Agriculture can’t allow outsiders to define sustainability

Troy Marshall

December 4, 2014

5 Min Read
Agriculture can’t allow outsiders to define sustainability

At first blush, one would think that defining sustainability and efficiency shouldn’t take more than few moments. Sustainability, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is defined as “harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” USDA has already produced a legal definition of sustainable agriculture. According to U.S. Code Title 7, Section 3103, sustainable agriculture means “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will over the long-term:

•Satisfy human food and fiber needs.

•Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends.

•Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls.

•Sustain the economic viability of farm operations.

•Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

Efficiency is even easier to define; simply divide outputs by inputs. Certainly there are different types of efficiency; for example, we can measure economic efficiency or biological efficiency. The relationships for both are pretty simple to calculate, and while economic efficiencies change according to costs of inputs and outputs and the like, the concepts seem pretty straightforward and well-defined.

Yet, these concepts are not nearly so simple in application. That’s because politics and marketing have become the drivers in these discussions, and both tend to care far less about facts and far more about creating perceptions. Sadly, politics and marketing are also seen as a zero sum game, where there are not two winners but decided victors and losers.

Thus, we have a lot of confusion about what the words “sustainable” and “efficiency” mean and how they can be achieved.  The fact that they’re interrelated isn’t the important concept. The key is that as marketing and political tools, they are being manipulated to achieve predetermined goals by those involved. 

Some of it’s laughable and should be ignored. After all, agriculture has made great strides in sustainability since the Great Depression, and even greater strides in efficiency. In fact, the rate of progress in efficiency has been staggering.

In 1970, the U.S. needed an inventory of 140 million head of cattle to produce the same amount of beef product as we do today with 90 million head! We were able to do that by improving reproductive efficiency and growth and carcass traits.

We’re just now beginning to measure and identify feed efficiency, which promises to spur even more dramatic improvements in cattle efficiency. Yet, there are some who claim efficiency is strictly outputs or inputs, and some reduce the debate to absurdity via simplification.

For instance, some marketers claim smaller cows are more profitable in every environment. Forget the fact that such a premise would result in the never-ending chase for smaller and smaller cattle. Meanwhile, the disciples of output would have us soon producing cattle that resemble elephants.

Such extremes in view are admittedly in the minority, and the mainstream rejects such claims with little thought. In a broad sense, efficiency is fairly easy to define, but it is unique to each individual operation.

Politics and sustainability

Sustainability is a whole different game. It’s a concept that’s entered the marketing arena as well, but it’s primarily a political word used to justify certain political agendas. Depending on who you talk to, sustainability means everything from locally grown, to being grown by small producers vs. economically viable-sized operations. For others, it means grass farming, organic, all natural, or even the elimination of cattle production altogether.

Thus, it’s been increasingly important for the industry to engage in these talks and be involved in the political process surrounding the sustainability movement. The bottom line is that everyone is 100% for sustainable agriculture, but there is wide disagreement on what that looks like and how it will be measured and verified.

home photo contest

Photo Gallery: Home Is Where You Hang Your Hat
At BEEF, we're proud to celebrate the ranching lifestyle. Enjoy 70+ photos from our readers that showcase their country home. Enjoy the gallery now.


On the whole, cattlemen have been slow to engage in this process, because sustainability is part of our creed, one of our most deeply held beliefs, and a principle we all embrace. Unfortunately, sustainability has become the all-encompassing word that every entity in the system is trying to shape for its own agenda. That includes government, industry, consumers and all the activist groups.

Because everyone agrees with the concepts/principles of sustainability, it’s the perfect vehicle to drive whatever change anyone wants to implement. Protecting the environment used to have similar appeal and power, but the politicization of the word eventually eroded its power. If the sustainability movement is successful at raising costs, increasing regulation, and providing cover for a myriad of political agendas, then sustainability will have to quickly become a top priority for the industry. Of course, it’s always been just that from a factual standpoint, but it needs to be from a political view as well. 

The opinions of Troy Marshall are not necessarily those of and the Penton Agriculture Group.


You might also like:

What's The Best Breeding Weight For Beef Heifers?

5 Steps To Winterize The Ranch

Billionaire Aims To Make Florida The U.S. Grass-Fed Beef Capital

Burke Teichert: Beef Cow Reproduction; What, How, Why

8 Apps For Ranchers Recommended By Ranchers

What Do The Results Of The 2014 BEEF Efficiency & Profitability Contest Teach Us?

Is This The Year To Over-Winter Cull Cows?

Bale Grazing Let's Cows Feed Themselves


Subscribe to Our Newsletters
BEEF Magazine is the source for beef production, management and market news.

You May Also Like