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How to Best Communicate Sustainability?

A producer panel included insights from (left to right) Dan Hayden, a cow-calf and poultry producer from Kentucky, Tim Oleksyn, a rancher and farmer from northern Saskatchewan, Erika Murphy, a seedstock producer from western Colorado and Debbie Lyons-Blythe, a seedstock and commercial cow-calf producer from central Kansas.


Sustainable production practices benefit livestock producers even if no one outside agriculture ever knows about them. But in today’s food market, where consumers increasingly expect assurances about how animals are raised, we need to communicate clear, compelling and factual messages describing current practices that enhance sustainability, and measurable progress toward future sustainability goals.

Those trends were clear as stakeholders from multiple sectors discussed opportunities and pitfalls during the recent Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) Communications Summit in Denver. Along with individual presentations and group “think tank” brainstorming sessions, the summit included panel discussions involving beef producers, communications professionals and international industry representatives.

Simply defining “sustainability” as it applies to beef production presents a communications challenge. Since its inception in 2010 the GRSB has defined sustainable beef as a socially responsible, environmentally sound and economically viable product that prioritizes planet, people, animals and progress.

The GRSB also has recognized that appropriate production practices vary widely across and even within regions, due to differences in climate, resources, culture and others. With these differences in mind, the GRSB has avoided “prescriptive” management recommendations. Instead, through regional affiliates such as the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB) and the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB), the group has focused on establishing baseline measurements for a range of sustainability indicators. Regional groups will use those baselines for quantifying and tracking progress on those measurable indicators. In a nutshell, sustainability in beef production is a complex concept, not easily measured, explained or understood.

The communications challenge is compounded by the need for different messages and different information communicated to diverse groups of stakeholders. Producers need management information on how to profitably produce high-quality beef with efficient use of resources while also protecting animal health and welfare, preserving or improving ecosystems and meeting other societal expectations such as reducing antibiotic use. Food companies, non-government organizations (NGOs) and government agencies want more scientific data to back up sustainability claims. Consumers want assurances, but they typically will not delve deeply into the science of beef production, and any positive message will compete with frequent and often misleading attacks from anti-beef groups.

Throughout the sessions, several key points surfaced as critical for communicating sustainability messages:

  • Demonstrating progress toward sustainability goals will support consumer confidence and global beef demand. Measurable progress requires establishment of baselines for sustainability indicators and ongoing data collection.
  • Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions serve as one indicator of sustainability for beef production and agriculture overall. In North America, GHG emissions from beef production are relatively low, especially in comparison with those from the industrial and transportation sectors. In some other, less industrialized parts of the world, livestock account for a higher percentage of GHG, often due to deforestation and burning, and partly due to a less-developed use of fossil fuels in industry and transportation. Global trends, however, influence the entire industry due to the global nature of beef marketing.
  • Shared values are critical in communicating with the public. The agricultural community must engage the general public rather than trying to “educate” them, and build on messages that we also care about environmental stewardship, animal welfare, food safety and other measures of sustainability.
  • While we need detailed and accurate scientific data to document measures of sustainability, we also need simple, clear and factual messages for dialog with consumers.
  • When possible, the agricultural community should avoid responding defensively to attacks. Where we have weaknesses or opportunities for improvement, we should acknowledge them and focus on improving and documenting progress.
  • Most producers use a variety of sustainable practices, but just think of them as good management. The agricultural community has an opportunity to build producer awareness and help them develop messages articulating their current sustainable practices and progress toward future goals.
  • Technologies in areas such as genetics, remote monitoring, disease diagnostics, immunity, nutrition and growth promotion can improve production efficiency and thus improve sustainability. However, we need to develop messages that emphasize how these practices benefit people, animals and planet. Without those connections, terms like “technology” and “efficiency” can have negative connotations, particularly when applied to animal production.
  • Producers and veterinarians enjoy a high level of trust and credibility with the general public, and they have an opportunity to help represent agriculture either locally or globally through social media. A panel of beef producers from several areas provided a highlight of the conference, describing individual efforts including speaking to local school kids, hosting food bloggers on the ranch and posting short videos about ranch life and cattle production on social media. While the panel members are heavily involved, they agreed that anyone can become engaged by starting small and looking for opportunities to show the public the positive sides of animal agriculture.

For more information on the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, visit the GRSBEEF website.

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