Sustainability is biggest challenge and opportunity for modern ag businessesWritten by Saige Albert
“Sustainability is probably the biggest challenge, and at the same time opportunity, of our lifetime,” said Cristain Barcan of BASF’s Sustainability Program at the 2012 International Livestock Congress on Jan. 10. “We could talk about sustainability for the next year and not be able to finish saying all that can be said.”
“We see a lot of movement out there, not only in the beef industry, but overall in the food industry related to sustainability,” added Barcan, who mediated a panel representing all aspects of the beef industry, from production through retail sales and food service.
“The ability to make developments to ensure it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs is the definition of sustainability,” commented cattle industry member and professor of operation management at the University of Tulsa, Okla. Richard Gebhardt.
Gebhardt used the definition decided on by the United Nations Rural Committee on Environment in 1987, adding that there are three pillars focused on in looking at sustainability: social, environmental and economic.
“The circle of social sustainability in the three pillars starts getting into value systems, so I’d rather concentrate on the other two, which are easier to manage and measure,” commented Gebhardt.
Where Gebhardt’s resistance to social sustainability was seen, Executive Vice President of Business Development for AgriBeef Rick Stott noted that the social aspect is important because today’s consumer has shifted their focus toward sustainability and meeting those consumer demands is important.
Stott added that sustainability focuses on the idea that we are responsible for the resources that we utilize and, to ensure our future, we must use them the most effectively and economically as possible.
For Jim Lanier, Senior Quality Assurance Manager at H.E.B. Grocery Co., “Sustainability is meeting the needs of our customers and our business, and having a long term vision for resources in general.”
The path to sustainability
With common ideas to what sustainability is, the implementation of sustainable practices in businesses and operations across the country brings up the question, where do we begin?
Barcan suggested that, with sustainability as a main strategic pillar of businesses, deciding where and how to start may prove to be challenging.
“We identify stewardship, food quality and safety, and the fiscal aspect of sustainability and try to build our programs around that,” explained CEO of Mountain States Rosen Dennis Stiffler. “We’ve got to take care of our resources – that’s stewardship. If you aren’t putting out a quality, safe product, it’s all for naught, and the final goal is to have a profit so you can reinvest in your people.”
Stiffler added that taking care of the animals and the resources will help producers ensure a quality product that meets sustainability goals.
“It’s hard to pick which one of the three pillars to focus on,” said Lanier. “We have to attack them at the same time.”
While environmental sustainability may be the easiest to address, the social aspect and working to educate consumers provides an avenue that must be tackled.
Gebhardt noted that he prefers using the term stewardship, rather than sustainability, saying it is a moral responsibility, in operating a fifth generation cattle ranch, to take care of the natural resources, the private property rights and taking care of cattle. The longevity of the ranch has proven the sustainability of the operation.
“The beef industry is headed in the right direction,” added Stott. “There are very few people in the industry that do not understand the need to address consumer concerns.”
In establishing sustainable objectives, Stott noted, “We don’t have to be the innovators, we just have to be aware enough to get on the coattails of other industries.”
Involving other industries and new technologies, such as research to turn manure into dissolvable plastics, are being pursued daily, and Stott encouraged producers to pay attention and stay on top of industry developments.
“Fifteen years ago, only about 20 percent of people thought about sustainability and animal welfare, and now over 50 percent have those thoughts running through their minds,” said Stott. “It is critically important that we are able to offset the negative influences and share the real story.”