Guest Commentary: “We Are Sustainable”

Joe Martin, Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association

It seems that everywhere I turn I cannot escape seeing the term “sustainable” being used and thrown about; usually in a negative way inferring that we in the cattle business need to change the way we operate in order to fit someone’s definition of the term. That leads me to a burning question…what is the definition of sustainable and are we in the cattle business allowing someone else to define it for us?
 
The most widely accepted definition of the term is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This makes sense to me and seems pretty straightforward. So what’s the problem?
 
The first problem is that anti-agriculture/anti-meat activists and some market opportunists are twisting the term to meet their needs and paint the general cattle sector as terrible for the environment. The second, but fixable, problem is the agriculture community not adequately engaging in the discussion and advocating that our current systems of production are more sustainable than past systems, and that we should not be asked to dramatically change our practices without substantiated evidence.
 
In fact, and this is what I like to call an “inconvenient truth” for those who are advocating change to less intensive production systems, is that you cannot be “for greater sustainability and against modern beef production practices”. In other words, finishing cattle in a feedyard setting and using technologies such as beta-agonists, antibiotics and other tools have paved the way to greater sustainability and they all should be embraced if sustainability is what we are most concerned about.
 
That’s not to say there should not be niche markets for certain beef products raised in different less intensive production systems. But, we need to call the bluff and stand up and say that it’s unreasonable and downright foolish to think you can be less efficient and expect a reduced environmental footprint.
 
So, I guess it’s time to pose the question to those who are advocating and asking us to change; “What’s more important…greater sustainability and embracing modern beef production practices, OR moving to less intensive and less efficient production systems to meet perceived consumer demand?” Makes you wonder if those promoting sustainability are really interested in a sustainable beef production system at all or have an alternative agenda.

Joe Martin is Executive Director of the Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association.  He has also served as an assistant commissioner with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and in policy positions with the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation.

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