By Jared Wareham
The term “sustainable agriculture” has stolen a few headlines this year. However, it hasn’t gained the status of a hot-button topic with the farmers and cattlemen I visit with on a regular basis. Pay close attention though because it is much closer to the horizon than you think.
The thrust to provide consumers with sustainably grown foods may seem sudden, but it has been materializing behind the scenes for a while. I believe this is not a traditional regulatory movement, but more of a proactive solutions-based initiative aimed at creating a perpetual agriculture infrastructure. Guarding our nation’s natural resources and ensuring its food production systems for generations to come is a legitimate concern.
The Coalition for Sustainable Beef Production recently convened in Denver to help define sustainable agriculture and identify key production practices, most of which are already in use by progressive agriculturalists.
Leading the way was the National Cattleman’s Beef Association (NCBA). Other organizations, such as the Noble Foundation, and representatives from major packers, food retailers and service providers also attended.
Of those present, Wal-Mart and McDonald’s represented the serious and legitimate forces asking for genuine progress toward agricultural practices that provide healthy, sustainable food production. They sit upstream at the headwaters of the industry and have the ability to leverage their size to energize change. If you doubt that, just ask the pork industry.
I caution you against a knee-jerk, negative reaction. In my opinion, sustainable production is not a regulatory movement. Rather, it is a call-to-action to preserve America’s food production system through proactive natural resource conservation and long-term economic viability. Land stewardship has to exist cohesively with farm and ranch profitability to achieve true sustainability. Sacrificing one to exploit the other destabilizes the basic foundation supporting sustainable production. Maintaining our natural resources is vital, but that can’t eclipse the economic viability of current or future generations of farmers and ranchers and vice versa.
To envision sustainable agriculture, consider two pieces of equipment. One looks almost new and is maintained to ensure proper performance. The other is covered with rust and often needs repair. Regardless of age, well-maintained equipment will generally provide longer serviceable use. Yet, one has to consider the amount of time, labor and expense it takes to maintain equipment. The cost of maintenance can’t exceed an operation’s finances, so there is a balancing act we need to perform. A lack of preservation is costly, but so is inefficient conservation with no financial return.
I believe this is the vision shared by American consumers and food service suppliers such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. They care about how their food is grown. They want products grown by farmers and ranchers who also care for and maintain their land and cattle. In doing so, they help to preserve our nation’s food supply system and resources for short- and long-term utilization. Our world’s population is growing rapidly, and it’s up to us keep it fed—forever.