Measuring sustainability to improve efficiency

Oct 12, 2012

The word “sustainability” has become a watchword in today’s popular culture. In the trendy green world of social fads, the concept is wrapped up in emotion and Disney-esque images. But efforts are underway to introduce numbers and bring a dose of workable reality to this important conversation.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), funded by the Beef Checkoff Program, has been working to provide the beef industry with the next tool in improving efficiency: the definition of “sustainability” before it was popular. In a long-running, broad-scope, first-ofits-kind project, researchers have sought to identify what it means to be sustainable, where the industry is now, and how to improve the already efficient U.S. beef industry in the future.

The project—the Checkoff’s U.S. Beef Sustainability Project—is led by Dr. Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, director of Sustainable Research for NCBA. The general objectives of the project are and have been to define sustainability in workable terms and identify relevant facets under that definition, measure those facets in both past and current beef production, and develop an assessment tool for the industry. Ideally, this tool will help individual producers make more efficient and sustainable management decisions.

The project is broken down into three areas. The first and already completed portion was the process of defining sustainability. By surveying beef industry stakeholders—producers, packers, foodservice representatives, academics, and more—researchers identified key values involved with the concept of “sustainability.” Primary among these were reductions in environmental impacts, the economic stability of the industry, and improvements in social responsibility to communities.

The second portion of the project, which is nearing completion and is easily the most complex, is the measurement portion. Researchers have been combing through mountains of data trying to identify all the ways in which beef production impacts the natural, financial and social environment it occupies. Research teams have examined data from the mid-1970s, the early-2000s, and present day to get a sense of where the industry has been and where it is now.

The final portion of the project, which is already underway, takes the definitions of the first portion and the data of the second portion and tries to create an assessment tool for producers. The assessment tool would provide a means of science- and data-backed prediction of the environmental and economic impact of particular management practices.

Defining “sustainability” was necessary before the project could progress. A stakeholder survey was conducted asking various members of the beef industry all along the production chain to define what sustainability meant for them.

Stackhouse-Lawson pointed out that of the 50 survey respondents, there were 50 different definitions. She agreed that the issue of sustainability is a personal thing to different people.

“That’s one of the reasons doing the stakeholder survey was so important. We needed to recognize others have different definitions and that it is a personal, emotional thing.”

The results of the survey provided well-rounded, generalized definition covering many points brought up by the industry stakeholders. As mentioned, the results were grouped into three pillars: environmental, economic, and social responsibility.

The breadth of this definition is unusual to the current work on sustainability.

During her presentation on the project at the Colorado Beef Council’s “Beef Trust = Transparency” seminar in Denver in early October, Stackhouse-Lawson brought up prior works which had singular focal points when dealing with the concept of sustainability.

“Everything that’s been done to this point has centered on greenhouse gasses.

Why? Because that’s what the push was. Is that the most important thing? No. Other things are important, like water, land use, biodiversity, health and welfare of the animals.”

Under the Beef Sustainability Project’s sustainability definition, key stakeholder environmental concerns were water protection and use, biodiversity and manure management, among others. Economic concerns brought up were things like traceability, product quality, profitability and input-to-output efficiency.

The somewhat unusual pillar of social responsibility—unique to this project and largely uninvestigated in previous scientific works—included a myriad of things, ranging from animal health and welfare, to the safety and wellbeing of those working in the industry, to the impact of the beef industry on rural communities here and abroad.

“We really pushed for sustainability to be more than just greenhouse gasses,” said Stackhouse-Lawson in her conference presentation. “We want it bigger. We want it to be more holistic. We want to understand how our communities and our agriculture commodities impact and interact with that environment. We want to understand that relationship.”

In speaking with WLJ about the project, Stackhouse-Lawson agreed that the social responsibility element of the project’s definition of sustainability is on the cutting edge of the sustainability conversation, both in the scientific world and in the broader community.

She called it an exciting challenge and hopes the work done in the Beef Sustainability Project will encourage a broader dialog on the issue of sustainability.

“I think there’s a lot of potential in the social pillar since it’s in its infancy.”

Given the unprecedented breadth of the project’s definition of sustainability, the level of detail measured regarding the impacts of beef production is staggering.

“This is the first and largest study of its kind, especially when looking at something so big and complex as the beef industry,” said Stackhouse-Lawson.

In what is being called the life cycle assessment—the measurement portion of the project—researchers are collecting data on anything and everything imaginable.

The scope of the project begins when a calf destined to be beef is born and ends after the consumer has prepared and eaten the meat and discarded the packaging. But the scope is not only up and down the production chain, but also vertically out to many other areas of impact.

Usual inputs and costs like feed, water, land, supplements, shipping and labor are being gauged. But secondary and tertiary inputs and costs like the land, water and fertilizer needs used in producing the feed, the resources necessary to create and operate the trucks used to ship both the feed and cattle, and the input needs of the infrastructure of the beef industry— the cow herd and breeding animals—are also being researched and recorded.

As an extreme, and somewhat joking example, Stackhouse-Lawson mentioned the issue of toilet paper purchased for the restrooms in packing plants was investigated. Given its miniscule impact on that area of beef production—well below the 1 percent by value of the operation benchmark used to establish relevance— however, it was discarded as a necessary area of investigation.

Not only is this amount of data being gathered and assessed for modern day practices, but also in the past. The other benchmark times being looked at are the mid-1970s and the early- 2000s.

In discussing the project at the Denver conference, Stackhouse-Lawson summarized the impressive scope of the data being collected and the importance of the long-term view of the research:

“We are equally comparing the ecological and financial costs, along with the social inputs over time. Why over time? Because we need to know where we were to get better moving forward.”

While the subtleties of definitions and the research are academically fascinating, the Beef Sustainability Project has an ultimate goal of real-world practicality. Once completed, the life cycle assessment tool would be computer-based software producers could use to enhance the sustainability of their operations.

At the moment, the research teams are in the process of compiling data and developing a system of process-based models. These are mathematical representations of processes as they occur in the real world.

An example would be being able to predict the amount of ammonia a feed yard might produce given prior knowledge of the number of animals present, the stage of their growth cycle, their health, their diet, and other factors such as weather, temperature, management practices and so on.

In early tests of the predictive abilities of the process-based modeling system at a Texas feed yard, the simulated results of the program overlapped with the actual documented conditions marvelously. In fact, the majority of the outlying results—where the simulations and the actual documentation differed—were attributed to malfunctioning data-collection devices when gathering information directly from the feed yard.

The full scope of the modeling software program has not yet been completed, but early progress is promising. Some individual models are currently available for download online. The Dairy Greenhouse Gas Model, the Dairy Gas Emissions Model, and the Integrated Farm System Model can be found online at pswmru and then clicking on the “Software Products” link in the page’s left-hand navigation bar.

At the end of her presentation at the Denver conference, as well as in her conversation with WLJ, Stackhouse-Lawson stressed the point that the research— and science in general—is about the journey, not the destination. It is a constant effort of improvement and building upon mistakes made in past efforts.

Stackhouse-Lawson also voiced her thoughts on the value of doing work on the topic of sustainability like the Beef Sustainability Project.

“We need to do this ourselves because if we don’t, someone else will. No one knows our industry like we do.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor