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Swine & U column:  Building understanding and vocabulary for sustainability journeys

By Erin Cortus, UMN Extension engineer
Originally printed in The LAND - as January 5, 2024 Swine & U column

The term sustainability is ubiquitous in modern agriculture, perhaps ad nauseam. While the common desire is to be infinite – as one farmer suggested as a replacement for sustainability – this presents different challenges through the supply chain. The demands look and feel different on and off the farm. Sustainability can become contentious when definitions of sustainability do not align because of different perspectives (e.g., global versus local), or different priorities for action. However, simply joining or starting sustainability conversations is needed more than ever. Sustainability, as a science, carries a vocabulary that can be daunting. However, there are some assumptions and analogies that I find useful as a starting point for discussions on and off farm.

Assumptions are ideas we accept as true, without firm proof. I continually check these assumptions – and I encourage you to do the same.

My first guiding assumption is that sustainability goals and actions are personal. Sustainability goals are personal, to individuals, organizations, industries, and even government entities. Goals may be set with the perspective of global or local impacts. This assumption is a reminder to ask what sustainability means to the person with whom I am conversing. Even if their definition does not align with my own, I can better address their needs and expectations.

Second, there are benefits and consequences to every decision. Decisions are guided by priorities. Commonly, sustainability definitions promote economic, ethical, and environmental aspects in decision-making. However, I have yet to see any single change, technology or practice that improves all conditions relative to the status quo. Understanding decision tipping points can illuminate priorities but does not mean ignorance of other facets.

Third, I assume sustainability is a practice of continual improvement, versus a finite state of being. How someone talks about sustainability can be just as important as the content or the numbers. We can use sustainability to describe what someone or something is. “I am sustainable” or “that farm is not sustainable” are two examples. Alternatively, we can use sustainability to describe what someone or something is doing – the action.

Fourth and finally, in the ambiguity of sustainability is opportunity and risk. This assumption applies more than ever with growing and evolving carbon markets. There are economic, environmental, and social credits to be earned and lost.

With these assumptions in mind, as a framework – or structure – for talking about sustainability, I encourage you to use the analogy to a road trip. Picture a group of friends with a free summer. They have a general goal to make it across the country during the summer. They have a general heading direction, but no reservations waiting for them along the way or at the destination. They have freedom to explore along the way, they want to have fun, have some new experiences and be safe. This road-trip analogy aligns with a common, but simplified framework from the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (S629) for developing sustainable agricultural programs that includes defining, planning and implementing actions.

To Define is to describe what sustainability looks like for an entity. With a general goal of crossing the country, the group of friends needs to come to some consensus about their plans, and ultimately, where they want to go. This plan needs to consider the time, money, and vehicles available, but also the types of experiences are they looking for. Going a step further is to describe the indicators of success. In sustainability frameworks, these are key performance indicators. Key performance indicators measure aspects of protocols, processes and outcomes. Progress along a road trip is a simple performance indicator, as are the number of county museums visited, or hotel points earned.

To Plan is to identify start-, mid-, and endpoints for each performance indicator, as a strategy for reaching the destination. This starts with the seemingly simple question of what the current starting point is. For a road trip this is obvious. For environmental sustainability metrics like carbon footprints, this can be more challenging. Baseline assessments (of carbon footprints or other metrics) provide a basis to track progress and can also strengthen collective vision for the destination. As free as they are to explore, the road trip crew need to chart a course – at least for the first day or two. The course depends on the map they have, the roads open, the resources available, and the experience they are looking for. If there are multiple vehicles in this road trip convoy, there is opportunity for each car to take a different road. One car may want to visit every museum along the way. Another may want to stop at every large ball of twine. Another may want to limit their time on the road, simply get to the next hotel and relax. Every path has risks and merits – but is guided by individual priorities.

To Implement is when the rubber hits the road, metaphorically and literally. Key performance indicators should be monitored and measured to track movement and progress and to adapt when necessary. Stopping points along the road trip are opportunities to check in and make sure there is enough gas, food, energy to keep going. There may be need to alter the course of the trip because of a road closure, or perhaps an opportunity for a slight detour to see the biggest ball of rubber bands. Reporting results of a sustainability plan, or progress along a road trip, can reflect past progress, present status, or future directions. Any of these messages can be powerful.

Sustainability science vocabulary does not stop here, but this is a starting point for conversations. This road trip analogy does not seek to define sustainability for everyone, but rather a way to frame development of individual or farm journeys or understand those of other entities. Even with a common, distant goal, different drivers may take different pathways. Is that right or wrong? To evaluate something, like a farm, we need to understand the goals and priorities. This is the reminder to revisit the assumptions presented earlier!
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