By Hugo von Bernard
The fact that integral sustainability has not been achieved is due to human needs. And, although the minimum requirements that they have and how much is enough to cover them have not yet been fully defined, this is one of the priority issues to solve before trying to reach it.
In the last three or four decades, the destruction and loss of environmental sustainability generated by all humans in the search for a better standard of living has become evident. This search led to an increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases, losses of organic matter and soil erosion, negative balance of nutrients, water pollution, deforestation, and so on. However, the comprehensive sustainability described by Brundtland (1988, 1992) in his report was not achieved. This is much more than the environmental sustainability that certain social groups seek and encompasses environmental, economic and social sustainability.
The fact that integral sustainability has not been achieved is due to human needs. And, although the minimum requirements that they have and how much is enough to cover them have not yet been fully defined, this is one of the priority issues to resolve before attempting to reach it. Sustainability depends on the conception that humanity has on this subject, which is reflected in the institutions and organizations that it is given.
From practice it is clear that the three pillars of sustainability are in an unstable balance where, by benefiting one of them, the other two are harmed, and the unilateral vision of humans generally prevents them from considering all three at the same time. Thus, those humans who have their minimum requirements covered plan in the long term and advocate environmental sustainability, but do not consider with the same emphasis the economic and social sustainability of those who do not. On the other hand, those who advocate the economic sustainability of their ventures are unaware of the environmental and social sustainability of others, while those who seek the economic and social sustainability of humanity do not usually ask about the environmental one. According to a study carried out by Ecoespaña (2005), three quarters of the 1.1 billion people living in extreme poverty around the world are in rural areas, so their environment is "the only thing" of which they can depend to get out of that situation.
In the case of the beef chain, its sustainability cannot be separated from that of the actors that make it up and from the fact of being part of a society that tries to grow economically, apparently without caring too much about the environmental or social result of its actions. .
Nor do consumers wonder if those who sell cheaper cover all their costs, or if the environment or society subsidizes them. Similarly, no one claims to bear the environmental costs. In this context, environmental deterioration is inevitable.
Obviously, cattle farming participates in the unstable balance between the three pillars of sustainability since they seem to exist:
- Direct relationships between:
or a) economic growth and environmental deterioration.
or b) consumer demand and technical, health and / or environmental barriers to trade.
or c) environmental management and treatment of effluents, waste, investments and operating costs.
or d) population growth and increased consumption.
- Inverse relationships between:
or a) productivity and environmental sustainability.
or b) environmental sustainability and economic growth or economic or social sustainability.
Reasons for environmental destruction
Until now, few explanations have been found of the reasons that lead humanity to unsustainable actions, but to visualize what the collective future will be, human nature, the action of its genes and the environment where it develops must be understood. Apparently, the thoughts and actions of humans are controlled by brain processes beyond their current knowledge, for which, they manufacture reasons to justify their actions and distort objective reality to make it agree with their needs, hopes, fears or any other reason.
This unsustainable action is supported by at least two reasons: the short-term vision of most humans, which is associated with the higher cost of being sustainable. Although the author does not know other reasons and does not know what is being investigated in that sense, the end result is non-sustainability.
It is a fact that the short-term vision allows generating short-term economic benefits, but can affect long-term ones, damaging ecosystem services and limiting the rights of future generations. This short-term vision is reflected in the following words:
"Let us eat and drink today, for tomorrow we will be dead" (Jes. 22, 13).
"In the future, we will all be dead" (John Maynard Keynes 1883 - 1946).
“Catholicism sacrifices the present in the name of Heaven, the Revolution in the name of a future that does not interest me. What interests me is how I live today ”(Abilio Estévez, contemporary Cuban writer, cited by Habel 2004).
Environmental impact evaluation
It is a fact that if the population wishes to lead a sustainable existence, the bases on which it rests must be respected, companies must cover their production costs and all must satisfy their minimum requirements. From an environmental point of view, resources should not be consumed faster than they are renewed, nor should they pollute faster than nature decontaminates. When the above premises are not respected, part of the costs are externalized and the environment is impacted, altering and damaging it.
In the case of the beef chain, the environmental impact can be specific (EPA 2002, cited by Ribaudo 2003) or non-specific (Vigon 1985 cited by Karp et al. 1995; Giuffré & Ratto 2001) depending, among other things, if whoever performs it is located. The location of the environmental offender is a priority for the community since if there is political will to do so, they can be financially sanctioned or production prohibited.
In the case of new livestock enterprises, and in order to prevent environmental impact, it is proposed to evaluate them before implementing the projects, which may represent a significant part of the total cost and delay investments. And that, despite the fact that no government has a group of interdisciplinary researchers with sufficient financial means to detect the environmental problems caused by the application of new technologies.
Internalize or externalize the costs of livestock?
The externality, or the direct effect that the production of a certain good has on other members of the community (Coloma 2000), can be positive or negative. In the first case, as the community benefits directly from it, it does not question it. On the other hand, when the community feels harmed by the negative externalities of others, it tends to complain to the authorities. It is a fact that no one wants to bear the costs of voluntarily avoiding negative externalities. For example, when odors, flies or excess nitrite in groundwater from a feedlot or dairy reduce the quality of life of residents, they require the transfer of production to other areas. This fact, known as NIMBY ("Not In My Back Yard" or Not in my garden) can generate the displacement of polluting companies to other places, increase the price of the product and a lower local economic shift, with the consequent loss of jobs work. For this reason, the politicians involved try to ensure that the decision is not made during their administration, an attitude known as NIMTOO ("Not In My Term Of Office" or No during my term).
To force companies to take charge of the negative externalities generated by them, two solutions have been found, both affecting the profitability of those who take charge of it. On the one hand, externalities can be directly taxed, as pointed out by Arthur Pigou (1877 - 1959) (cited by Miro Rocasolano 2002), or propose that those who benefit and those who are harmed by them negotiate among themselves (Coase 1960). With this last option, maximum economic efficiency would be obtained and the different parties would take charge of the externalities to varying degrees (Coase 1960; Pindyck & Rubinfeld 1998; Miro Rocasolano 2002).
For this second proposal to be carried out, property rights must be clearly defined, there must be total legal certainty, and transaction costs must be very low or nil (Coase 1960; Panayotou 1998). However, as at the international level there is no supranational authority that defines the environmental policy to be followed by all countries or enforces international agreements, and in some countries none of the points mentioned as essential are given, these regulations are not implemented. . On the other hand, some authorities prefer to tax negative externalities rather than reduce economic activity in their area.
To reduce the environmental impact of livestock, without affecting the economic sustainability of the producer or the social of its inhabitants, governments have two possibilities: to support or limit it. Both measures will bring different environmental, economic and social consequences.
If the rancher is to accept environmental regulations that reduce their production and therefore their profitability, the taxes on the activity must be reduced if “good management practices” (GMP) are applied, manage financial instruments and investigate how to transform excreta animals in useful products to the community. On the other hand, in order to limit the production of meat, it is legislated on: the maximum volume of excreta to produce; its dispersal in the field or the authorization of production.
However, if the beef chain were forced to be environmentally sustainable and bear all the costs that it generates, meat prices should be increased because the cost of production would rise or producers would leave the economic circuit. This will have repercussions on the economic and social sustainability of the local population, livestock producers and the beef chain. The question is who will take over?
Therefore, each link in the beef chain can be said to be sustainable:
- Economically, when you cover your production costs.
- Environmentally, when it consumes the rent and not the environmental capital.
- Socially, when all meet your minimum requirements.
In the case of the beef chain:
- From the economic point of view, it is known that in recent years rural cultures, towns and agricultural companies have disappeared. That if, those that remained, grew in size.
- From an environmental point of view, the specific contamination of feedlots and some cold stores is recognized, and not specific of many livestock establishments.
- From a social point of view, consumers are not in a position to pay the higher price required to avoid environmental pollution.
If today's society wanted to be comprehensively sustainable in the case of meat, or in any other area, it would force the different links to be so, since it has the power to do so. However, as this has an immediate impact on their economic and social sustainability, that same society prefers to put environmental sustainability aside and shift the problem to an indeterminate future where others, their children or grandchildren, will have to solve it and pay for it.
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Ribaudo, M .: 2003. Manure Management for Water Quality: Costs to Animal Feeding Operations of Applying Manure Nutrients to Land (AER824). Economic Research Service June - July 2003. www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aer824. U.S
This work shows the difficulties that humanity has to achieve integral sustainability, the meeting point of environmental, economic and social sustainability. The case of the beef chain is taken as an example, but it could be any other.
* Hugo von Bernard is a Veterinarian and works in the Chair of Beef Production at the Faculty of Agronomy of the University of Buenos Aires. Argentina.