Whose Definition Of Sustainability Should We Abide By?

Whose Definition Of Sustainability Should We Abide By?

Over 20 years ago, I began to interact with other ranchers who were questioning their practices. We began to ask such questions as:

• Are our ranches sustainable if we continue to use the current practices?

• How far into the future can we go with this method of operation before it will no longer work?

• Is this going to improve our soils and rangelands or degrade them?

• Can this be profitable long-term?”

In hindsight, I think these questions truly dealt with “sustainability.”

About this same time, I spent several years serving as vice chair and then chair of the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Environmental Committee. This committee had a lot of interaction between environmental groups, regulatory agencies and cattlemen. We did this intentionally to learn and understand the mindset of those we often deemed to be “the enemy.”

From this experience, I learned that actually we had common objectives –among them were a shared desire for clean water, clean air and safe food. We usually also could agree on wildlife habitat and biodiversity, as long as regulations did not prevent us from being profitable as cattle producers.

I also learned that many in the environmental camp had well-intended, serious and legitimate concerns for the environment, and that they were willing to donate money for environmental protection. Another revelation was that these folks generally knew very little of ecological principles and were easily led to positions that would do little or no good for the environment. Some of these positions, in fact, could be disastrous to the financial well-being of the ranchers.

Simultaneously, I learned that many cattlemen had a genuine love for the land and their way of life. They wanted to leave the land better than they received it, and assumed their practices were protecting the environment. However, as a whole, producers also knew very little of ecological principles.

The result was that both sides tended to argue over the appropriate methods for achieving the objectives they shared, but with little understanding of what actually could be economically and ecologically sustainable.

In those day, I used and liked the words “sustainable” and “sustainability.” In fact, I was fond of saying, “If it’s not ecologically sustainable, it’s not economically sustainable and vice versa,” with emphasis on the vice versa. Today, “sustainable” has become a buzzword that is defined as whatever someone’s agenda or opinion wants the world to be.

I believe sustainable ought to have something to do with durability or the ability to persist or last well into the future – even hundreds of years or millennia. A large part of the earth is occupied by farmers and ranchers who produce food and provide for their families. That’s been my reason for saying that we must be sustainable both economically and ecologically, and I still subscribe to that 100%. If a rancher can’t expect a reasonable profit from making operational changes that may be environmentally friendly, he has little incentive to make that investment – especially if he already has financial difficulties. 

Socially sustainable? 

Today, we hear and read that we must also be “socially sustainable.” I agree, but I’m concerned that what is socially sustainable can be continually redefined and bent to the whim of well-intended, but misinformed people. Much of that agenda has to do with issues of culture, heritage, employment and animal welfare.

While I’m in favor of preserving and promoting these values, I wonder how much they have to do with true sustainability. Misguided regulations could endanger the ability of farmers and ranchers to be profitable. This could, in turn, make it more difficult to use practices that are ecologically sound for the benefit of the environment.

As producers, we’re blessed to farm and ranch at a time when we are learning much about how to do more with less. Grazing management and farming techniques are able to reverse the trend of organic matter loss. We’re learning how to increase water infiltration, reduce evaporation, increase soil moisture holding capability, and improve nutrient cycling and biodiversity. We’re able to get higher yields with less input of fertilizer, fuel, herbicides, pesticides and other inputs.

These practices take more carbon from the atmosphere and put it in the soil. (Think of it – changing soil organic matter from 4% to 5% is a 25% increase. That constitutes a huge transfer of carbon from atmosphere to soil.) The carbon, along with other elements, improves the soil and its productivity.

I think we as farmers and ranchers should do all we can to understand sound ecology, and manage to make our operations economically and ecologically sustainable. But I also believe there is a risk of well-intended, opinion-led regulations that would keep us from using methods and inputs that can enhance sustainability and help feed a growing population. I hope we can all be open minded and careful to ensure that good science prevails in the formation of our own opinions.

Those who sell our products to a consuming public will try to provide what their customers want – that is their job. Meanwhile,   the consumers who drive demand are concerned for their health and their pocketbooks, and some are concerned about the environment. Too often, however, their opinions are shaped with less-than-good information and understanding.

Therefore, farmers and ranchers should work to better understand sound ecology, and manage to make their operations economically and ecologically sustainable. Hopefully this will demonstrate to the consuming public that we care, that we are competent and that we can produce an abundance of safe food while caring for the environment. That helps us become “socially sustainable” as well.

Burke Teichert, consultant on strategic planning for ranches, is retired as vice president and general manager with AgReserves, Inc., where he was involved in seven major ranch acquisitions in the U.S. and the management of a number of farms and ranches in the U.S. as well as Canada and Argentina. He resides in Orem, UT, and can be reached at burketei@comcast.net.

The opinions of Burke Teichert are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or the Penton Farm Progress Group.

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