@SustainAg.  Views expressed are solely those of Sara Harper.

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Jul 25, 2014
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RSS By: Sara Hessenflow Harper, AgWeb.com

Sara is the Director of Sustainability & Supply-Chain Solutions for Vela Environmental, a division of Kennedy and Coe, LLC where she leads the firm's CSO On-Demand Services.  This blog explores the topic of agricultural sustainability -- including the market forces and hidden drivers propelling it from a pragmatic and solutions-oriented point of view.  Follow Sara on Twitter: @SustainAgViews expressed are solely those of Sara Harper.

Chipotle's Environmentally Costly Decision

May 30, 2014

There is no easy prescription when it comes to creating a sustainable food system.  There are always tradeoffs.  The easy thing to think is that you can just find a more "sustainable" place to source your product from – some magical place that has no problems.  Of course, every place has its challenges, they may differ – but there will always be environmental impacts from any system that successfully feeds billions of people.  The right focus should be on examining how the producers are managing the problems they are dealt. 

This brings me to Chipotle’s latest marketing stunt in which their co-founder announced on the Huff Post Green blog that they will begin instituting the policy of importing Australian grass-fed beef rather than make up for supply shortages of their "Responsibly Raised" beef with conventional U.S. product.  

 "We believe that in addition to the simple fact that our Australian grass-fed beef is delicious, serving it is an important step in our never-ending journey to help build a food system based on what we call Food With Integrity. Returning to grass-based farming systems for cattle is a core component of our long-term vision."

-- Steve Ells, Chipotle Co-founder

Chipotle is of course free to choose where they source their beef and what attributes they market to the public.  They are not, however, able to avoid the fact that they are choosing to elevate a vision of agriculture: cows eating only grass, into the best environmental choice for a growing global population facing fewer natural resources in the future.  But they are indeed making that claim.  I guess that doesn’t matter since their slogan is not Marketing With Integrity.

Chipotle wants to have their cake and eat it to, but the truth is – cattle that are finished on grain more efficiently convert their food to weight, require fewer animal numbers to produce the same amount of meat and as a result, have less environmental impact than the beloved vision of cows grazing endlessly in a pasture.  The fact that these environmental benefits of the current beef system are not better known, measured and reported is, I believe, a great weakness for the current U.S. beef system, leaving them vulnerable to exactly this kind of specious marketing.

With all the work I have done in the environmental sector, I know how hard it is to really be able to say for sure that swapping one choice with another is in fact, environmentally better, because again – there are always tradeoffs.  So, I’d be really curious to hear from the folks at Chipotle if any of the questions below were considered before they pulled the trigger to source from Australia as the more "responsible" choice.


  • What are the environmental impacts – particularly water use and greenhouse gas emissions, of refrigeration, ocean shipping, land transport for Chipotle sourcing from Australia instead of the U.S.?


  • Is the extra demand on water for grazing cattle for export out of a dry country and the extra carbon emissions for solely grass-fed beef a good use of resources when there is literally a huge and growing population that beef could go to nearby in Asia? In other words, what is the indirect environmental impact of the market signal Chipotle is sending for greater distance exports to the U.S.?  Who is going to make up for the market share into Asia?  It will probably the U.S. beef sector. 


  • Your stated preferences for grass-fed, hormone-free beef translates into a system that needs to raise roughly double the number of cows to create the same overall amount of beef.  How do you account for these added environmental impacts in claiming your system is better for the environment?  Keep in mind, the more cows you need to make the same amount of beef = the more environmental impacts you are creating!


  • Since solely grass-fed cattle require significantly more time alive to reach their processing weight, and convert their feed with far less efficiency than grain-finished cattle, how are you accounting for the added days of impact multiplied by double the cattle needed to make the same amount of beef.So in Chipotle’s logic, it makes more "sustainability" sense to ship in beef from half a world away – and thus, encourage U.S. producers to send their beef again, a half a world away for the grand accomplishment of accessing a system that requires more cows, alive for longer amounts of time and therefore creating more greenhouse gas emissions, more manure, more water impacts – to make the same amount of beef as a highly efficient U.S. producer that they could source from locally.

Perhaps the fact that importing beef right now is a lot cheaper because of low cattle numbers in the U.S. has something to do with this decision?  I know, I’m too cynical.

When you add it all up, it is really not defensible for Chipotle to claim that shipping grass-fed beef in from Australia is the more sustainable, more pro-environmental choice. 

That’s the fun part – pointing out how Chipotle is so off the mark.  The harder part is for the U.S. beef industry to recognize the need to embrace environmental assessment, documentation and communication on issues that consumers and food companies are increasingly caring more about.

I hear all the time, "Ag needs to tell its story."  Truthfully, ag needs to PROVE its story.  To do that, there is really no way around the hard work of measuring and managing more than just the typical profit bottom line – but doing a far better job of assigning value to the many intangible things that are a part of profit. 

Just because Chipotle is wrong about how they characterize U.S. beef does not mean they are wrong about the market forces that are interested in the topic. 

I’m working with a group of producers called Triple Bottom Line (TBL) Commodities that joined together three years ago to better understand and define sustainability and add value to their operations in the process. 

Now more than ever, the agriculture industry needs more than just a good defense, it needs a good offense.  TBL Commodities is positioning itself to be just that.  The group’s goal is to become a collection of sustainable producers that have the data to prove it.  This is the way to close the trust gap with consumers, become preferred supply chain customers and maintain a social license to operate.  Only then will the larger agricultural industry be empowered to get out of the never-ending loop of reacting to the latest bad public relations stunt. 

Follow Sara on Twitter: @SustainAg


Key Sustainability Issue: Managing Drought

May 15, 2014

Unfortunately, there is not an easy smartphone app to end a drought.  Wouldn't that be nice!  As California wildfires continue and much of the country's productive land faces continuing drought projections, I thought I would share some really helpful resources I've run across in hopes that these tools can at least help farmers plan, prepare and better manage this expanding menace.

The resource links in this post are coming from a very helpful and intersting website: www.drought.gov

First up is a pretty amazing drought map viewer from the The National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS).  The current map is pretty scary and has been the subject of a number of tweets today.

To keep track of what drought is doing and where it is projected to go in the short term, you can check out the site's weekly drought update.  Then if you'd like to look at the seasonal forecast, you can do that too.  Then there is a page that lets you visualize the historic drought data for specific locations, called the drought risk atlas.

The site also has a helpful page that focuses specifically on the impacts to agriculture - showing the percentage of land in all the states that is rated in poor to very poor condition for grazing, for example.  This page links you to agricultural producer organizations that report on drought issues in their areas with the help of crop watchers.

There are helpful pages that provide information about planning and mitigation as well as drought recovery and how agricultural producers can connect with disaster assistance as well as linking to USDA websites on the same topic.

So, how does this topic fit into the "sustainability" topic?  Drought is a major impact that is projected to get worse with climate change.  Many food companies and grocery stores know this and are actively planning for how the manage the added volatility in prices that comes along with severe droughts -- and droughts moving into areas that were previously not prone.  Websites like this one from EPA's climate impact and adaptation section along with more detailed private analysis are being used to map out and think through future sourcing and processing plant siting decisions. 

If the people you sell to are looking at drought this way, maybe it makes sense to take a closer look at the projections for your area and think through what options might be worth pursuing for adapting to more drought (if that is the projection for you).  That is just one of the things I am working on with clients -- so that they have more time to deal with difficult decisions.

In the meantime, I'll keep saying my prayers for rain!

Follow Sara on Twitter: @SustainAg




A Guide to Useful Twitter Sustainability Sources

Apr 09, 2014

We are living in the age of massive information overload.  Never before has information been so accessible -- with content easily created and instantly disseminated to wide audiences through handy sites like Twitter and Facebook to name just a few.  The advantages of all this free-flowing information sharing are numerous.  It is easier than ever to expand your horizon about pretty much any topic you can think of -- without having to trudge through big research libraries (like I used to have to do!)  The challenge, however, is that it is hard to keep up with all that sharing -- and hard, sometimes, to separate the wheat from the chaff.

As I have been building new sustainability service lines, I have dived into the deep end of the Twitter pool to both connect more with people and groups about ag sustainability topics -- and as a way to check the pulse from important sectors like food retailers, market research groups, food companies, farmers and activist groups about the latest sustainability news of the day.  As we decided which information we would share and re-post from others on our Vela Twitter and Vela Facebook accounts, we found that we were also creating in essence, a filter of sorts for the massive amounts of sustainability information getting updated every minute of the day.  We even wrote up an overview of our criteria for what kind of information followers could find on our sites.  In my experience, taking the time to find consistently good "sharers" of quality information pays off in multiple ways down the road.  You never know when a key insight shared in just a few concise words will help you become that more efficient or help you add value to your business because you were aware of an emerging trend.

So, for those of you interested in following what I consider some of the best sources for sustainability updates, articles, information and trends -- I have compiled a listing (with links) of just a few of the groups I have found to provide real value, for you to investigate.  The larger point here really is how important it is to find a trusted filter of information -- or to become one yourself as a way of adding value to your clients and customers.  The list below is by no means complete -- think of it as a suggested starting place for good, regular updates on sustainability.  Happy hunting!

Valuable Twitter Feeds to Follow on Sustainability:

Sustainability News Sources:

GreenBiz (@GreenBiz)

Triple Pundit (@triplepundit)

3BL Media (@3BLMedia)


Corporate Sustainability Supply Chain Info

Sustainable Brands (@SustainBrands)

Rabobank Group (@RabobankGroup)


Ag Sustainability Academics

Kansas State Univ Soil Microbiologist Chuck Rice (@cwrice)

Univ. of Arkansas Office of Sustainability Executive Director & Prof of Ecological Engineering, Marty Matlock (@martymatlock)

Conservation Technology Information Center at Purdue (@ctic_tweet)


Farmers/Farm Operations and Groups with helpful sustainability information

Fair Oaks Farms (@fairoaksfarms)

Tom Farms (@TomFarms)


















Water Quality Issues Gaining Traction

Dec 03, 2013

Addressing water quality concerns from non-point source pollution (as in from city streets, residential yards and farm fields) has always been a difficult challenge.  How do you know where the pollution is coming from?  How do you divide out responsibility for reducing pollution in a fair manner that actually helps reduce environmental impacts on the streams, rivers and lakes we all depend on for life?  Until recently, these challenges, combined with a fairly weak Clean Water Act -- at least in terms of how non-point source pollution can be managed, have kept water quality issues and regulations from encroaching in any real way on most of the agricultural industry.  But that seems to be changing.

This Fall, two court rulings have opened the door for EPA to begin setting limits on non-point source pollution in all waterbodies that are impaired.  In one case, the American Farm Bureau lost its challenge against EPA's ability to set limits on nonpoint source pollution on the Chesapeake Bay basin.  Another case coming out of New Orleans gave EPA six months to come up with numeric limits on this type of pollution for all impaired waterbodies - or explain why such a move was not necessary to protect water quality.  This is a big change in the status quo of how water quality issues will be managed.  The court said that EPA's claim that it had no jurisdiction to compel states to clean up this type of pollution was not accurate.  The Washington Post described it this way:

"In a Sept. 20 decision written by Judge Jay C. Zainey, the U.S. District Court for Eastern Louisiana sided with environmental groups that challenged the EPA’s "hands-off approach" to managing pollution.

An EPA attempt to dismiss the suit was denied. The court was not persuaded by the agency’s argument that it was leaving it to states to manage pollution, with EPA’s help, because it had no jurisdiction to compel a cleanup.

Zainey gave the EPA six months to at least begin to develop a plan. A spokesman for the Department of Justice, which represented the federal government in the suit, said only that its lawyers were reviewing the decision and had not decided its next step."

That same Washington Post story also highlighted a recent report out about, you guessed it: green slime!  Some choice quotes:

"At least 21 states closed lakefront beaches and issued public health advisories as a result of toxic algae between May and September; last year 20 states took similar actions.

Toxic algae is the byproduct of the same types of pollution that causes dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay — phosphorous and nitrogen from livestock manure and chemicals sprayed on crops such as corn that spills from farms into assorted waterways during moderate to heavy rains."

The danger for agriculture in all of this is that if water quality regulations are done badly -- as in prescribing a set amount of nitrogen fertilizer allowed per acre regardless of the multiple variables that can affect fertilizer runoff, the cost could be great in terms of yield.

The good news is that there are better methods for reducing runoff -- or as I like to call it, increasing nitrogen efficiency.  Just today USDA and EPA announced that they are launching a partnership to support water quality trading -- a concept that would allow for more flexibility in how pollution reductions are achieved.

"New water quality trading markets hold incredible potential to benefit rural America by providing new income opportunities and enhancing conservation of water and wildlife habitat," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "Additionally, these efforts will strengthen businesses across the nation by providing a new pathway to comply with regulatory requirements."

And, if you are a corn grower, there is a powerful tool out there right now developed by Cornell University, called Adapt-N, that can provide a farmer with a much more accurate recommended rate for nitrogen fertilizer -- and recommends the best time to apply it.  Trials of Adapt-N to date have saved farmers who have used it a range of $15-30/acre on fertilizer costs while maintaining or improving yield.  For more info on this tool and how it can help address water quality issues that government and the food supply chain are increasingly pushing on, check out www.FineTuneNitrogen.com

Once again, there are positive pathways for agriculture as a sector to protect its bottom line and navigate concerns about the environment -- but it requires getting engaged early and in a strategic way!


Dairy's Example: How & Why You Should Engage

Jul 11, 2013

Author’s note: The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author, Sara Hessenflow Harper, and do not necessarily represent any other organization or individual.

Sustainability assessment of the agriculture sector – in some shape or form, is coming!  (See my previous posts - and especially the one about the real drivers pushing the sustainability trend.)  For an increasing number of crops and products, it is already here.  The drivers behind this trend of wanting to know more about how food or fiber was produced, are connected to deep and encompassing forces like 3 billion more people joining the planet in the coming decades, a rise of a global middle class with buying power never before seen in countries like China and India, and yes, increasing extreme weather events. 

Add these forces up and you have a recipe for a highly volatile supply chain with great risk for disruption.  Managing this risk is a key challenge to retailers and processors of food and everything else the world buys and consumes.  As I’ve said before, if you want to understand what is driving the significant uptick in all things "sustainable," you really have to see it as an umbrella term that really translates into "long-term risk management" strategy.

What this means is that companies that must continually procure, price and sell items at a profit in order to stay in business, need to get much better at understanding where the biggest disruptions and price increases are likely to come from – and find those who will be able to be the lower cost providers in the future because of natural resource access, good efficient practices, geographic location, export market shifts and a whole host of other factors.  To do this, food retailers and processors need data – specifically, a lot more data about the likely long-term ability of the people they work with or buy from to continue to be in business over the coming decades.

What this means is that "sustainability" assessment is not a fad that only caters to a small subset of the Western consumer's green preferences and is most certainly NOT going away, but rather will expand as technology allows for capturing and processing more data than ever before.  I have begun to think of the term "sustainability assessment" as really meaning "assessing your chances of staying in business over time."

With that background, I want to draw your attention to what one subset of the agricultural sector is doing to meet this challenge in a proactive way.  Recently, the U.S. dairy industry released the result of years of multi-stakeholder work to define and provide guidance about how to measure key topics of sustainability that could be applied across the entire dairy supply chain.  They created a consensus sustainability guide that incorporated perspectives from producers and co-ops, to processors and retailers. Their effort also worked with leading environmental and animal care academics and non-government organizations to create a guide for defining and measuring sustainability that is balanced, science-based and works for the sector.  Take a look at the impressive list of members on dairy's Sustainability Council who oversee this effort.  

Simply put, what the dairy industry has done – and continues to do, in terms of defining the sustainability issue for itself, is at its core, meeting the needs of its customers and consumers in managing the risks that face them. 

By stepping forward in a leadership position, industry leaders certainly face risk – but they also are securing the best chance any industry has to define its own fate, rather than have additional burdensome and inaccurate assessments of someone else’s definition of sustainability, forced upon them.  Which, by the way, are definitely in the works!

Right now, the dairy industry has put forward their Stewardship and Sustainability Guide for external stakeholder review and comment.  Again, they have taken a brave step forward – embracing transparency and encouraging engagement rather than retreating to a fortress mentality.  This is not an easy thing to do.  It is far more comfortable to stick to a defensive approach.  But on this issue, a defensive approach is only justified if the underlying drivers that are pushing sustainability assessments might be defended against.  Can any sector push back global demand and spending increases projected by the Organization of Economic Cooperation & Development of 571%, or $32.9 Trillion by 2030 for the Asia Pacific region alone

OECD projected spending for global middle class by 2030

The dairy industry is doing an important and valuable service for the larger agricultural industry by diving into this issue, managing it and providing a constructive alternative to the otherwise very burdensome requests for information – that can often create an inaccurate perspective of the industry’s sustainability record because the assessment is so often created without the knowledge and input of the industry itself. 

This effort is also launching a positive dialogue with more urban consumers -- who are the majority, by the way, on topics they care about.  By arming consumers with knowledge about how sustainable the U.S. dairy industry is -- and demonstrating a commitment to continuous improvement, the industry is insulating itself from the unfair attacks that so often plague agriculture in the mainstream media.

With all that in mind, there is a very important role you can play in showing support for this leadership effort! 

Simply, provide some comments into the review process.  To learn more about the effort, here is a link to the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s press release on the topic.  You can access and download the guide at this website and if you are a dairy producer, you can provide comments here.  If you are not a dairy producer, you can provide comments and feedback on this effort at this link

Whether you decide to dive into this topic in detail and provide extensive comments, or you glance through the effort and provide a "good job," the important thing is to comment on this effort to demonstrate support for the process, for the leadership of this industry – and for the credibility of the product they are creating. 

I have always been a champion of individuals and organizations that take their fate in their own hands, rather than allowing others to define them.  Here is your chance to learn more about and provide input to a very important agricultural sustainability effort – one that could help all of agriculture stay in business in the decades to come . . . and isn’t that really what sustainability is all about?


Sara Hessenflow Harper is a strategic consultant at Vela Environmental and has been active in assisting the dairy industry on sustainability issues.

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