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Piercing the veil on sustainability

It's a powerful word shaping the future. But what does it really mean for Canadian livestock production?

Posted: June 20, 2014

Sustainability means many things to many different people and organizations, says Cameron Bruett. To a social non-government organization (NGO), it's about labour rights. To an environmental activist group, it's about the carbon footprint of livestock. To the producer at the base of the food chain, it's an often confusing and threatening term meaning more pressures, scrutiny and risks to economic viability.

But what is true sustainability, really? Is it something producers and their industries should be afraid of? How can the issue be managed to be more about opportunities and less about challenges?

A wealth of insight was provided by Bruett at the 2014 Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA) Future Fare event. As the Chief Sustainability Officer for JBS USA and president of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, he brought an authoritative and often frank, no-holds barred take on the fast-shifting landscape around this issue. Here's a small sampling:

Six things to know

1. Glass half full. Sustainability is a term increasingly used in the marketplace with consumers, advocacy groups and activists. Many in animal agriculture have seen it as a threat - driving higher expectations that threaten economic viability. But the rise of sustainability as model for the future should not be feared, says Bruett. "Actually, it's a brilliant opportunity. Including for Alberta, for Canada and for producers."

2. Real sustainability includes economics. The key is having the right definition, he says. True sustainability deals with three pillars - economic, environmental and social – in a model of balance and continual improvement. "It is the balance of three pillars where the true sweet spot of sustainability lies," says Bruett.

Critics of modern agriculture tend to leave out the economic part, which is a big mistake, he says. "Sustainability needs to be economically viable or we are not going to make progress. It needs to work for everyone in the supply chain or it won't work. We need to be cautious in the way we adopt sustainability into our supply chain, to make sure that we're not increasing costs without a commensurate return on investment for those asked to make changes. We also need to make sure we're not incurring unnecessary costs onto the system."

3. Niche systems will not do the job. Niche systems such as organic, grass-fed and natural beef are often promoted incorrectly as higher sustainability models, he says. "Sustainability in its simplest terms is producing more with less. Well there's nothing wrong with organic, but it actually produces less, with more."

"We hear if beef is going to be sustainable it can only be grass fed. Some people may dislike concentrated animal feeding operations, but the reality is with these systems you actually reduce your GHGs and your carbon footprint by having those animals be more efficient and productive.

"Not to say that grass-fed can't be sustainable. Not to say that we don't need grass-fed systems to help meet the challenges of tomorrow. But we have to be careful when we're defining sustainability and equating it with niche systems."


Cameron Bruett at Future Fare

4. Success requires scale and innovation. The big challenge is how to feed a rising global population, with almost 10 billion, increasingly affluent with an appetite for animal products, expected by 2050, says Bruett. "It's pretty simple - demand is growing, the world is not. We need modern systems, technology and innovation to meet the challenge."

The backlash against technology in animal agriculture is perhaps most perplexing, he says. "Consumers want technology in their cell phones, in their iPads, but they don't want it in their agriculture. That's a perception we have to fix."

A big win for agriculture at the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef was to get efficiency and innovation formally recognized as a fundamental of progress. "If we're going to define sustainability, we're going to do it honestly," says Bruett. "And without technology, without modernization, we can't meet the challenges of tomorrow."

5. Time to stand up. It's no secret beef production and animal agriculture in general are frequently hammered by activists and industry critics. To believe it all, one would think beef production alone is almost single-handedly ruining the planet and responsible for human health issues. Bruett cautions to remember this 'noise' comes from a vocal and radical "one percent" that unfortunately too often sparks knee-jerk reactions in board rooms around the world that are detrimental to true progress and sustainability.

"The rhetoric out there about our industry is very frustrating for those of us involved in agriculture and we need to stand up to it," he says. "Frankly, it's laughable. Because we are part of the most modern, the most efficient, productive, safe and globally dispersed food system in the history of mankind. Modern agriculture has an amazing story to tell. And we don't tell it often enough. This creates a vacuum, which allows our critics to attack us with free will."

6. All beef systems can be sustainable. At the end of the day, sustainability is simply all about continuous improvement, says Bruett. "It's about doing better today than you did yesterday, so you can improve tomorrow. We can all do that."

What it's not about is picking winners and losers or taking divisive approaches, he says. "The very nature of agriculture is about improvement, he says. "We're on different levels and stages of this journey but that doesn't make your product unsustainable, as long as you are moving in the right direction."

Leaders in innovation and others who can raise the bar should be encouraged and applauded, but not at the expense of others, he says. "Everyone at all stages needs inclusion and support. We should all benefit from sustainability because we're all on this journey together."


Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source as Meristem Land and Science, www.meristem.com.

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.


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