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While the idea of a “triple bottom line” in sustainability involving environmental, economic and social considerations has been generally accepted for some time, the latter has received the least attention of the three. Economists and ecologists have made significant headway in the development of metrics for sustainability and protocols for monitoring and measuring it, while frameworks for assessing social sustainability are less rigorous and numerous. Even more scarce are applications of the concept of social sustainability to agriculture, and, specifically, to the pre-harvest sector of the beef industry. While social sustainability remains a poorly defined concept, a few definitions circulating in the beef industry served as a base for our investigation: “socially sustainable communities are equitable, diverse, connected and democratic and provide a good quality of life” , and social sustainability is “community and organizational resilience, based on principles such as equity, health, social capital, and well-being” . This research began from the premise that a socially sustainable beef industry would be one in which the beef industry created conditions of social well-being for all those impacted by it—ranchers, employees, consumers, and other stakeholders. Concern that the beef industry does not promote social well-being has been growing. For example, national media attention has recently showcased conflict in agricultural communities, for example between ranchers and public land managers and between non-tribal ranchers and tribal members over resource access. As this increased attention to the social aspects of beef production demonstrates, the beef industry’s social license to operate will increasingly depend on its social sustainability efforts. Consumers and advocacy groups are questioning whether the beef industry can maintain and contribute to social well-being in the rural U.S., suggesting that a viable future for the industry must include practices that value and care for lives all along the supply chain. This project sought to contribute to knowledge on this important topic by pursuing two main objectives: (1) develop a framework for evaluating social sustainability in ranching communities across the U.S. and (2) pilot it in three counties in Oregon’s High Desert Basin.
This report draws from qualitative research conducted between January 2021 and January 2022 in two phases. In spring 2021, an in-depth literature review was conducted, and 15 key informants were interviewed. Interviewees for this phase of the research were selected through purposive sampling using the authors’ contacts, recommendations, and snowball sampling. Participants had to have worked in ranching in some capacity for at least 15 years and have demonstrated through publication, participation in events or groups, or presentations that they are thought leaders in the field of ranching and sustainability. Phase 2 (Fall 2021) involved piloting this framework in a case study of three counties in Oregon’s High Desert Basin - Klamath, Lake, and Harney - where cattle ranching comprises a significant portion of local economies and livelihoods. Interviews with 21 ranchers occurred via Zoom or phone. Interviewees were selected based on purposive and snowball sampling and ranged from 24 to 75 years old, with an average age of 45. They included ranchers of small, medium, and large operations, as well as family-owned, corporate-owned, and high amenity ranches.
Based on results from phase one of the project, six themes were identified which were used to develop a framework for evaluating social sustainability as it relates to the beef industry, particularly cow–calf operations, across industry, community, and individual scales: human health; rancher learning/adaptation; community relations/support; equity and inclusion; land tenure and succession; and industry structure. In phase two, these themes were explored with Oregon ranchers to gain a better sense of their relative importance. Issues associated with ranch ownership change, succession, and rural community dynamics were among the most pressing, along with concerns about overall industry structure. A key finding is that the social sustainability of the beef industry cannot be separated from the social sustainability of rural communities in the U.S. Repeatedly, interviews across both phases of research indicated that achieving social sustainability for beef producers is deeply connected to rural dynamics across the country.
An important point emerging from this project is that systemic changes are needed in order for the beef industry to better balance the three pillars of sustainability. Based on the findings of this project, we have identified several recommendations for next steps for future social sustainability research. First, ranchers need more support for adapting to changing social and ecological conditions. Specifically, development of more emotional support resources in rural communities, building better connections between rural producers and urban buyers, and providing resources on emerging opportunities outside of the owner-operator model; for example, for ranchers to work as professional managers or lease land rather than own it. As property prices continue to rise, it is critical that the industry help ranchers continue producing when land ownership is not an option. Second, ranchers have limited understanding of how ranching communities can be more equitable and inclusive. In closing, there is a need for future research that builds on the nascent ideas presented here and that explores alternative future scenarios for the U.S. beef industry.