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Opinion: Is Our Use of the Term “Sustainability” Sustainable?

Opinion: Is Our Use of the Term “Sustainability” Sustainable?
HSUS wins by playing offense and keeping its opponents on defense. Are cattlemen playing their game in the words we use with consumers?

This year I am participating in the Iowa Cattlemen Association’s Young Cattlemen Leadership Program. As part of the program, we’ve looked at case studies of recent issues in the news, examined how we can become better advocates for our industry, and been challenged to become more involved in legislative issues.

In our June meeting, we talked about a comprehensive study taking place in the industry looking at its sustainability. It’s thus far identified “three pillars of sustainability” in order for us to gauge our progress and make our case. The pillars are social, economic and environmental.

The study brings up some interesting points, and raises an issue all of us should take a hard look at. My concern doesn’t lie in the pillars identified or in the desire to share the case for animal agriculture, especially beef, with consumers. What I object to is using the term “sustainable” in defining and evaluating our objectives.

I concluded this after listening to a speaker at that June meeting, Will Coggin of the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF).  CCF was founded in 1996 and is dedicated to protecting consumer choice and promoting personal responsibility by defending them from the growing number of activists and bureaucrats claiming to know “what is best for you.”

One CCF project is, a website devoted to unveiling the motives of the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS). Coggin pulled no punches in saying, “We don’t believe in negotiating with groups like HSUS for the same reason the U.S. government doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. They want to end our existence; we choose to continue to exist.”

Coggin compared the HSUS playbook to that of an opponent in a football game. Their goal, he said, is to stay on offense and keep us on defense. They do that not by going for touchdowns, but by simply moving the ball down the field to first downs.

As an example, Coggin spoke of the use of the term “cage-free” in the poultry industry. Cage-free began as a “reasonable request” for compromise from the poultry industry. It’s since become near the norm and can be seen for what it really was – a springboard. In fact, HSUS is already putting out statements such as, “Just because it is cage-free doesn’t ensure that it is 100% devoid of cruelty.”

Is it wise to continue to let our opponents define the playing field?

As producers, I believe we can sit down and use the term sustainability with each other. Yet, in light of Coggin’s comments, I would simply ask my fellow cattle producers: Has the meaning of the term sustainability been co-opted to such a degree for the consumer, by groups like HSUS, that our use of it is doing nothing but ensuring that we continue to play defense for another set of downs? If we continue to let ourselves be relegated only to that role, has the outcome of the high stakes game we play already been determined?

Beef producers have worked diligently to make sure all styles of production are accepted. There’s been little infighting among us as some producers have dropped the use of antibiotics, implants, synthetic fertilizers, or grain feeding from their production practices. We’re all still raising and selling beef. I understand that, but will our bark be sufficient to replace our bite after we have pulled out our teeth one by one?

If I choose to withdraw from the very world itself and produce food for just my own family, no one would doubt my sustainability. But is any type of industry viable as a result of that? What is the viability of that given our current social, economic and even environmental contexts? Isn’t our viability what it is all about? If we don’t understand that, I believe our opposition does.

Dan Hanrahan and his wife Erin work on his father-in-law Jim Bradford's Angus operation in Guthrie Center, IA.

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