Like it or loathe it, sustainability as a word and a policy is here to stay



As I make my way across Canada and the U.S. in the first part of 2023, I am very struck by the hatred that farmers have for the word sustainability. It seems that the word spawns real contempt for an urban consumer that misunderstands the activities on the farm.

Sustainability is everywhere. It always has been, but now it’s entrenched in marketing and government policy. This reality is what has farmers so angry and pushing back against the word sustainability.

I think if we really dig in to what sustainability IS, rather than the word, there’s more to like than loathe. Sustainability actually means fulfilling the needs of the current generation without compromising the needs of future generations, while ensuring a balance between economic growth, environmental care, and social well-being. That’s really not so bad.

But farmers do have every right to feel judged. Farmers are only two per cent of the population, and there is a true lack of understanding of food production and how that food gets to the grocery store. When sustainability is discussed in Ottawa or on the news it’s constantly about farmers needing to do this, do that, and be better, usually with only an eye to environment and not the other two aspects of sustainability.

There is also limited willingness to acknowledge in these discussions that farmers have been incorporating sustainable practices into their cropping or livestock systems for decades. I get the contempt.

But we have to get over our dislike of the word and take ownership of it. The ship has sailed on using a different word —  consumers like it. So, we, as an industry, have to accept it.

Last week, I heard Jeff Kroll, a 40-year career man at McDonald’s, talk about sustainability and the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. Jeff told the story about how when McDonald’s announced the pilot project in Canada, the press asked, “what does sustainable beef mean?”

McDonalds said something along the lines of, “We don’t know, we have to work with the industry to find out.”

Had McDonalds been as defensive as farmers are towards the word, we would have no CRSB.

It’s time that farmers embrace the word sustainability and preach from the rooftops about current sustainability practices and efforts. It’s our responsibility to define the word. I greatly appreciate McDonald’s for its interest, but there are not many McDonald’s out there.

We can’t wait for partnership-minded retailers to lead every sustainable initiative. Instead, we need tally up what we are doing right by the environment and our communities and truly embrace the word sustainability and lead the charge, even as adversaries attempt to define it for us.

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