Is industry sustainability sustainable?

Is industry sustainability sustainable?



Sustainability. Some dismiss it as just another transient buzzword of the new social media paradigm. Others believe it’s the Holy Grail of the cattle industry, offering peace and prosperity for all. And some think of it as a moving target, costly to chase with an elusive pay-out.


“What is sustainability? That’s what I ask everyone when they say we need to be sustainable. I was at a meeting one week and someone said it meant animal welfare. I went to another meeting the next week, and someone told me it meant something else,” said Chuck Maclean, chair of the Canada Beef Inc. board. “That’s why I ask people what it means to them when it comes up for discussion.”


“Sustainability is a system that recognizes and maintains itself without requiring capital or ecological withdrawals, with longevity being a key indicator,” says Phil Rowland, president of the Western Stock Growers Association.


“Sustainability from a business/feedlot perspective encompasses a wide swath of topics,” said Brent Chafee, chair of the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association. “Whether it be labour, the environment, customers, suppliers or financial, sustainability in its most basic form is managing the balance between inputs and outputs.  Too much or not enough of anything is never a good formula – unbalanced things never last long.”


Harold Martens, president of the Saskatchewan Stock Growers’ Association, says sustainability involves three tiers – economic, environmental and social.


“Sustainability is the ability of people in the cattle and beef industry to continue using our natural resources, production knowledge, and scientific advances to produce safe, nutritious, high quality beef in an industry that is economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially responsible,” said Rich Smith, executive director of Alberta Beef Producers.


Kevin Grier, senior policy analyst from the George Morris Centre, puts it bluntly. “Sustainability in the cattle industry means doing what you have always done, only bragging about it and pretending it’s a new idea.”


When it comes right down to it, they’re all right. But because people’s views are so diverse and sometimes abstract on the issue, it can pose a challenge for the industry when it’s used as a benchmark for market entry. At its most basic definition, sustainability is the capacity to endure. According to Wikipedia, sustainability is the potential for long-term maintenance of well-being, which has ecological, economic, political and cultural dimensions. “Sustainability requires the reconciliation of environmental, social equity and economic demands – also referred to as the ‘three pillars’ of sustainability or the 3 Es,” says the Wiki entry.

Although the term ‘sustainability’ may be relatively new to livestock industries, it has always existed. The three pillars have always been important, but one as industry develops, different pillars are more important at different times. The United Nations developed the three-pillar understanding of sustainability, and the global food industry has used it as a model to evaluate the value chain. The idea is that the three elements are holistic and inter-related. A food production system or component must be economically viable, it must be in line with our values as a society, and it must meet environmental values as well.


The concept can be difficult to work within because it’s intangible, and it’s subjective. And if industry doesn’t have its own definition, other stakeholders may try and impose one. That’s one of the reasons why industry is working together to try and define what sustainability means for the Canadian beef business.

“A Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is being established to bring together representatives from across the beef value chain including primary producers, packers, retailers, food service, environmental groups (NGOs) and government,” said Ron Glaser, vice-president of corporate affairs and operations for Canada Beef Inc.


A steering committee with representation from Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Canada Beef Inc., National Cattle Feeders Association, Cargill, World Wildlife Fund, Loblaws, McDonalds, as well as AAFC and ALMA to oversee the project, and the CCA is serving as secretariat. Glaser says there are eight key areas of focus, and the committee will work in conjunction with the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. He also emphasized that the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef should not be confused with the Beef Value Chain Roundtable as they are distinct and separate initiatives.


In many ways, the Canadian beef industry is well-advanced in sustainability efforts, but it’s an issue of convening to put all the pieces together, and to determine what missing pieces there may be. Although it’s certainly a good exercise for any business or industry to undertake, for the food industry the matter can be especially urgent.


Sobeys, Canada’s second largest grocery retailer, has launched its own website dedicated to sustainability – not surprisingly, the address is Food producers have to be on top of their game in order to be able to participate in the sustainability conversation, which is almost bordering on mandatory in the retail world. In fact, Sobeys has an entire page dedicated to how the company is turning its focus to the sustainability within its own supply chain, “It is important to recognize that our supply chain is responsible for 80% to 90% of the cumulative environmental footprint made by bringing a product to our shelves,” states the website.


Whether it’s a buzzword or a better way to describe a condition every industry wants to achieve, sustainability has clearly become part of the culture of food production. If many trend analysts are correct, sustainability might become a condition for trade, and in that context, it’s little wonder it’s become such an enduringly hot topic.

By Sheri Monk