The Food Dialogues: What sustainability means in agriculture |

The Food Dialogues: What sustainability means in agriculture

Photo by Amanda Radke"Sustainability is about driving productivity, efficiency and environment," said Stuart Woolf, president of Woolf Farming and Processing.

The Food Dialogues is an ongoing discussion sponsored by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) that started off with town hall meetings held across the country on Sept. 22, 2011. The third panel that day reviewed sustainable practices in farming and ranching. Panelists also explained the various types of farming and ranching from conventional to organic, natural and free range. The discussion explored local farming as an alternative to conventional farming in the U.S., weighing the pros and cons of each. Additional topics included a focus on agriculture education, discussing what students today are learning about sustainable agriculture and the vision for the future.

This panel was located at Robert Mondavi Institute at University of California Davis in Davis, CA. Jane Wells, CNBC, was the moderator, and panelists included: Eric Benson, California egg producer and president J.S. West & Co.; Michael Dimock, president Roots of Change; Neal Van Alfen, dean UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences; Stuart Woolf, president Woolf Farming and Processing; and Rick Stott, Idaho cattle rancher and executive vice president Agri Beef Co. Here are a few highlights from the industry professionals, who answered the question, “What does sustainability mean to you?”

“My father wanted to pass the agriculture business onto me, and I hope to do the same for my kids,” said Woolf. “Sustainability is about driving productivity, efficiency and environment. The land is our most important resource.”

“We need to take the steps to be transparent, so folks understand what they are buying at the grocery store,” added Benson. “What is sustainable? When I think of sustainability, I think about how our farms have used the entire production cycle to maintain a lower carbon footprint than we have ever before. We have been around for over 100 years, and that’s sustainable to me, too. It’s not just sustainability of the environment, but also the business.”

“Sustainability is about community,” said Stott. “Since we have bought our plant, we have decreased water use while increasing beef production. We have done great things with manure and composting, as well. Sustainability is about taking a holistic approach.”

“So, what’s the emphasis of sustainability and who is the benefactor?” asked Dimock. “Of course, if the business can’t stay open, then it isn’t sustainable, but we also have to think about the ethics, the animals and the land.”

“Our challenge on this planet is how to make our food system work,” added Van Alfen. “Ultimately, that defines our level of sustainability – our food supply, global climate change and our environment.”

“The real challenge is if you aren’t at a competitive price point for your products, forget about it; you have to manage your costs,” said Woolf. “As a farmer and processor, we aren’t enjoying on the farm a premium, as of yet. However, I’m looking at feeding more people at a lower price point, verses fewer people for a premium.”

“There is so much debate and controversy among naturally-raised foods and conventionally-raised foods, and that’s too bad, because one isn’t always better than the other,” said Van Alfen. “If we don’t make our system work, we are all in trouble. We have to figure out how to feed the world sustainably. Research is so important to help farmers reduce input costs and work to make organic foods more sustainable and efficient.”

“We have to solve this problem of how to introduce food into our biological system,” said Dimock. “We need more allies. We have too few people involved in production agriculture, and the American people need to rise up and support these farmers and ranchers. We all must rise up and do it. We need to work with growers, processors, universities and consumers. The food system is just as important as our health system and energy system. Agriculture has been very successful in last 50 years of producing an abundance of food, but there are a lot of unintended consequences from this productivity, and we need to address them. In wealthy parts of the country, we have food, but in some of the less affluent areas, there is hunger. It’s not wide-spread here in the U.S., but the problem could grow.”

“If you take a look at where we are in the cattle industry today, we have the same amount of cattle today as we did in the 1950s,” said Stott. “If we went back to 1950 production levels, we would have more cows, taking up a great deal of land to produce the same amount of beef. The opportunity is that we are sustainable today, and we are becoming better and better at it, every single day.”

editor’s note: the food dialogues is an ongoing discussion aimed at answering consumer questions about agriculture today. to view highlights, visit

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