Prime Cuts: What Does “Sustainable” Ranching Really Mean?

I found this article interesting, as the word sustainable has been grating on me lately.  I couldn’t really put my finger on the cause until reading this article.  I finally realized, it is the lack of a sound definition that means the same to everyone—when we hear the word “sustainable” we all have a specific image in our minds, but probably not the same image.  So check out this Re-posted from the Prime Cuts Newsletter produced by MSU Beef Cattle Specialist  John Paterson.

What Does “Sustainable” Ranching Really Mean?

This past week I have listened to presentations from individuals who are trying to define what “sustainable” agriculture involves.

I believe if consumers would ask fourth generation producers, they would learn what it means to manage a sustainable ranch.


One of the people that I have always respected in agriculture is Dr. Gary Smith, formerly an Endowed Professor of Meat Science at Colorado State University.  Dr. Smith through his weekly blog, “Where Food Comes From” ( provides various definitions of what agricultural sustainability entails.

“Sustain”, “sustainable” and “sustainability” have no clear meaning when used singularly. Dictionary definitions include: (1) “sustain”, as a verb, means: (a) to provide with nourishment, (b) to keep going, (c) to hold up, (d) to hold up under, (e) to maintain, (f) to keep in existence, (g) to suffer, (h) to prolong, (i) to support as true, legal or valid, or (j) to prove or corroborate; (2) addition of the suffix “-able” (i.e., “sustainable”) makes it an adjective; and (3) addition of the suffix “-ability” (i.e., “sustainability”) makes it a noun. Used singularly, the term “sustainability” means “the ability to do something,” where something is any of the items in 1(a) through 1(j) above.

In the past five years, the most common usage of “sustainable” and “sustainability” has been in the context of (1) agricultural production practices (e.g., depletion of stored energy and water resources, level of risk to public health, inhumane treatment of animals, unfair treatment of farm workers); (2) the environment (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions, human actions causing climate change and global warming, carbon footprints); and (3) food security (i.e., supplying enough food for a larger human population).


Definitions of “sustainability” over the past four years include: (1) The management of animal agriculture so it can be maintained indefinitely (Pew Commission, 2008);(2) Because farmers/ranchers have historically wanted to keep their farms/ranches going, they believe sustainability depends on considerations of economics, environmental stewardship and societal ramifications (Dave Daley, California State University-Chico, 2008); (3) The idea that there are alternatives to exploiting the natural resources without regard for the consequences (TIME magazine, 2009); (4) Sustainable food is good, clean, fair, good for you and the environment, and produced without harm (Culinology, 2009); (5) Natural, local, low carbon, clean energy and climate-saving (PORK magazine, 2009); (6) Eating foods that will help me lead a life that is good for my body and the environment (Strategy One, 2009); (7) The food industry’s current approach to sustainability is to balance environmental, economic and social considerations throughout the supply chain (Institute of Food Technologists, 2009); (8) Animal agriculture’s large-scale structure (fewer but larger operations) has benefited sustainability because of increased productivity using far less labor, land and natural resources (James MacDonald, ERS-USDA, 2009); (9) The Worldwide Sustainability Product Index encompasses – as aspects of sustainable product production – energy and climate, natural resources, material efficiency, as well as people and community (Wal•Mart, Inc., 2009). (10) Sustainable farming is a way of raising food that is healthy for consumers and animals, does not harm the environment, is humane for workers, provides a fair wage to the farmer, and supports and enhances the rural communities (Prepared Foods, 2010); (11) Sustainable beef is environmentally sustainable, socially responsible and economically viable (Global Roundtable For Sustainable Beef, 2011); and (12) To convince consumers that our products are environmentally friendly, we will assume corporate responsibility for assuring that all agricultural raw materials and packaging materials must come from sustainable sources produced with low greenhouse gas emissions and not produced on land from a deforested area (McDonalds Inc., 2011).

Lynn Kurtz (Food Product Design, 2009) reported “In food and agriculture, the organic movement seems to have co-opted the message, with an ‘if it’s not organic, it’s not sustainable’ assertion despite the argument by many that organic agriculture alone is not sustainable because it doesn’t meet our present needs and may not fulfill those of the future in terms of food production and economics.” Kurtz further stated that “The latest buzz is about sustainability in consumer goods. As consumers become more educated about the environmental, social and economic implications of food and beverage choices, their health and wellness motivations dovetail with larger societal concerns. A close relationship develops between sustainability and emerging definitions of food quality, as consumers use sustainable attributes to infer food quality, and food quality to infer sustainability.”


Liz Sloan (Food Technology, 2009) reviewed nine consumer surveys and reported that: (a) 54 to 82% of shoppers say they consider “sustainability” in making food-buying decisions but the majority said the term was nebulous and they really didn’t know what the term means; and (b) when asked what they think “sustainability” means, their responses included natural, green, organic, locally grown, humanely treated, climate saving, environmentally friendly, small carbon footprint, energy-saving, free range, fair trade, fair worker treatment, socially responsible and corporate responsibility. Prepared Foods (2010) reported that nearly 70% of US consumers consider sustainability when choosing food products at the grocery store, and that “sustainability”, to most, translates as green, fair and ethical food production.

So, what does “sustainability” mean? I’m not sure. To a large extent, the definition of the term has been wordsmithed so much by those who wanted to use it to promote a cause, defend a position or sell a product that it has no unique or singular meaning. If I had to choose one, I favor that of the United Nations (2009) – “Sustainability involves a combination of economic, social and environmental factors to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Thanks Dr. Smith.

Questions?  email at

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About Engel

Ms. Engel is an OSU field faculty member in the department of Animal Sciences. She has a B.S (1997) and a M.S. (2007) in Animal Science from South Dakota State University. She is housed at the OSU Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center in Klamath Falls, OR where she serves the extension and research needs of livestock and forage producers. Her research has focused on investigating opportunities to extend the grazing season and low input methods to increase pasture productivity.
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