TCFA members continue to 'hang in the race'
By Jennifer M. Latzke
The message Chairman Walt Olson had for Texas Cattle Feeders Association members was clear—persistence and hard work are what it will take to turn the tide on several policy and consumer issues in members’ favors and to weather whatever Mother Nature throws their way.
“The race is won by hanging in there and never giving up,” Olson said. With a little bit of easing of the drought across much of the state, and a decline in corn prices cattle feeders are seeing some breathing room in the industry. And there is optimism.
Yet there are still good fights to be fought, Olson said.
For example, TCFA has been fighting Country of Origin Labeling policy since it was introduced in the 2002 farm bill.
“We kept it from seeing the light of day for many years, and the WTO (World Trade Organization) ruled in our favor that COOL was illegal under international trade rules,” Olson said. Now TCFA has joined with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in a lawsuit to stop implementation of the program that several in TCFA find flawed.
The hope is that NCBA, TCFA and other organizations can push to repeal the mandatory COOL program in any new farm bill. But that process continues to be long and frustrating, Olson said, because it is in the hands of the courts and D.C. politicians.
TCFA is also working with NCBA and other organizations to define “sustainability” as it pertains to cattlemen today and on into the future. This project defining the concept of sustainability is funded by beef checkoff dollars. “We are trying to define what that is because it is a moving target,” Olson said. “So, what is it to cattlemen? What is sustainability to the industry? This Life Cycle Assessment Study is groundbreaking.”
Kim Stackhouse with NCBA and Wayne Morgan, corporate vice president of Golden State Foods, then participated in a panel discussion on sustainability along with moderator Tom McDonald, TCFA board member and vice president of environmental affairs for JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding. Golden State Foods is one of the largest suppliers to McDonald’s.
Tom McDonald said in the decades before the 1970s almost everyone agreed that sustainability was defined as a state when revenue was greater than operating expenses. But then, in the 1970s, the environmental movement came around and the focus of sustainability shifted to conservation of natural resources. Then, in the 1980s, that shifted again to include human rights and corporate responsibility as well as environmentalism and profitability.
“Along about 2005 multinational corporations began to hire sustainability officers,” McDonald said. Millennials, it turns out, want products that not only do the job their supposed to do, but also align with their values.
As the beef industry considers the sustainability question, McDonald said the definition will always be in flux, but it is somewhere in the balance of environmental concerns, social equality, and financial viability or profit.
“Consumers expect producers to protect the soil, clean water and air,” he said. “Producers have to do business in rural counties and we have an obligation to give back to our neighbors and treat them with respect. But in order for any business to be sustainable, there has to also be profit. It all has to be in balance in order for there to be sustainability on into the future.”
Stackhouse leads the beef checkoff sponsored sustainability effort, the first and largest project of its kind to look at the entire life cycle and all aspects of the beef industry to set sustainability benchmarks and encourage improvement over time.
“We need to efficiently utilize our resources in the best ways possible,” Stackhouse said. “But we also need 70 percent more food by 2050 and Third World developing countries will consume more food. We know that a 10 percent rise in income equates to a 9 percent rise in protein consumption. And beef will be a part of that and so we need to be leading the way in sustainability from a resource perspective.”
Stackhouse shared one experience she had in speaking with students at Yale University.
“They didn’t understand that ‘zero impact’ on the environment isn’t possible in producing food,” she said. “They honestly thought they could go backwards. I explained to them that some impact is OK because that’s how we sustain life on this earth. We all want to leave this earth in a better place than we found it. But we also have to understand that those who are telling the sustainability story for us really believe that zero impact is possible.”
Stackhouse said that innovations will be the key to the future improved sustainability of the beef production cycle. From using technology in growing the feedstocks with less water and energy to innovations in the packing plants that will decrease food waste, there are tools and techniques available today that not only save the producer dollars, but also improve sustainability.
Take, for example, the issue of food waste, Stackhouse said. “Americans waste 40 percent of their food per year,” she said. “That translates to a cost of $2,500 per year by U.S. families. If we could decrease beef waste by half we could improve beef’s sustainability by 20 percent overall.”
The Life Cycle Assessment project that Stackhouse and other researchers are working on looks at every single detail in the supply chain of beef—from breeding to feeding and processing. It’s detailed down to the paper supplies used by a processing plant, she emphasized. The assessment is ongoing and still collecting data in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas and cattlemen are asked to fill out surveys as detailed as possible in order to help the researchers have a better picture of sustainability to give to beef’s detractors.
And, if you think sustainability is just a passing fad or catch phrase, Stackhouse reminded TCFA members that when the new 2015 dietary guidelines are released it is expected that sustainability will be a part of the nutritional guidelines. “It’s no longer just about healthy humans, but also a healthy planet,” she said.
Morgan spoke about how Golden State Foods works with a similar definition of sustainability. Theirs is called the “3 Es”—Environmentalism, Ethics and Economics. Initiatives in the company may not hit all three of the areas, but neither will it fail in any one of the three areas, he said.
For example, one initiative the company has implemented was a complete overhaul throughout the plant of its lighting. Switching to LED lighting saves the plant money and conserves resources for the planet, Morgan said.
“Golden State Foods Foundation is our ethical outreach to give back to the community with our volunteer hours and our donations,” Morgan said.
As a McDonald’s supplier, Golden State abides by its Supplier Performance Index, which audits a supplier’s performance in several areas. The SPI helps companies like Golden State set goals and measure their progress toward sustainability.
Stackhouse reminded producers that sustainability will always be a continually moving goal, and they’ll have to hang in there and work on it year after year.
“Sustainability is a continual improvement over time,” she said. “Remember, it’s a journey, not a destination.”
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.