When you think about sustainability, you probably think it’s about reducing our environmental impact.

However, sustainability isn’t just about the environment, says Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, an animal scientist and director of Colorado State University’s Ag Next, a research center for sustainable innovations in animal agriculture.

Instead, we should think of sustainability as three pillars: environmental, social and economic, she says.

“Sometimes, we’re so focused on one particular pillar that there can be unintended consequences on the full system,” Stackhouse-Lawson says. “So it could impact food security if we’re focused on one environmental aspect. Or there could be animal welfare concerns or human safety concerns or something like that.”

When farmers and scientists think about sustainability, they consider the wide-scale impacts to animals, people and the environment.

Often, there are opportunities and drawbacks to any one sustainability effort, Stackhouse-Lawson says.

For example, cows emit (or burp) methane, a greenhouse gas. But cows also graze on grass pastures, which remove carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere.

In addition, research shows that if we removed all livestock and poultry from the U.S. food system, our diets would lack essential nutrients, like B vitamins, iron and zinc, that real meat provides.

“It’s really important that we address these complex topics and that we’re focused on improvement and that we’re taking a science-based approach to understand any trade-offs,” Stackhouse-Lawson says.

To learn more about how farmers work to ensure food quality, safety and farm animal care, visit realfarmersrealfoodrealmeat.com.

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