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Megan Rolf | Kansas State University
First, no definitive definition exists. Due to the difficulties inherent in defining sustainability, many working definitions contain three different attributes: economic viability, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility. However, a challenge arises if we move toward adding more specifics to the definition, as the opportunities to debate the priority of each of these facets of sustainability, the weighting that should be placed on each, and how to establish specific metrics and measure the outcomes could be boundless. With this level of complexity and ambiguity, a specific “one-size-fits-all” definition of sustainability becomes untenable.
Secondly, the solution is not binary. Because there is no standard, measurable definition of sustainability that perfectly sums up all possible sustainability priorities, sustainability can never be reached in the classic sense. A system can become more or less sustainable as it moves closer or further from the priorities, but it is not a “sustainable or not” classification. Just as in the adage, “It’s the journey, not the destination,” systems can alter their practices to be more in line with the ideals of sustainability, but there is no definitive threshold where one could say a system is sustainable.
Third, varying frames of reference skew stakeholder perception of the issue. Sustainability will be defined or weighted more heavily towards those aspects that are most important to that group or person’s goals and priorities. As with any complex issue, failing to take into account the perspectives of other stakeholders leaves no “common ground.” In order to show progress towards attaining a goal such as sustainability, groups must define, discuss, redefine, and compromise with other stakeholders to establish reasonable, achievable priorities that work for everyone. Of course, the larger and more diverse the group of stakeholders, the more perspectives and priorities that must be balanced. Sustainability in the beef industry is an excellent example because of the large variety of stakeholders and priorities, including cow/calf producers, stocker operators, feedlots, packers, retailers, foodservice operators, consumers, landowners, and nongovernmental organizations.
Which is more sustainable? Suppose that the grass-finished system above encompassed two different systems: a system comprised of planted bermudagrass forage only, or a system comprised of native rangeland only. Each of these forage types will likely have differences in stocking density, diversity of grasses and forbs, and fertilizer use.8, 9, 10, 11 Keeping in mind the fact that these metrics may be different for different forages or in different parts of the country, which is more sustainable? If the grazing is incorporated in a rotational cropping system to take advantage of crop residue or to graze cover crops, would that be more sustainable? What if any of these producers were forced to sell their cattle due to lack of profit or reduction of necessary natural resources — was it sustainable? If consumers were opposed to one of these production systems due to their perception of animal welfare, would that system still be sustainable? Each individual person will have their own priorities and perceptions that may color their initial answer. However, if we consider the complexity of these systems and the trade-offs in various metrics related to sustainability, no one system is an obviously more sustainable choice — all of these systems can be sustainable. No one system is definitively “correct”, because each has its own positive and negative attributes and each can become more sustainable by focusing on continual progress towards improvements for each of the three pillars of sustainability.
Bottom Line: Beef cattle production systems encompass a wide variety of management systems and environments. While one system may be very successful under one form of management and in one region of the country, that same management system may be unsuccessful in another. When considering various production systems with the three pillars of sustainability, it becomes clear why defining beef sustainability is such a wicked problem. However, even in the absence of a single universal definition and attainable sustainability goal, each beef production system can move forward and continuously improve its economic, environmental, and social sustainability.
Figure 1. Contrasting some sustainability metrics for grain-finished vs grass-finished beef.
Figure 2. Examples of some of the issues that fall under the economic, environmental, and social aspects of beef sustainability.