Are YOU Sustainable?

One reason I love ag so much is because of the individuals involved in agriculture.  The farmers and ranchers themselves.  Individuals like my dad.

Dad was a problem solver every day of his life.  Problems arise whenever a “doer” does something.  Dad was always doing something.

Scan0029 (2)

Mom and Dad with their two oldest grandchildren.

I remember one day when I was about 10.  Dad and I were going to feed hay to the cattle in freezing weather.  But the front-end-loader tractor had some engine trouble.  Without fanfare, Dad started taking the tractor apart.  I was helping him by holding nuts and shining the drop light (not in his eyes!) and fitting my smaller hand into places he had trouble with.

“How do you know how to do all this, Dad?” I asked, amazed at his calm, methodical mechanical work (which, as he shared with me in later years, he happened to hate!).

“I don’t.  I just start and figure it out as I go.”

His words stuck with me.  Dad was a doer.  Doers make more mistakes than anyone else.  But they also learn more and get more done than anyone else.

Dad is 74 now, and doesn’t do as much as he used to.  But whenever I do something, I want him around.  He just knows so much!  He recently taught me how to install a new air conditioner, including wiring in a new 20 amp breaker and running the wire through the wall.  He was never trained in this.  He figured it out on his own as he went about his every-day production tasks.  I’m the beneficiary of his explorer’s mentality.

Apparently, today’s burning question is, “Was Dad sustainable?”

Did he have a procedures manual to document every production task he undertook every day?  Did he file a plan before tearing into that tractor?  Did he have a mission statement that included words like “biodiversity” and “ecology” and “society?”  Did he outline how he was going to decrease his “environmental footprint?”  Did he have a licence to do that electrical work?

Nope.  He was too busy figuring out how to do things better.  How to be more efficient.  Solving problems as they arose.  Producing.

No, Dad was not sustainable.

He provided a living for himself and my mother.  He raised 5 kids.  He produced food that other people demanded.  And he took care of his own land and animals in order to do all of that.  But by our own industry’s definition of sustainability, he didn’t even come close.

Here’s to Dad and all the other farmers and ranchers and other producers like him who are “un-sustainable.”

If only we had more in the world like them.


Yep, I sure do love ag.  Oh, and just to be clear, I love my mother, too.  She wasn’t sustainable either!  🙂


Below is the transcript from the press conference in Tampa, Florida, at which “our” industry’s Sustainability Assessment project was explained.  I believe it’s vital that every true producer out there read it in its entirety.

Beef Industry Sustainability Assessment Press Conference

(First major event in Tampa)

Jon Robinson of NCBA’s Communications Team welcomed everyone and introduced Richard Gebhardt, Vice Chairman of NCBA’s Federation Division, and member of CBB’s Producer Communications Working Group, and member of NCBA Executive Committee.


I think one of the things you’re going to hear over the next couple of days when you start talking about sustainability – and you’re probably going to get tired of hearing it, but I think it’s a very, very important part – sustainability is not an on and off switch.  It’s not binary, it’s not that you’re sustainable or not sustainable.  Sustainability is about, you’re gonna hear the word “journey.”  Probably a more technical word is “continuous improvement.”

And so, but this journey started about 2 years ago with a pretty bold decision in my opinion by the Beef Promotion Operating Committee, a joint committee between the Federation Division and the Cattlemen’s Beef Board that allocates or makes funding decisions with the 50 cents of the Checkoff dollars that producers commit.  And that was to go forward in this area of Sustainability.

And… this is new.  And it was loaded with uncertainty not even loaded with risk.  This is a brand-new field.  And I’m really excited about this thing.  You know, we’ve had a lot of parties involved in it.  NCBA is the principal contractor to the Checkoff and Bo and Kim handled the principal coordination of the thing, the Board appointed me to – I don’t know if I was supervising them or not, but they kind of carried me along and I’ve learned a lot about this.

Two other parties I’d like to mention and get ‘em on record because they’ve been a great contributor to this thing and I’ve learned a lot from ‘em.  Number one is a corporation which you probably wouldn’t think would be involved with sustainability efforts. And it’s the BASF Corporation, headquartered in Germany.  And a great leader.  I’ve learned a lot from ‘em, I think Bo and Kim – I won’t speak for them – but they’ve taught us a lot.

And then the other one that was kind of surprising was the USDA’s animal research facility in Clay Center, Nebraska.

And…I’m gonna sit down here because, but, I think you won’t be able to get a handle around this project when you first see it.  You’re gonna have to look at it two or three times.  I’m not the smartest bulb on the circuit out there, but this thing is complex.  And I’m really proud of the way Kim and Bo melded the supply chain together and the metrics that they used, especially up-stream, up close to the cow-calf guy, the simulations that were made down at the Clay Center welded with more observational-type data downstream towards the consumer.

With that said, I’d like to introduce Kim and Bo.


Okay, thank you everybody for being here.  We’re…I’m gonna go ahead and walk through a very short presentation today on the assessment.  We’re going to be rolling this out at a larger meeting at 1:30 in Salon F at the Marriott, so we would love for you to come.  I do think that it is something that you have to see a few times in order to digest it and get your arms fully around it.

So, sustainability really became a word when the UN FAO published “Livestock’s Long Shadow” and they suggested that livestock was worse than all of the world’s transportation when we talked about greenhouse gases and carbon footprint.  But really, what the report wanted to do was answer the question, “How do we feed 9 billion people by 2050?” and they suggest that we’re gonna need at least 70% more food.  And that we have to produce 70% more food with fewer resources than we do today.

So really, the question becomes, “How do we produce more with less?”  We’re running out of resources.  Resources are finite.  And agriculturalists all over the globe are asking the same question.  How do we produce more with less?

Now this story is really the model of the beef industry, right?  We’ve been doing this for generations – producing more with less – but we have very little data to back that up.  And to be able to talk about our role in feeding this global population and answering this challenge of how do we become more sustainable.

So sustainability is really one of those words that everyone has a different definition for.  And I always joke that if you were going to ask 100 students, “How would you define sustainability?” each one of them would have a different answer.  And so that’s really the first challenge that the beef industry had, was to define sustainability and what it meant to the beef industry.

And they started with an advisory committee that was both…mostly… had Checkoff producers involved, and they said, “We need the definition of sustainability to be larger than the traditional definition that’s been predominantly centered around carbon footprint and GHG emissions.  We need it to be completely balanced along our supply chain.  And we want to address 3 aspects:  Social, Environmental and Economic Sustainability.  And we’re not just interested in gas emissions or air emissions from the environmental side, we’re also interested in our contributions to water, and soil, and land use, and does our product influence solid waste or resource consumption, and we’re interested in how our product and it’s sustainability affects consumer price, right, and production costs.

And on the social side, we want to make sure that we’re contributing to our communities and we want to be able to measure that, both in our contributions to rural economies, but also in our larger sense, where is there equal opportunity employment?  What sort of working conditions do our employees have?  So it’s a…we really took a holistic approach to the definition of sustainability.

The next thing we had to do, and Richard talked about the process that we have is really to put together a project that made sense.  A project that would answer the perceptions of what sustainability was to the beef industry, but also surrounding that definition which was so important to us.  So we conducted…or we set out to conduct…a comprehensive sustainability assessment of the entire beef industry.  So this is a complete life cycle assessment that analyzes the industry for the first time from birth of the animal through consumption of our product.  And through every single chain as we go through.

The next thing that we said is that 2011 is not good enough.  Just understanding where we’re at in 2011 isn’t going to help us make conscious decisions on how to improve over time.  It’s not going to help us on our journey like Richard mentioned.  So we said, “Okay, let’s go back in time and let’s pick years that make sense.”  And the first thing they said was, “Well, the biggest shift in our industry was the shift to boxed beef that we had in the late 60s early 70s.”  We need to understand how our sustainability changed when we made that shift to boxed beef.

And the second thing they said is that in the early 2000s — and we chose 2005 for some, some data reasons (there’s stronger data in 2005 than there is in 2001 or 2002) – we said ethanol became a major commodity, if you want to call it that.  And we started feeding distiller’s grains.  And that changed our industry again.  We had to figure out how to do better at feeding these new diets that contained distiller’s grains.

And then we decided, also, of course, to include 2011 as our benchmark.

They also said that the social component that was initially included in the original BASF model – although it included two things:  occupational health and safety and also toxicity potential – wasn’t good enough.  And that we knew that BASF was coming up with a whole new model that included a complete social analysis.  And they said, “We want to be the first to do that!”

And that data’s not ready to go.  We’re still in the process of collecting that and analyzing it because of the timing of the models, but it will be coming.  When we complete the project.

And the next thing that they had to ask themselves was, “Are we afraid of conducting the largest and most comprehensive lifecycle assessment that’s ever been done?” Not just at the level of a food chain, but ever been done before.

So they really approached this as leaders and thus, they’ve set the stage for beef leading the sustainability conversation globally.

So the project has three parts.  We started with the hotspot analysis, which I’m going to talk about a little bit later.  But basically this is the part where we went out and asked our stakeholders, “What’s your perception of beef sustainability?”  “What story do you know about our sustainability?”

The second part was the life cycle assessment.  This is the actual scientific data that goes on.  This is the part that will…has taken us the longest, and it includes environmental, economic and social parameters.  And it was very important, like Richard mentioned, that we had to partner with the right team.  We had to partner with people like BASF, and USDA ARS who shared our definition of sustainability.  That shared our belief in the importance of going all the way… from birth of the animal to consumption of the product, and not just stopping at the farm gate the way so many projects have done.

And then, finally, we said that we wanted to develop a lifecycle assessment tool that could be used by individual operators along the entire value chain.  This is in process right now, so I won’t be mentioning that, or talking about it too much today, but we are in the process, and we’re hoping to have our first lifecycle assessment tool developed by April.  To be used.

So what is the hotspot analysis?  This is really a qualitative assessment, okay, to identify the perceived issues along the value chain.  So it’s based on non-scientific literature.  And that’s kind of a big jump for Bo and I and Richard to say, “Okay, we’re not going to go to the normal journals, right, the normal peer review journals.”  We have to actually ask Google what it thinks about beef sustainability.  We have to ask what the perceptions are of the consumers…those people that hear about us in the media every day.  And then we said, “Okay, we’re going to take those perceptions and we’re going to make a survey that we then ask 100 of our stakeholders to participate in.  Out of those 100, we had approximately 40 willing to participate, which seemed terrible to me at the first.  I was so disappointed.  And then BASF told us that we usually only get 15% interested in participating.  Well almost half wanted to participate in our survey.  So there’s a lot of interest in this at the level of our stakeholders.

I think, most importantly, it gives us an idea of what’s known about us and it allows us as scientists that we’re not just answering the questions that we think are important, but that other people think are important.  And that really gives us the tools to start to tell our sustainability story.  And it also gives us starting points for actions for improvement.  So we don’t have to wait for the science to come out to start answering some of these perceptions that are known about us.  And you’ll see why.

So we asked then, “What are your perceptions of the beef industry when it comes to sustainability?”

They had some concerns.  Their highest concerns are bolded for you in the areas under their pillars, okay, so if we go to the environment, Biodiversity was their number one concern.  For sustainability.  Then air emissions, water emissions, land management and water use.  Notice, nowhere up there is there carbon footprint.

When we go to the economic, they say compliance with the law.  They’re worried about large, confined operations, which they call CAFOs, being in non-compliance.  They’re worried about traceability, they’re worried that we’re damaging rural economies.

Under the social side, animal health and welfare was their number one sustainability concern.  Consumer health and safety, consumer education, and food availability.

So when we looked at this, first we were surprised, right, we were surprised that carbon footprint didn’t even make the top list because we thought that that was most people’s definition of what sustainability meant.

But what we learned…sustainability has become this larger umbrella of issues for our stakeholders.  And so, we started to work through how we were going to answer these.  Some of these things we will be answering with the sustainability assessment, some of these things we already know a lot about.  Like nutrition was one of the social concerns.  We have a lot of research…a lot of work built into the nutrition facts around beef.  And maybe we need to do a better job communicating with our sustainability stakeholders on what those are.

So now we’re gonna switch into the second phase of the scope of the project, which is the life cycle assessment.  Now this is the most complex part of the project, so bear with me as we go through this.

Due to the complexity of the beef value chain on-farm, so through the cow-calf, into the stocker and into the feedyard, we felt that a traditional life-cycle assessment which only accounts for inputs and outputs wasn’t good enough.  So we went to USDA ARS Pasture Systems and Management and we said, “We want to use your process-based model.  Now a process-based model basically just uses mathematical equations to derive biological processes as they occur in nature.  So, in other words, we need to be able to capture how things change based on region.  So, in Oklahoma right now, Richard’s probably not getting much grass.  And he probably didn’t have a lot of grass this summer.  But we know that the weather was decent in the NE part of our country, right?  They had quite a bit of grass…and rain.  In that region.

So we can’t just say, “There’s this much grass produced by going out and cutting it and weighing it and putting it into a life cycle assessment.  We have to rely on technology to predict that for us.  On research models that say, “Based on the temperature of the year, the season that we’re in, the soil quality that we have and the amount of rain that we get, we’re going to be able to predict how much grass is gonna grow, thus predict the performance of those cattle, how much that mama milked, and if she’s gonna cycle again to breed back the next time.  So that’s what that model does.  That model basically predicts on farm biological processes.

Then we asked BASF, who’s an expert in chemical development, right, and chemical processing, to take our post-harvest side.  To take us from the packer through the retailer into case-ready and into the consumer.  And they’re very good at counting inputs and outputs.  So we basically merged this model into the BASF model to create what’s called an eco-efficiency portfolio.  Which we’ll present in a little bit.

Now, remember, I talked about the years.  So we actually have data back into the 70s on-farm, because of the meat animal research center, which Richard mentioned.  Okay, so they have a massive database that we can then take these biological models that are mathematically based, and compare them to the data we have at the US animal research center.  We do not have data back into the 70s, unfortunately, on the post-harvest side.  So the major results that include everything from birth of the animal through consumption of beef will only be looking at comparing 2005 and 2011.

So, what do you need to know?  To understand the data, which you’ll see in just a little bit.  Remember that life cycle assessments are mostly an accounting system, right?  Accounting for the inputs and outputs.  And we have things called secondary emissions.  So, for example, if you have cardboard, right? That’s used in the production of beef – so we ship beef in cardboard boxes.  That cardboard comes in with an impact…of how much IT affected environmental, social and economic parameters of sustainability to make the cardboard.

So we have to account for ALL of the inputs and ALL of the outputs in these life cycle assessments.

On-farm, the best example is fertilizer.  Fertilizer has an impact.  To make it.  So we have to take that impact into OUR assessment.  Okay?  So we have to understand secondary and primary.

Again, the cow-calf and feedlot portion of this project are based solely on the meat animal research center at this point.  Which is based in Clay Center, NE.  We have plans in 2013 to regionalize the data, so we will take these models that we’ve created and start to build assumption herds in different regions across the United States.

Now the reason for that is that cattle production is very different in Clay Center, NE, than in Florida.  Right?  Grass grows at different times of the year, cattle calve at different times of the year, there’s different management systems.  So we have to be able to understand how the sustainability of these systems change, based on the region.

The packer data is representative of approximately 60% of the harvested animals we have in the industry.  Unfortunately, we did not have any cooperation from the retail sector.  So we used public available data from FMI, EPA and USDA.  Now, because we did not have the participation from the retailers, we did not have primary consumer data either, so that’s all from public available sources as well.

Okay, so what do we need to understand moving forward?  Certification of this project is THE most important thing to the research team and to the Checkoff.  We will be submitting this project for certification to the National Standards Foundation, who is the same certifiers of the ISO Certification, so they’re very…they’re the largest certification company in the world… in the next coming months.

So all of the data that you’re seeing here is preliminary.  So please, we need to keep this inside the family, we need to wait till this is certified at this point to really release this publicly.

Um, we have 2005 and 2011 data, and this serves as a benchmark for where we’re at today.  There will be some results suggesting where we can go in the future, and where improvements we’ve seen in the past.  But today, this is a benchmark based on ClayCenter and 60% of the packing industry.

Our final report will include the social pillar.  Remember that’s not yet complete.  And you have to understand that everything we show you is based on one pound of minimally processed, boneless, edible consumed beef.  So this is our eco-efficiency portfolio for the beef industry since 2005.  On your X axis, you have cost normalized, and notice that the numbers are inverted.  So the highest value or the highest cost is at the X-Y intercept.  And environmental burden is on your Y axis.  And again, notice the highest environmental burden is towards the X-Y intercept.  And this is the area of red.  Okay, so that would be low eco-efficiency or low sustainability.  As we move away from the X-Y intercept, it gets greener, indicating higher eco-efficiency or higher sustainability.

So, since 2005, which is denoted here by the red data point, to 2011, the beef industry has seen significant improvement.  Another way to look at this is through the environmental footprint.  So this is taking, basically, the data indicators from the Y axis and putting it in a visual so we can all see improvements.

So there are 6 components to the environmental burden portion of the life cycle assessment.  Energy Consumption.  Emissions, which include emissions to soil, water and air.  Toxicity potential, which is a social indicator.  Occupational illnesses and accidents, which is also a social indicator.  Resource Consumptions, so the utilization of utilities, water, etcetera.  And Land Use.

And you can see that in every area, the beef industry has made improvements.  From 2005 to 2011.  Essentially shrinking that environmental footprint.

So the next question we always get is, “So you’ve measured these improvements, but where are they coming from?”  There’s been a tremendous amount of innovation along the beef value chain.  The innovations that have occurred on farm have included things like machinery technology, so remember the same example I used about fertilizer, where we have to take into account the impacts that it took to make the fertilizer?  Well, when tractors become more efficient, we get to take the advantages of that machinery efficiency.

Irrigation techniques have improved.  Fertilizer and manure management techniques have improved, things like precision farming have made a big deal, improvements that we’ve seen in animal performance, genetics, health and management have improved the sustainability of our industry, and, of course, the improvements we’ve seen in crop yields in the last 6 years.

On the post-harvest side, we have some incredible innovation that’s happened in the last 5 years.  There’s been a lot of plants shifting to more bio-gas capture, closed-loop water cooling systems, water recycling systems, in the case-ready part of the industry, we have right-sized packaging taking place, so using less plastic to package meat and ship it.  We have increased plant utilization and optimization.

So I hope you can see when we start thinking about the ways that we’ve made a difference in the industry.  It’s not just about improvements that we’ve seen on-farm.  Or on the feedlot.  Or improvements that we’ve only seen in the packing community.  It’s improvements across the entire industry.  And it’s that holistic approach that gives us that overall example, or that overall take-away on that eco-efficiency portfolio.

So there were some things that surprised us, right, when we conducted the project.  First and foremost was the vast definitions of sustainability that we got.  You guys saw the hotspot analysis, and the little graphic that we put up there for you.  And we noticed that GHG and carbon footprint weren’t even listed as one of the top hotspots.

We also were surprised at the improvements achieved from bio-gas recovery and the closed-loop water cooling systems and waste-water recovery systems made such a difference.  On the packing sector.  They were huge contributions and huge innovations that changed the sustainability of our industry.

We were also surprised that we think that the lowest-hanging fruit and the biggest opportunity for us to improve as a beef industry moving forward, is to partner with folks who are working on food waste.  If we could reduce food waste, at the consumer level, by half, we could improve our beef sustainability portfolio by 10%.

So there’s huge value in doing these types of assessments to understand where those improvement opportunities are.

So, what are the benefits from this sort of research?  I think it gives us the data and the proof we need to tell our story.  It’s based in good science, and it demands that the supply chain focus on the right areas to actually achieve sustainability improvements.  And we avoid arbitrary areas that may be regulated or imposed upon us, right?  And it also effectively addresses the need for more sustainable alternatives, and helps us feed that growing world.  It helps us become a part of the solution.

And I think it’s always important to keep in mind, we always end our presentations with this, um, slide, and it speaks to what Richard mentioned before.  That sustainability is about continuously improving over time.  That it’s a journey.  Not a destination.  And that we have a sustainable product today, but we always want a more sustainable product tomorrow.

And we hope that’s going to resonate with the consumer.  That that will help build consumer trust, and build beef demand.


One last thing. If you think this project is driven from within by our own industry people, read the comments on this article in Brownfield News.  I found it quite enlightening.


One comment on “Are YOU Sustainable?

  1. Whenever someone tries to tell you something is a “journey,” watch out… they’re about to try to convince you to write a series of blank checks.

    The profitability of a farm, its ability to feed people – and employ them – as well as the minimization of a farm’s impact on the planet, can all be boiled down to a series of “on and off” switches. It’s what’s referred to as agronomics, the science and economics of producing food from the land, frmo one generation to the next.

    Farming IS binary (or Boolean), and is only a “journey” insofar as each individual farmer is on a journey. Farmers are, by their very nature, always improving, all on their own, without any help from any outside forces, with the exception of the Good Lord Himself.

    This Beef Industry Sustainability Assessment program is nothing more than a morality program that’s going to cost farmers a lot of money with absolutely no benefit. It’s a bureaucratic guilt trip, and nothing more.

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