The moving target that is “sustainability” is here to stay, according to industry experts. It also has the potential to be a target on the animal agriculture’s back.

During a recent checkoff-funded ag media conference hosted by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), industry experts spoke about current and developing issues for ranchers within the sustainability discussion.

Alan Rotz, agricultural engineer with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service’s Pasture Systems and Management Research unit, summarized the issue succinctly:

“There is a growing global demand for animal protein, that includes beef. At the same time, there’s a lot of concern over the long-term sustainability of beef.”

He, and others, acknowledged the difficulty in defining the concept however.

“A general definition is ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs,’” Rotz continued.

“But there are about as many definitions out there as people trying to define it. Usually the definition is built around the goals and objectives of the person who is defining it.”

Sustainability: Not just a fad

Despite mainstream perceptions, well-managed ranching is a sustainable process. However, there are some potential issues ranching may face in the ongoing sustainability discussion. Pictured: Cattle from the Brookview Farm in Manakin-Sabot, VA graze.

Regarding the importance of sustainability as a concept of concern within the industry, several speakers said in no uncertain terms, it is not a fad and it is not going away. Dr. Sara Place, NCBA’s senior director of sustainability research, summed up the sustainability situation matter-of-factly:

“It’s not going to go away in terms of a pressing issue or a thing that consumers of beef are going to be interested in or talking about.”

Consumers care

NCBA Director of Market Research, Shawn Darcy, presented recent consumer data, noting that consumer concern over beef sustainability is growing, putting it as a middle-of-the-road purchase consideration at the moment.

Dr. Kim Stackhouse-Lawson—director of sustainability for JBS USA, but previously a main researcher on NCBA’s first lifecycle assessment on cattle sustainability—added that “Sustainability will be a top-five demand driver in the next 20 years, however you define it.”

This can, in large part, be “blamed” on Millennials.

Estimated at 73 million strong, Millennials are the largest single consumer group by age demographic in America. They are additionally the generation raising children at the moment. In light of this market power, Stackhouse-Lawson—a Millennial herself—tried to explain Millennials’ unusual behavior as consumers.

“We’re belief buyers,” she stressed. “Millennials integrate their beliefs and causes into their choice of companies to support.”

Sustainability is increasingly one of these causes. Stackhouse-Lawson pointed to data showing Millennials as twice as likely as Baby Boomers to value sustainability-related label claims like organic as important, even if they don’t know what the label claims mean.

“They will choose to spend more money on something if it supports what they believe in,” Stackhouse-Lawson went on. “[Millennials’ behavior] is our new reality.”

Potential future issues

Consumers’ definitions of sustainability are slowly expanding too, according to presenters.

“It’s not just environmental sustainability anymore,” Darcy said. “It’s what [the cattle] are eating, it’s the way they’re treated, it’s recognizing herd growth and feeding a growing world, and we’ve seen market conditions and land needs popping up, as well.”

Stackhouse-Lawson added that issues like antibiotic use and cattle health are beginning to fall “under this sustainability umbrella” for consumers today.

Both Darcy and Rotz also noted that mainstream sustainability attention has turned towards methane emissions, potentially problematic for ranching.

“Most of the greenhouse gas emissions from cattle production is methane and it is a very powerful greenhouse gas,” acknowledged Rotz. “But the lifecycle of methane in the atmosphere is fairly short.”

He explained that methane (CH4) decomposes into carbon dioxide (CO2) in 12 years. Other sources, including NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, say the decomposition timeline can be as short as eight years. This is part of the natural carbon cycle.

“I guess what I’m saying is greenhouse gases and climate change isn’t a big deal [with cattle production],” Rotz continued. “Socially it is. It is something we are dealing with hard in the beef industry, but it’s not, in reality, I think, as important as other things.”

One of those other things is reactive nitrogen (Nr), according to Rotz.

“We’re releasing a lot of reactive nitrogen in our process. This is a growing issue and it may become a pretty major issue in the future. When it comes to reactive nitrogen, agriculture—and in particular livestock agriculture—is a pretty major player. From that standpoint, I think we need to take it pretty seriously.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ editor

WLJ Managing Editor

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