Defining Sustainability

There are buzz words in every industry, and agriculture is certainly no different.  In the past, terms such as “local”, “organic”, and “grass-fed” caused such a diverse response among agricultural producers and consumers the USDA was forced to intervene with an official (and regulated) definition.  However, as we progress into 2014, there is nothing generating more agricultural buzz than the word “sustainable”.

Food giant McDonald’s brought this term to the forefront earlier this year when McDonald’s announced their aim to purchase verified sustainable beef starting in 2016.  Immediately, the agricultural community began questioning what this means and examining how the process will unfold.  However, prior to this announcement, McDonald’s had already begun defining this term through a partnership with other beef industry leaders with the creation of The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB).  My husband and I currently represent Harris-Robinette Beef as producer members of this organization.

As we work within this committee to define sustainable beef, it was important that Patrick and I examine the word and its meaning…not only for the world, but also for North Carolina.

  • Merriam-Webster defines sustainable as “able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed” and “able to last or continue for a long time”.
  • Industry publication Beef Magazine expounds on this and refers to sustainable as “not only the preservation of the environment but also the continuation of U.S. beef production as a profitable and enduring entity. That means not only working to sustain environmental and animal resources but using concepts and practices that will allow U.S. beef production to grow in size and scope, thus offering a future for new generations in production agriculture.”
  • The GRSB’s recently released Draft Principles and Criteria defines sustainable beef as a socially responsible, environmentally sound and economically viable product that prioritizes Planet (relevant principles: Natural Resources, Efficiency & Innovation, People and the Community); People (relevant principles: People and the Community and Food); Animals (relevant principle: Animal health and welfare); and Progress (relevant principles: Natural Resources, People and the Community, Animal health and welfare, Food, Efficiency and Innovation).

In all of our research and conversations, it became obvious that any definition applied to beef sustainability must encompass a lasting approach and return for the producer, the animal, and the environment.  While this may sound over-simplistic, even industry leaders like Tyson and JBS can admit that in many ways “sustainable beef” directly contrasts previously-held beef production standards and practices.  In order for McDonald’s to meet their purchasing goals by 2016, producers, processors, and distributors will have to examine and amend the way they conduct business.

As the world struggles to respond to these changes, my family has been working to achieve farm sustainability since our inception.  In 2002, my husband Patrick and my father Larry Harris were awarded a $10,000 RAFI cost-share grant to start a grass-fed beef operation.  This money served as the catalyst for our current herd and to this day remains the only grant funding my family has received, supporting our belief that any business that defines itself as sustainable must do so without the continuous use of grant or government dollars (We will talk more about this in a later blog!).  In addition to being financially sustainable, my family also realizes that beef sustainability must incorporate value to the entire carcass.  Slaughtering for steaks and ground alone is simply not cost-effective without a market for the brisket, short ribs, and other primal cuts.  Early in our business, my family established partnerships with several food service companies and restaurants who shared our commitment for whole-carcass usage.  Through honest dialogues and joint collaboration, Harris-Robinette Beef has grown to include other producer families, investment into a slaughter and processing facility (Micro Summit Processors), and distribution through US Foods.

While the verdict is still undecided as to how the beef industry will define sustainability, Harris-Robinette Beef has embraced the hashtag “#SustainbleBeef” knowing that our family is doing our part to provide consumers with an affordable, environmentally sound, high quality, nutritious beef to best serve the interest of our farmers and to preserve agriculture in a sustainable fashion for the good of our land, our families, and our society.



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