The meaning of a word |

The meaning of a word

What is sustainability? Many in agriculture would argue that sustainability is maintenence and upkeep of a ranch through management of grass, livestock and finances in order to give the next generation the opportunity to operate the ranch. These siblings East of Gordon, Nebraska, were blessed with parents who value such things. Photo by Breanna Eisenreich

The meaning of a word: two views of sustainability in ag

For many families in the ag sector, sustainability means being able to pass the family tradition of agriculture on to their children and grandchildren. Howard Vlieger, a self-professed “student of the soil,” and Tracy Hunt, a rancher, lawyer and concerned beef producer, presented two different perspectives on the idea of sustainability in agriculture when they spoke to farmers, ranchers and legislators in both Wall and Rapid City over the weekend.

Vlieger, a third generation Iowa farmer who has devoted much of his life to studying how and why soil works as it does, addressed the crowd of 50 attendees in Wall regarding the effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in general and glyphosate, the active chemical ingredient in Roundup, in particular.

As the coordinator of the study entitled “A long-term toxicology study on pigs fed a combined genetically modified (GM) soy and GM maize diet,” Vlieger spoke about the ill effects seen in pigs’ intestinal systems when they are fed a steady ration of GMO grain.

According to Vlieger, animals—and humans—who are fed a diet of GMO food see unusually high rates of inflammation in their stomachs, as well as a host of other health problems. Vlieger encouraged consumers and producers alike to be aware of the food they are consuming and aware of the feed their food is consuming.

“There are many reasons to be concerned about the health effects from ingredients of GMO crops in the food and feed supply. There is a growing number of people who have removed GMOs from their diet and experienced significant improvement in their health, from all types of digestive issues and autoimmune health issues to autism and other behavioral concerns,” Vlieger said.

Though this kind of message is generally associated with a “granola eating” type of crowd, the response from the cattle producers in the audience was positive.

Skylar Anders, who attended the presentations by both Vlieger and Hunt, was reconfirmed in her quest to provide the best food possible for her family.

Anders, who is herself the product of many generations of a farming and ranching family from the Quinn area, is currently working alongside her husband, Baxter, as they produce cattle on his family’s ranch near Dalzell in the far south eastern corner of Meade County.

Vlieger’s talk of avoiding GMOs and working to ensure that beef is raised without GMO grain resonated with Anders, but was not a new concept to her.

Anders has watched her father farm using GMO products during a time in which many voices in the industry were assuring farmers and consumers of the safety of GMOs. Anders began to form a different opinion of GMOs as she watched her mother garden.

“Mom always had a big garden, and she was constantly fighting the weeds. She wanted to keep it as natural as possible and would not use sprays,” Anders said.

This left an impression on Anders, who learned more about GM products in college. A breaking point for Anders, though, came when she married and had her first child. “You are accountable for what you put into your children,” Anders said in regard to why she ultimately chose to pursue as natural of a diet as possible.

Denouncing a different kind of sustainability

While Vlieger spoke to the need for beef to be produced free of GM grain, the sustainability he proposed was of the nature of producers raising their own feed to ensure its purity, or purchasing feed from “safe” sources.

When Hunt took the stage, however, he addressed the politics behind a different kind of sustainability push—one that, he says, seeks to take away the cattle producers’ private property by destroying their ability to gain access to the market without first obtaining a certification.

Hunt, who ranches near Newcastle, Wyoming, warned about the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB), a conglomerate of huge meat packing companies, environmental groups and others that intend to require producers to adhere to strict environmental and social standards. The GRSB claims the all encompassing oversight of the entire beef supply chain they advocate is necessary for a variety of reasons including the need to protect species diversity, reduce cattle-related carbon emissions and to ensure that a growing world population will be fed. The group aims to supervise and direct production methods for the entire beef supply chain from the cow/calf operator all the way through to the consumer and has set 2020 as an implementation target date.

According to Hunt and the GRSB website,, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is a driving force behind the GRSB. This should raise concern right away for cattle producers, Hunt said. The WWF has identified agriculture as the greatest threat to our planet and has worked tirelessly to replace cattle with buffalo on the Great Plains. Hunt said an organization with these extremist views cannot be trusted to make ag policy but yet that is who McDonald’s, Cargill, Tyson, JBS and the NCBA have chosen to partner with to impose environmental and other conditions on cow/calf producers.

Hunt says these and other players, through the GRSB, are working to develop new standards by which all producers’ environmental, social and economic “sustainability” are to be measured. The GRSB scoffs at producers who assert that their sustainability, as that word is traditionally defined, is obvious and self-proven by multi-generational management. The new-age sustainability touted by the GRSB relies heavily on “full chain traceability.” They intend to enforce social, environmental and economic conditions of their choosing on producers by requiring them to install on each animal an ear tag or other radio-frequency identification device and then register that unique identification number to the ranch or premise the animal runs on.

Then, in order to be deemed “sustainable,” each premises must receive a certification for those practices which will be issued after a compliance audit conducted by a third-party verifier whose services will be directed by GRSB members but paid for by the producer. Any producer not obtaining certification will be blackballed by the packers who control an overwhelming 80 percent of the market, said Hunt. In other words, a beef producer who does not meet the demands of the GRSB members would find himself unable to market his beef and therefore unable to turn a profit or pay his bills.

When the GRSB talks about sustainability, they are not talking about the rancher being able to keep doing what his family has been doing for generations, Hunt said. Rather, they are talking about making agriculture come into compliance with an outside group’s idea of what rural land use should be. Today, every rancher uses different production practices because every ranch is different. WWF could selectively remove individual ranchers from their property by setting production standards that are unworkable or too expensive to implement. They could for instance, deem flood irrigation practices unsustainable and demand that expensive sprinkler systems be installed before certification would issue.

Hunt expressed his disappointment at the National Cattleman’s Beef Association (NCBA) over their participation in the GRSB. He said that even though they have spent literally millions of producers’ checkoff dollars developing and promoting the GRSB’s “sustainability” scheme, they have done nothing to inform producers about what the biggest corporation in the beef world will soon be demanding of them. The NCBA claims to have a dual loyalty to both packers and producers and that just doesn’t work when it comes to the GRSB, he said. “The NCBA needs to be telling producers what the packers already know which is that beef sustainability is all about RFID ear tags and third party verification of radical environmental standards.

Though Hunt’s material is a new concept for many producers, Hunt said he received positive feedback from people both Friday night in Wall and Saturday night in Rapid City, including from legislators who were in attendance.

“They all are glad to finally know what this sustainability thing is really all about,” Hunt said. “Lots of them had heard of it but it just didn’t make sense.”

Hunt encourages producers to inform themselves on the matter F .

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