Trade takes center stage during panel discussion at international conference

By:Mary Lou Peter, K-State Research and Extension
MANHATTAN, Kan. — The meaning of the word “sustainability” in livestock production varies from person to person and country to country which adds a layer of difficulty when governments are negotiating trade agreements, according to Tom Vilsack, president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council and former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

Vilsack was a panelist during the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock annual conference held Sept. 9-13 at Kansas State University in Manhattan. This was the first time in the nine-year history of GASL conferences that trade has been addressed in a formal way.

Government has a role in creating the “rules of the road,” Vilsack said, and to help producers respond to circumstances. Consumers need to have a place to get trusted information, but there’s a lack of consensus about what “sustainability” means, he said, adding that the panelists who shared the stage with him might not even agree.

“If we have a common definition and informed consumers, then it’s easier to negotiate trade agreements,” he said.

Sustainability includes environmental, social and an often forgotten element, economic sustainability. “We need all three,” Vilsack said.

Marcelo Gonzalez, Vice Minister of Livestock, Paraguay said sustainability will look different in different countries. Farmers want to make sure consumers recognize the activities involved in raising livestock in a sustainable way. For that reason, Paraguay is working toward better labeling for its beef product, which are mostly raised on pasture.

Ma Chaung, China Assn. of Animal Science and Veterinary Medicine and Beijing Boyar Communication Co., LTD said there’s a role for government to promote sustainability practices and that China has initiated supply side reforms to encourage sustainable production.

Trade is essential to sustainable outcomes, said Jason Hafemeister, U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service. Competition is good. It’s good for consumers to speak with their dollars but he warned against government “cramming certain things down people’s throats.”

“Sustainability should go hand in hand with negotiation,” Gonzalez said, adding that transparency and consumer education is also important. “Some car companies have said they won’t use leather because they don’t want to support an industry that’s not sustainable. They don’t realize they’re hurting farmers who are trying to produce in more sustainable ways.”

Jean-Phillipe Dop, World Organization for Animal Health or the OIE said science is part of the solution, but science is not always easy for people to understand. He noted that 45 countries have been affected by African Swine Fever. “We need good science to control disease.” Different perspectives do not mean disagreement. It’s important to reach consensus. “Sustainability is a journey rather than a destination.”

“We have to produce more with less,” Hafemeister said, but warned that if productivity is driven by something other than consumer preferences, it can be captured by special interests.

“We have a long way to go to get to consensus,” he said, adding: “Once we define what’s virtuous we can either ban things or we can subsidize things. I’m more encouraged by subsidizing good practices.”

Vilsack said that agriculture can strive to replicate nature: “There is no waste in nature. We’re on the cusp, at least in the dairy industry, of having no waste. I think we can get to a net zero agriculture.”

The panelists acknowledged there are trade barriers, saying it’s important to work on vectors of disease, factors in climate change, communicating research to producers and the public, and streamlining government regulatory systems in order to improve response times.

“If we want to knock down barriers we need to make all players feel valued,” Gonzalez said. “Think ahead and have a plan that thinks beyond 10 or 20 years to be sustainable. Sometimes farmers are already doing what we want them to do, but consumers don’t know and government doesn’t know.”

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