Sustainable Agriculture – March 2014

Every few years a new buzz word comes into use in our language which starts a whole lot of meetings and bureaucratic responses. 

Several years ago one of the buzz words was biodiversity.  Everyone wanted to conserve biodiversity and there were several environmental groups formed with the word biodiversity in their title.

The biggest trouble with utilizing the term biodiversity was never having a baseline to measure where we were on the subject.  We were told that we needed to preserve biodiversity without ever having a mechanism to determine whether we were being successful or not.  To those who saw biodiversity as a good mechanism to increase control over someone’s business this was a perfect scenario.  Like riding to the horizon, no one would ever achieve the goal of enough biodiversity. 

Another buzz word which seems to fall into the same trap is “sustainability.”  No one has a clear idea of what being sustainable really means, but at the end of the day, we see everyone wanting everyone else to be sustainable.  Recently, the issue came to the attention of folks in agriculture with the announcement by McDonald’s that they would begin sourcing hamburger from “sustainably” raised beef by 2016. 

In the information following this announcement McDonald’s admitted that they didn’t really have a definition of what they considered to be “sustainably raised” beef, but they had selected a panel of experts to come up with a definition.  A review of the panel shows that it is weak on actual producers and strong on meat packers with an environmental group thrown in for good measure. Since the purpose of McDonald’s new requirement is to have beef raised in a sustainable fashion and they now need to define what that means, one would have thought they would have looked to the folks on the ground to help come up with something that might actually work.

Of course after McDonald’s comes up with their definition there may well be others who decide that this is a good marketing ploy and decide they need to get on the sustainable bandwagon too.  Since they may be competitors to McDonald’s, they could well decide to appoint their own committee and come up with their own definition which could be considerably different than McDonald’s, because in the end “sustainability,” like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. 

The interesting point will be how this will translate into actions on the ground.  I could see a scenario where producer A would be raising beef to fit McDonald’s definition, while his neighbor producer B would be raising his cows for Burger King or Wendy’s.  Of course depending on how different the criteria is, producer A may only be able to raise and sell to McDonald’s while producer B could not sell to McDonald’s and could only sell to his contracted fast food restaurant.  Talk about a captive supply.

Let’s look for other retail entities to get into the act.  Of course in order to comply with all of these added requirements the producer will need to change their management practices, whether or not it is economical or not.  There will also be a need to individually identify the animals through the processing chain so that McDonald’s, or anyone else wanting people to believe they only use sustainable products, will be able to prove their claims whether the system is too costly or unworkable or not.

Chipotle, who has been doing this also, has similar requirements which are suitably vague to allow them some wiggle room.  This company has admitted at times they can’t source enough products to meet their criteria.  Of course, the company also raises the concern about green house gas emissions of modern agriculture transportation, while admitting they are importing avocados from Chile. 

It would appear the claim of sustainability is more important as a marketing tool rather than an actual practice which may or may not fit your criteria.

By Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President

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