If there was an upside to the 2006 report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” it is that it proved just how misinformed the 98% of the people are who enjoy the fruits of your hard work, but have negative and erroneous ideas about how you do what you do.

The report, released by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, was so heavily flawed that it drew smirks and incredulous gasps from cattle producers. For everyone else, unfortunately, it only cemented their already-negative thoughts about cattle production.

Here’s the other upside to the report: it galvanized cattlemen into getting more aggressive and doing something about it.

The results of that call to action were many, including more research and a stepped-up recognition that cattlemen must tell their own story. Recently, however, the beef industry took a major step – through the beef checkoff, cattlemen last year embarked on the largest sustainability study of its kind ever conducted. This farm-to-fork, comprehensive sustainability assessment will define, beyond any doubt, beef’s contribution to the three pillars of sustainability – economic, environmental and social.

While just about everyone has a different definition of sustainability, the beef industry defines it as the process of meeting beef demand by balancing environmental responsibility, economic opportunity and social diligence throughout the supply chain, according to Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, director of sustainability for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

The interesting thing about the whole sustainability conversation, she says, is that cattlemen have been producing more with less for generations. “But we have very little data to back that up,” which puts cattlemen at a disadvantage when discussing their role in feeding the world and answering the challenge of becoming more sustainable.

The sustainability assessment

The checkoff initiated the three-year study last year. The goal of the industry’s sustainability assessment is to turn that disadvantage into an advantage. But it’s important to remember that sustainability isn’t a simple yes or no question.

“Sustainability is not an on-off switch,” says Richard Gephardt, chairman of the Federation of State Beef Councils. “It’s not that we’re sustainable or not sustainable. Sustainability is a journey – it is continuous improvement.”

To that end, the industry’s sustainability assessment will provide cattlemen with a benchmark as the industry goes forward. So the first part of the effort was a “hotspot” analysis where industry stakeholders were asked to identify perceptions about the beef industry all along the value chain.

And they had concerns:

  • “If we go to the environment, biodiversity was their number-one concern for sustainability,” Stackhouse says, followed by air emissions, water emissions, land management and water use.
  • For economic concerns, stakeholders were concerned that confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) weren’t in compliance with existing laws. “They’re worried about traceability; they’re worried that we’re damaging rural economies,” she says.
  • On the social side, animal health and welfare was the top concern, along with consumer health and safety, consumer education and food availability.

“We were surprised that carbon footprint didn’t even make the list,” Stackhouse says. “We thought that was most peoples’ definition of sustainability. What we learned is sustainability has become a larger umbrella of issues for our stakeholders.”