way to utilize those feedstuffs.  In areas with fairly low quality, but abundant forages, calves can be produced for areas with higher seasonal quality of forages to finish them.”

A grass-fed beef producer from South Dakota makes some excellent points about consumer demand. “Which production costs are cheaper and require less fossil fuels...I think grass finished. The cow is the most efficient converter of poor quality forage into a high value protein. As a grass-finished producer who has a great, consistently marbled product at 18 to 24 months I see a big opportunity for both grass-finished and grain-finished products. There should be no argument here. Let the consumer vote with the almighty dollar and give them choices. More people eating beef is a great thing for all ranchers whether it is grass finished or corn finished.”

A reader from Oklahoma suggests adding another production system to the discussion. “How do short-fed cattle work in this mix? We worry so much about the price of corn and I understand that if you want that well-marbled prime cut you need to feed the cattle out, but what about a system where they only feed the cattle out long enough to get the yellow fat out? It seems this would use far less energy and water and not require the amount of grain we need now, and probably reduce the amount of antibiotics required. This isn't really "natural" production as I understand it described in this story and it's not grass fed. Some companies do this in a niche system and I don't think it falls in the boxes outlined in this story. What does it look like using the same comparison?

A producer from West Virginia supports the idea that the U.S. beef industry should include a variety of production systems. “We need all forms of production to meet consumer demand, which is the bus driver! Dr. Capper clearly states she has no problem with those niche markets, if you can make a go at it, then have at it. However, it is time for everyone to realize that we, as a collective production unit we cannot produce large volumes of beef under natural or grass fed systems and retain the production capability of the collective industry. That is the point Dr. Capper is making, and one that really means quit beating up conventional beef production to sell your product!”

A reader from Texas sums it up this way. “Every producer should produce for a market that allows him to be profitable. That is what makes his operation sustainable. The reality of U.S. agriculture is that we are losing more and more of our prime agricultural land every day, and we are going to have to produce more food on less land or become more dependent on other countries. Beating each other up over whose system is better and bad-mouthing each other’s product to the consumer just adds another problem that we don't need.”

So clearly, sustainability means different things to different people. In defining sustainability, I turn to the “triple bottom line” approach used in last year’s Global Conference on Sustainable Beef. This definition specifies that for long-term viability, a production system needs to be economically sustainable, environmentally sustainable and socially sustainable, meaning it satisfies society’s moral and ethical expectations.

More than one beef-production system can meet that definition, evidenced by the abundance of multi-generational U.S. beef operations boasting a century or more of profitable, environmentally sound production.

We’ll need to maintain that sustainability – while improving productivity – to meet the growing global demand for beef. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations projects that food production will need to double by 2050 to feed a population it project to grow to 9 billion people. Agriculture will need to achieve this with shrinking supplies of arable land, water, fuel and other resources. There are no simple answers.