Hottest topic in agriculture: Sustainability

Webinar discusses specifics of sustainability in protein production

The Animal Agriculture Alliance’s pre-summit webinar, "Sustainability: Where Are We Going and How Can We All Help Get There?" featured three speakers.

On the recent panel was Dr. Sara Reichelt, director of animal welfare and sustainability Aviagen North America; Dr. Sara Crawford, vice president, sustainability, National Pork Board; and Dr. Sara Place, chief sustainability officer at Elanco Animal Health.

In her segment, Reichelt offered a bigger picture perspective, “a high level overview” she called it, but first defined what sustainability means to her at Aviagen North America. She also discussed how companies can get started with their own sustainability plans.

According to the United Nations, the definition of sustainability is to meet the needs of today without compromising the future.

“And this definition is incredibly important,” she said. “But it’s also broad and it can be really challenging for people to understand what this actually means and the scope of their own company.”

Sustainability is broken into three pillars—environmental, economic, and social. The environmental part is usually the biggest part of the conversation.

“A lot of you are probably really comfortable with this environmental pillar,” she said. “This pillar focuses on the planet and ensuring we’re retaining and maintaining our natural resources for the next generation.”

Carbon footprint, global warming potential, water conservation—all fall into the environmental pillar. But when moving to the economic pillar, people tend to get uncomfortable.

“When you’re thinking about business, you have to be a viable business to make any difference in any of the other pillars,” Reichelt said. “You have to think about profitability, stability of your company, resilience and growth. And all of these are just as important as any of those environmental pillars that we just talked about.”

The social pillar is one where both people and animals come in.

“We have to consider what the ethical values of the society we live in are and we also have to consider what is our contribution as food animal industries is going to be,” she said. “We think about feeding communities, education internally and then externally, animal welfare and then opportunities of employees and safety of employees.”

Reichelt believes the food animal industries are ethically obligated to be concerned about sustainability.

“On a global level, we are a piece of the puzzle. We might not be the largest piece of that sustainability puzzle, but we still are a part of that,” she said. “And then on top of that, we provide high quality protein to communities to eat.”

When thinking about the longevity of the food animal industries, Reichelt wants producers to be able to continue to raise livestock for many years.

“We want to make sure that we can continue doing our jobs,” she said.

This is where transparency comes into play. Customers and consumers have become more focused on sustainability, more so now than they ever have been.

“By us embracing sustainability and then sharing that narrative, we get to be part of directing where we move forward and helping customers and consumers understand why we’ve chosen to do that,” Reichelt. “Sustainability is good business.”

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When thinking about building a sustainability program, the first step is to have leadership buy-in.

“If you do not have executive support or leadership support, you’re not going to have teeth,” she said. “On top of that you’re not going to have the financial buy in, the time buy in to move forward with any goals that you have.”

Next, you need a point person to lead the company into the program. Often times this could be an existing employee, with additional duties added. The point person and executive leadership have to be supportive and be on the same page to know what goals are moving forward in order to actually collaborate and ensure movement goes in the right direction for what the company needs.

“And a lot of you will look at this and think this is pretty obvious, but really it can be very, very difficult to take these first few steps,” she said. “So determine what your objectives are.”

Reichelt also suggests being proactive.

“We have got to lean into sustainability because it’s going to be here to stay,” she said. “So continuing to listen to these different webinars and going to conferences that focus on sustainability are going to help you move towards be more sustainable, and research innovative technologies, tools and approaches for growth.”

Technology is developing very quickly, so being conscious of those that are coming out which can help your company or organization is going to be valuable.

“There are a lot of great efforts going on already in the sustainability realm,” she said. “So utilize those tools. “You don’t necessarily have to do redundant work if someone else hasn’t already put together and they’re willing to communicate with you. Make sure to work with those groups.”

Pork side of things

Crawford thinks that protein-based industry agricultural associations need to find a way to help producers and companies create a path—in her case, to more sustainable pork.

“But as we think about creating a path to more sustainable animal agriculture, it does take all of us together,” she said.

Working together and with organizations like the Animal Agriculture Alliance helps the protein industry move forward together with as unified voice as possible.

“So for example, we know that U.S. pork or animal agriculture overall is positioned to be part of the solution,” she said. “We know that our pig farmers have a low impact on the environment that improves soil health and provides lean quality, affordable protein.”

In the swine industry, they already have a great story to tell about how it only accounts for less than one half a percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

“That’s a really good story to make sure that we share and we share together and say, but we know we’ve done a good job but we want to keep going,” she said. “We also know that we have a great resource in manure, whether it’s from pigs or cattle or poultry and we have that great resource that does improve soil health.”

When looking at quality affordable protein, U.S. animal agriculture products and protein are enjoyed the world over, Crawford said to not forget that story as well, especially when talking about hunger.

“We want to make sure we can help the fight against hunger here in the United States, but also how can we assist outside of our country by helping people understand that we have a great product to share that has a great sustainability story,” she said.

When thinking about sustainability in agricultural industries or animal agriculture, there’s been a great increase in efficiency and productivity.

“As we look at pork production, in the past six decades we have decreased our land footprint by 75%,” Crawford said. “And this includes the crop side and the actual pig farming side.”

The story needs to be continually told and shared. The National Pork Board had producer-led goal setting processes and asked themselves a few questions touching on key values and markets, societal market drivers, what do customers or consumers expect or want, what are investors looking for, and companies raising pigs’ expectations of producers.

As a checkoff organization, the National Pork Board and other checkoff groups work for producers and can assist.

“They’re there to take in that information and really figure out how to benefit the producers,” she said. “What does the producers need to make sure that they stay competitive both here in the United States and internationally? And how do we help create materials and create programs that benefit the producers in that way, and then help companies understand.”

Crawford said a big part of her job is talking to companies further down the supply chain, helping them understand how pigs are raised and what pork producers are doing for sustainability.

Cattle industry

When she discusses sustainability, Place also mentions the three pillars—environment, economic and social. It becomes quite a task to balance all those at once, she said.

“We’re trying to take that long term focus—meeting the needs of the present without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” Place said. “So everything from animal welfare, health of animals, culture and traditions, environmental footprint, so many things like carbon footprints, water footprints, and of course economic viability of producers within the value chain themselves.”

The balancing act is what makes this topic very difficult at times.

“We have to have outcome-based measures,” she said.

There’s sometimes overlap between the pillars and the real trade offs at the end of the day often come down to several questions. What should we be eating? How should we be growing food? Should beef and dairy even be a part of a sustainable diet?

“I think the key thing there is that anytime we use the word should, we have departed the land of objectivity,” Place said. “It is really important that we have outcome-based measures and that we can talk about progress over time and be transparent and science based when we talk about these things.”

But at the same time, people have to recognize a need for balance.

“It isn’t a perfectly objective conversation,” she said. “And that can be one of the things that makes the whole thing difficult.”

Much of the drive for sustainability in food production has been caused by consumers, but the investment community is also finding its role in the space. BlackRock, the largest hedge fund in the world has become very influential, Place said. The CEO of BlackRock, Larry Fink writes a letter that is published online every year. The last three years, the letter has been centered around environmental social governance.

“Kind of a clunky way to say sustainability and sustainability metrics around investing,” Place said. “So sustainability is much bigger than climate change, but climate change is really what dominates a lot of the discussion when it comes to sustainability.”

Place believes the key is addressing the importance of sustainability especially when conversations center around alternative meats.

“I think the key thing there is just to know and recognize a lot of these new products are really marketing themselves on sustainability, right?” she said. “Those key issues—human health, climate change, natural resources, helping animals live better lives, animal welfare, the use of technologies, all of these things—these are the things that are coming up in this marketing of alternative meat and dairy products.”

According to Place, addressing of these societal challenges has been demonstrated by the billions of dollars that go into these alternative industries.

“I think that’s part of our challenge within animal agriculture in that mindset shift of if there is that level of interest and desire to make something change and make something happen, how do we make sure that that investment is going into the right places to really make an impact from a standpoint of human nutrition, climate change, etc.,” she said.

Progress on the supply side can be made, and producers keep improving, but how is it going to be accelerated?

“This kind of contrast is being put out there that it’s, we either make supply side or production improvements, or it’s about demand reduction,” she said. “Really, that’s where the whole idea that alternatives have an impact is coming from, even though there’s really currently no evidence that there’s much demand reduction because of those products. But that’s at least the core argument.”

Place said the dairy and pork groups have set some ambitious goals with their stewardship commitments, including trying to be net greenhouse gas neutral by 2050, but beef is not resting on its laurels.

“We’re trying to get out there and make progress,” she said. “The argument that we’re just going to eat our way out of climate change is not going to happen, first of all. So I can actually help having those debates because we know demand is actually growing. So how do we make the production side better?”

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Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-22