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Is sustainable beef an unattainable goal?

Kacy Atkinson for Progressive Cattleman Published on 12 July 2018

What do you do with a problem that is undefinable, hard to understand and lacks a consensus? That’s the constant challenge facing the beef industry because it describes perfectly the issue of sustainability.

There’s no doubt that sustainability is the definition of a “wicked problem.” Wicked problems are often defined as ambiguous with unattainable goals. They are complex, hard to solve, defined differently by different people and they are unique with no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Sounds an awful lot like sustainability, doesn’t it?

According to Sara Place, senior director of sustainable beef production research at National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), “Sustainability isn’t a top concern when making purchasing decisions but became a catch-all issue for ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ with consumers. Whether considering how we treat animals or environmental impacts, consumers in general want to feel good about their decision to buy beef.”

So, how do we figure out how to communicate the truth about the dedication, care and commitment to always getting better that is inherent in the beef community?

According to Place, sustainability is an issue that lives at the intersection of facts and values, which is why it can seem so difficult to define and agree upon. “We do have broad agreement that sustainability is about balancing economics, environment and social concerns, and that is about a long-term perspective,” Place says. “But each person will weigh these issues differently – that’s where the challenge comes into play.”

One of the areas that beef often comes under fire is for our greenhouse gas emissions into the environment. The case for veganism is often made on the claim that animal agriculture is bad for the environment. The good news for the beef industry is that a study done by the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service and Virginia Tech found that eliminating animal agriculture from the U.S. would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.6 percent. And yes, that means not only do we stop eating animals, but every food animal in America would have to instantly disappear from the planet to achieve such minor savings.

The research also confirmed beef’s critical role in the environment by serving as “upcyclers” of inedible food products for humans, into food that is edible for us to eat. Cattle produce 19 percent more protein for us to utilize in our diets than they consume in theirs. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization also found that 86 percent of what livestock eat globally is actually human-inedible plants and leftovers. Here in the U.S., research from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that even grain-finished cattle consume less than a 10 percent grain diet in their lifetime, meaning 90 percent of their diet is still plants humans cannot consume. That’s a great argument for beef in maintaining their role in our ecosystem and helping to make the tough case for sustainability.

Communicating that message to consumers is a key battle for the beef industry. Place states, “The best place to start is with shared values. The men and women that raise beef care deeply about the land, the water, the air, their animals and their communities. Demonstrating that passion is a great place to start. From there, you can go into specifics of what you do on your operation to get better and be sustainable for the long term.”

Ryan Goodman, director of grass roots advocacy and spokesperson development with NCBA, concurs and adds, “Along with sharing those snapshots of your daily life, find ways to connect on shared concerns and values with your neighbors and online connections. Identifying with those mutual interests will help us better connect with and gain the trust of those asking questions about the sustainability of raising beef.”

NCBA will play a role in continuing to provide research to prove that U.S. beef is now and will remain a sustainable option for the future. NCBA is working on collecting data from the post-harvest parts of the beef supply chain (packing plants to consumer) to update beef’s sustainability benchmark. This project will be key for communicating progress to consumers and supply chain actors. Additionally, there are a couple of ongoing projects on beef’s upcycling abilities, and a project that will put some numbers behind the ecosystem services that the beef community provides all across the U.S. via the land management services provided by cattlemen and women, Place says.

And while sustainability will remain a wicked problem with no ultimate solution for the foreseeable future, strides will continue to be made; the industry will keep working toward the unattainable goal of sustainability and find new ways to communicate that message to consumers to keep beef where it belongs – on their dinner plate.  end mark

Kacy Atkinson is a freelancer living in Garrett, Wyoming.

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