The U.S. beef industry is taking the sustainability subject by the horns with the recent National Cattlemen’s Beef Association announcement of its U.S. cattle industry sustainability goals.
Cattle producers who attended the August Cattle Industry Convention and NCBA Trade Show in Nashville, Tenn., were able to learn more these goals during several sessions with the organization’s leadership and experts. The goals came from a grassroots, rancher-led Sustainability Goals Task Force, with members from around the nation providing input.
Marty Smith, NCBA past president, said the reasons for these initiatives to come about now is simple. “If we are going to be the definitive voice, it’s time for us to get our act together and get out there and do something,” he says. “NCBA had to take the lead, and not follow, not wait.”
The task force evaluated current beef cattle industry measures and production methods to come up with these goals, Smith explained. The group kept in mind the three-legged stool definition of sustainability that NCBA uses: environmental, economic and sociological impacts.
The goals include:
1. Demonstrate climate neutrality of U.S. cattle production by 2040.
2. Create and enhance opportunities that result in a quantifiable increase in producer profitability and economic sustainability by 2025.
3. Enhance trust in cattle producers as responsible stewards of their animals and resources by expanding educational opportunities in animal care and handling programs to further improve animal well-being.
4. Continuously improve the industry’s workforce safety and well-being.
Sustainability on the ranch
According to NCBA, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization shows that the U.S. beef supply chain has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions footprint of all beef-producing countries in the world. Cattle graze on grasslands that sequester carbon, and upcycle that forage into high-value protein for human consumption. Beef Quality Assurance protocols ensure cattle are handled responsibly and humanely — not only for their benefit, but for the ranch’s economic benefit as well. These are just some of the sustainability methods already in place in the industry today.
Jason Sawyer, associate professor and research scientist at the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management at Texas A&M University, Kingsville, said that often, people think the three pillars of sustainability work in isolation from each other — but really, they work together in a complex web.
For example, ranchers often focus on improving profitability and production efficiency to enhance the economic viability of the ranch, he said. But by improving those pillars, often cattle producers also improve the ranch’s environmental footprint and its labor resources as well.
“And, candidly, anything that we do that helps demonstrate the actual relationship of beef cattle or other agricultural systems to our environment, improves the consumer’s trust and confidence in what you do,” Sawyer said.
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association CEO Collin Woodall led a panel discussion with Kristine Young of Darden Restaurants, which operates casual dining establishments like LongHorn Steakhouse; and David Norton of Sysco, a leading food service distributor, about what they’re hearing from restaurant diners and food purchasers.
Norton said Sysco focuses on sustainability and puts the concept in terms of people, products and planet. He said they get questions from customers about sustainability, and they also want to make sure that they take care of employees as well. But increasingly, the conversation is lead by shareholders.
“Our shareholders are asking, ‘What is your global corporate responsibility strategy?’” Norton said. “‘How are you going to achieve your goals?’”
Young echoed that, and said in the past year there’s been a focus on investors in Darden, a publicly traded company, in “environmental social governance.” “Climate is really being driven as the conversation we’re having with our investors on a very regular basis,” Young said. Institutional investors are asking about sustainability.
“The consumer is really important, but there’s also a whole conversation happening in the financial market around sustainability,” she added. Young said she gets calls from investors on everything from carbon neutrality to animal welfare to antibiotic use — and even carbon credits for the gas the restaurants use in their kitchens. She said she appreciates NCBA’s willingness to talk about climate solutions in the beef industry and research the answers.
“Sustainability for me is about what you’re doing for yourself, for your family, for the animals, for your community, as well as the way that you’re talking about that,” Young said.
Woodall said it’s important for the cattle industry to understand that the sustainability conversation is just getting started, and that NCBA is going to be a leader so that the industry’s interests are protected.
“We certainly want to have a seat at that table, and we have to be a leader,” Woodall said.
“It’s time for us to get out there and show the United States and the rest of the world who we are, and what we really do,” Smith said. “Let’s show them we are the answer to sustainability. We’re not the problem.”