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

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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.

Can You Really Save the Planet by Boycotting Beef?

Aug 26, 2014

Recently, there have been numerous news stories (see Fox news and yesterday's Triple Pundit articles) capturing a great deal of media attention by claiming that the best thing one can do to reduce climate change, is to simply boycott beef and eat some other meat instead.  Despite my love of beef, if the problem were truly that simple, I might be inclined to participate.  But, as is almost always the case with navigating sustainability (or life for that matter), the answer is never simple and there are always trade-offs and unintended consequences to whatever choices are made.  Sustainability should be about balancing these trade-offs, not declaring definitive winners and losers in a highly variable and dynamic living system.

Certainly some of the concerns raised by these studies should be taken seriously regarding the amount of energy and water needed to create beef in our current system.  One area identified that deserves some real thought is for grain-finished cattle that are fed corn from water-scarce regions using irrigation . . . well, that can’t sustainably last forever and this is a worthy area of concern.  But going from some legitimate environmental concerns to "just eat chicken" is a pretty big leap. 

Going to college at Kansas State University right beside the beautiful Konza Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, I was able to see firsthand what that ecosystem looks like and how all the pieces within it (including cattle) work together. As I read and listened to the coverage of these recent studies assailing beef’s climate impact, I found a lot missing that perhaps comes back to a lack of understanding about the full system.  I found myself wondering if the studies had truly accounted for all that is involved with raising cattle.  Here are a few questions that came to my mind: 

  • Beef cattle spend a good deal of their lives converting grass and other forage/fiber that we cannot eat, into a nutritious and delicious protein source.  Was this conversion of grass -- which ALL cattle spend a signficant amount of time eating, factored into the environmental impact assessment?  Since cattle are converting something people cannot eat into nutrients that can be part of a healthy diet (in moderation), that is a signficant environmental benefit.  While chicken convert grain faster to meat, they are not spending signficant time converting grass to meat, therefore they are dependent almost entirely on crops we raise to feed them.  That is not a huge problem now, but if you signficantly increased the number of chickens raised, you are also going to need that grain that was going to finish cattle to go to other livestock -- so at the end of the day, how much have you really saved on impacts?


  • What about the ecosystem value provided from cattle grazing on the grasslands themselves?  Cattle, and bison before them are a key part of the grass and prairie landscape.  If we suddenly removed all the cattle, which is what would happen if everyone stopped eating beef, these large grasslands would also lose their value and be more susceptible to development.  Even for those that remained as grasslands, without cattle grazing, they would face deterioration that could result in greater GHG emissions.  This is because when cattle eat grass, more grass growth is stimulated and more greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are stored as carbon in the soil. There are even indications that proper cattle grazing contributes to grasslands ability to adapt to climate change and drought by encouraging greater growth and species diversity than would otherwise occur. Cattle provide a natural source of fertilizer in their manure as they graze, and studies have found that as they walk on grassland, their weight and hooves serve to stimulate positive soil carbon developments below ground.  Just look at the environmental and carbon sequestration differences between land that was taken out of production and not grazed (as in some parcels of Conservation Reserve Program) vs. proper rotational grazing pastures and you will see the difference cattle make to this ecosystem.
Photo showing a fenceline with a grazed area on the right and an ungrazed area on the left.
This fenceline view shows the effect grazing can have on a grassland. The area on the right has been grazed, changing aboveground biomass and species composition. Photo used with permission by J Ham/Kansas State Univ.
  • Using a GHG impact standard alone as the means to make production and eating decisions presents a distorted picture.  What about foods and beverages that provide little to no nutritional value (i.e. soda, candy) and in fact contribute to multiple health problems when consumed in large amounts?  For these items, we are seeing a negative on nutrition, a negative on health impacts and yet a significant use of energy/creation of GHG emissions for the generation of those calories.  If one is looking for a place to start in terms of reducing GHG emissions from the food and agriculture sector, doesn’t it make sense to start with food that contributes to GHG emissions AND other problems?


  • How realistic is it to think that a significant number of people will make food choices solely on GHG criteria?  Isn’t it a far better use of academic energy to ensure greater balance of food consumption and to contribute to knowledge transfer to countries that do not produce beef as efficiently as the U.S.?


  • Since grain-finished beef is the most efficient system in terms of greenhouse gas emissions for producing  beef, doesn’t this mean there should be special emphasis on avoiding solely grass-fed beef if GHG emissions are the only criteria being examined?  


  • How much more of other protein sources will be needed if everyone stopped eating beef?  What is the environmental impact of a LOT more concentrated chicken production in the U.S. for example, to make up for meat eaters that stop eating beef to save the climate?  What does that do to water quality and the already high phosphorus loads coming from chicken waste in an already heavily concentrated industry?  What about the fact that chicken manure is much harder to re-use as a nutrient than cow manure?  Is that factored in?


  • What about the socio-economic and cultural values associated with raising beef?  The beef supply chain remains one of the most independent of all food production systems in the U.S.  To encourage consumers to boycott this form of protein is simultaneously encouraging


None of these questions or thoughts is intended to infer that greenhouse gas emissions -- or other environmental impacts in the beef sector are not a real concern – of course they are, and should be.  It is important to have studies that define and help us all reduce the impact of all products – that is in our common interest.  I would even say that it is important to have more actual measurement of impacts throughout the food supply chain so that consumers who want to make informed choices are able to see impacts and trade-offs and make those choices for themselves. The problem comes in when someone decides to look at a complex problem and posit a simple solution.  I find that when this is the case there is usually some other ideology or bias coming along for the ride.   

Should the beef industry continue to push its efficiency up and reduce its environmental impact?  Of course!  Should we all stop eating beef to save the planet? That’s just silly.

Special thanks to the following folks who have contributed to my understanding of the cattle and grassland systems over many years of shared knowledge and good conversations

Dr Charles Rice, KSU,

Christine & Dr. Eddie Hamilton

Steve Irsik

Dr. Robbie Pritchard, SDSU

Dr. Dan Thomson, KSU


Follow Sara on Twitter @SustainAg



Sustainability Assessments Likely to Increase

Jul 25, 2014

The next few decades promise to be an incredible time of volatility, opportunity and risk.  For food companies and retailers, the key to minimizing the negatives, capturing new markets and keeping projected cost increases lower than competitors is in having a deep understanding and better risk management of their supply chain.  This includes the ability to find and create new shared value streams with the most resilient, productive and sustainable agricultural producers.  A critical enabler of this competitive advantage pathway is the collection of data.  For more on the often misunderstood drivers behind sustainability assessments in the food and ag supply chain, see my December 2011 post here.

Further evidence of how important the role of data collection and analysis is becoming in the food and agricultural space (among many others) is in a new survey out this week of what high level corporate executives have on their "top of mind" for the next year.  Three main themes emerged:

1.  Supply chain management is becoming more complex. Consumer goods and retail executives ranked this as their number one challenge – and the one most likely to receive increased funding this year.

2.  There is a big shift in executive attention toward the need for data and the impact data analysis has in helping understand and secure supply chains. 

3.  Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) issues are increasingly driving decisions.
Notable findings from the survey include:

-- 56% of consumer goods and retail business leaders cited data analytics as being important to their firm’s strategy, making it the highest-ranked strategic area in the survey

-- 44% of business leaders cited traceability and transparency around end-to-end value chains as a top goal for their company just ahead of reducing waste and emissions (42%) and sustainable sourcing (41%)

-- 52% of respondents reported that they have a strong or good capability to meet their sustainability agenda. Reputation and brand (41%), consumer demand (34%) and competition (28%) were cited as three main drivers behind sustainability

-- 56% said health, corporate social responsibility and sustainability priorities are very important to their business

-- 42% placed supply chain management at the top of their list for increased investment over the next 12 months

You can read more about the full survey at The Retail Times  

The take-away from this survey for farmers is that the folks that ultimately buy the commodities you grow are increasingly feeling the need to invest in gathering more information to inform decisions about their supply chain, focus on sustainability priorities and create more transparency.  The only way to do these things is through gathering data from the ground up, which means the push toward sustainability assessments or audits is only going to increase. 

I speak often to farmers, agricultural associations and food companies on the topic of how important it is to capture data and to make sure it is working for them first, before reporting it on to the larger supply chain.  Taking a more systematic approach toward layering a wider array of data (like sustainability and financial) into long-term business planning processes can help individual farm operations and food companies to make better decisions and reduce long term costs the same way it is helping large corporations.  It will also get these entites ready for the sustainability reporting onslaught that is coming their way.

The decision before the agricultural industry is increasingly becoming how and who will provide data about their growing performance, not if data will be collected.  I am excited to be working with folks that are interested in charting their own course on this important fronteer.

  Follow Sara on Twitter: @SustainAg


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)


















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