Defining Sustainability for the Future

By Tina Caparella

Not even a decade ago, “sustainability” was merely a buzzword. Not so anymore, especially to food producers such as Tyson Foods, Inc.

“We think sustainability touches every part of our business,” said Donnie Smith, chief executive officer and president of Tyson Foods, at the Animal Agriculture Sustainability Summit held as part of the International Poultry Expo and International Feed Expo in Atlanta, GA, in late January. “When you borrow something, you need to return it in at least as good a shape or better.”

Smith was just one of many speakers at the summit that addressed the triple bottom line of sustainability – people, planet, and profit. But Smith added a fourth “p” to his company’s plan: products. He pointed out that since 2004, Tyson has seen a 70 percent reduction in Salmonella in whole bird carcasses, yet the incidence of salmonellosis among the general population has remained unchanged. Tyson has also created a “Discovery Center” as a collaborative research and development facility to create innovative new food products, and is proud of its newest partnership, Dynamic Fuels, which uses the lowest grade of fat to produce an alternative fuel.

While there are many definitions of sustainability, Smith urged companies to ask themselves these questions: “Are we adding value to our customer’s business profitability? And in doing so are we managing the social and environmental aspects of our business for future generations?” He indicated that the answer will help a company define sustainability.

“There is a great moral and ethical case for sustainability,” Smith continued. “There is also a great business case for sustainability.” As for the people aspect, companies should encourage leadership and continuous improvement among employees. Companies should also be involved in their communities through charitable contributions and volunteerism.

The planet portion of sustainability should focus on water conservation and treatment, conserving energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and recycling wherever possible, Smith noted. He reported that three of Tyson’s facilities are now “landfill-free,” meaning everything that can be recycled is and the rest of the solid waste is incinerated to produce energy. Several more Tyson plants are close to this level.

Smith stated that the concept of returning as good or better also applies to a company’s balance sheet. For Tyson, ensuring contracted family farms are profitable is important, as is setting goals that drive performance. He suggested steps a company could take toward becoming more sustainable. First, define sustainability as it pertains to your company. Then take a current inventory; companies might be surprised as how much or how little is already being done.

Third, take a benchmark of how your company is perceived. Talk to customers and employees. Next, develop plans and communicate those plans both inside and outside the company, and be sure to involve industry associations. Tyson published its third biennial sustainability report in July 2010, and posts simple videos of its actions on its Web site. Smith then encouraged the poultry industry to do a better job of telling its story, especially as the public loses its connection with agriculture.

“We have an important story to tell and I prefer we tell it,” he proclaimed.

Sustainability from a non-government organization’s stance was told by Bryan Weech, director of livestock agriculture, World Wildlife Fund, who said the world will need to triple food production by 2050 to accommodate the expected human population increase of three billion people. However, water and farmable land are scarce so the increase in food production will have to come by way of production improvement practices and improved plant and animal genetics.

“Population times consumption does not equal the amount of resources this planet has on a long-term basis,” Weech announced. “We need to produce more with less.”

The World Wildlife Fund defines sustainability as having three pillars: conservation, economic viability, and social responsibility. The group organized a global conference on sustainable beef last fall in which a group of stakeholders such as McDonalds, Cargill, Wal-Mart, and JBS agreed to work together to improve sustainability within the beef industry. Weech said that the World Wildlife Fund is interested in pursuing cooperative initiatives like this with other livestock groups in the future.

Word from the trenches on sustainability was presented first by Paul Pressley, U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, who said that to be truly sustainable, a company has to involve people both inside and outside the company’s walls. He shared various media headlines on tainted poultry litter, chicken odors, and chicken manure contaminating Chesapeake Bay.

“Are we really this bad or just bad at telling our story?” Pressley asked. He encouraged community outreach and involvement to build trust with local leaders and citizens, and to listen to the needs of the community to see how a company could fulfill those needs. Pressley urged involvement in local chapters of the United Way, American Cancer Society, and American Red Cross, and to provide facilities for local fire department training, attend and educate local Future Farmers of America and 4H groups, and donate to local food banks. He also advised engagement with employees to ensure they are happy and content in their jobs, a task that’s not easy but important to ensure a company’s sustainability.

Dr. Brian Kiepper, University of Georgia, focused on water treatment and conservation, declaring that sustainability can be confusing and complicated, but keep it simple to endure. He explained that humans manipulate the water cycle on a daily basis; that the more a company manipulates water, the more resources are used; and that every manipulation has consequences, although not all consequences are bad.

Michael Brown, Georgia Tech Research Institute, commented that “to do the right thing, you have to do things right and that involves people” before discussing energy efficiency in poultry processing. He advised identifying energy uses in a facility and pointed out that the biggest users of energy provide the biggest opportunities to reduce energy usage. Brown recommended companies consider energy efficiency in any future capital projects.

Ashley Peterson, United Egg Producers, noted that a “one size fits all” approach to sustainability doesn’t exist, allowing a company to define the way sustainability fits its business culture, values, and needs. She went on to highlight how a company can create its own sustainability vision and definition and the steps needed to reach its goals.

Leigh Ann Johnston, Tyson Foods, followed with an in-depth look at how a company can monitor, measure, and continually improve its sustainability program. She also shared tips to make communicating more successful based on hard lessons Tyson has learned.

“Once you start communicating about sustainability, don’t stop,” stated Johnston. “It’s an evolving process. Every sustainability program is as unique as the company that implements one.”

The International Poultry Expo and International Feed Expo drew over 20,000 poultry and feed industry leaders from all over the world. In addition, the show had over 900 exhibitors, including the National Renderers Association that provided staff to answer questions about rendering, the various research programs undertaken by the Fats and Proteins Research Foundation, and provide copies of Render magazine.

Newsline – April 2011 RENDER | back