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The Inside View

10 minutes with Cameron Bruett, JBS USA

Why the head of sustainability for the world's largest meat company, trained as an animal scientist, is balancing tradition with scientific innovation.

This column is about the people of sustainability. What makes them tick? What’s their unique way to create impact? What have they learned that works? This time, it’s Cameron Bruett, head, corporate affairs (and chief sustainability officer) at JBS USA & Pilgrim's; and past president for the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB).

Bob Langert: Why did you take on the role of president of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef?

Cameron Bruett: I didn't really know much about sustainability at that time; I was a lobbyist in Washington, dealing with legislative issues, and I found the issue pretty interesting from a consumer and policy perspective. Having been in agriculture policy for all of my career, I've always been a passionate advocate for the American farmer and rancher. I saw a lot of the rhetoric around beef sustainability very focused on vulnerabilities in regions outside of the United States or outside of North America. Issues that American farmers and ranchers had no control or influence over.

Langert: What did you first think of WWF’s idea of a beef roundtable?

Bruett: When I sat down with WWF, I probably felt like any farmer or rancher would, which is to say, "Who gave these guys the badge to police our centuries-old industry that's been feeding people around the world all this time? Why are they coming in and saying we're destroying the planet?"

Langert: But you shifted your opinion, didn’t you?

Bruett: We [JBS] came to see WWF as an entity that wanted to partner with people in the industry to identify solutions. So rather than attack us as a fundraising mechanism, they truly wanted to make positive change on the ground. It doesn't mean that I always agree with WWF today, but I think their approach of collaboration ultimately leads to more progress.

Langert: Some say sustainable beef is an oxymoron. What do you say?

Bruett: I really believe that all beef production systems can be sustainable and that there isn't a one-size-fits-all definition. When we started the GRSB, we thought that if we created the right lens through which to view a very complex issue, we could demonstrate the sustainability of organic, grass-fed or traditional beef, because the producer had prioritized three key areas (social, environmental and economic) in a way that was appropriate for their ranch. If we could do that globally with enough flexibility for the Brazilians, Canadians or Americans to apply it in a way that made sense to them, it could be an empowerment tool rather than a punishment tool.

I really believe that all beef production systems can be sustainable and that there isn't a one-size-fits-all definition.
Langert: The regionality of beef makes it very complex to simplify "sustainable beef," doesn’t it?

Bruett: Yes. Rather than have a checklist that said, "Bob, you're sustainable, but Cameron, you're not," you have to provide a more fluid dynamic where all producers can prove they are sustainable in their approach and all benefit from it. And then people could actually get credit for the work that they've done for 60, 80, 150 years on a multi-generational ranch, rather than always feel like they were being punished and forced to prove that they were innocent from the presumption of guilt placed upon them by detractors.

Langert: You went to the renowned Tuskegee University. Describe the impact that your education there had on your career.

Bruett: I'm from Omaha, Nebraska. I'm biracial and I really wanted to experience the diversity of African and African-American culture. I had a passion for animals, so I was an animal science major at Tuskegee and I got to see the breadth of the African Diaspora, of people from Jamaica, the Caribbean, South America, all parts of Africa, and then from all parts of the United States, from the north to south to east to west. I was able to view this complex, diverse collection of young people in an extremely positive light — not the way we are often portrayed in the media or in the public sphere — all working hard to get an education.

Langert: I don't even know how to ask this question, but the whole African-American experience is so steeped in troubled and so many things that are so bad in American history. So how is it that Tuskegee was a positive motivation? You could have walked out of there angry about that history.

Bruett: My three years there were a celebration of culture, rather than a negative reaction to the African-American experience in this country. It was more of an exploration of the contributions of black people to the country, exposing students to positive things that maybe we weren't aware of, which raised our social consciousness, and empowered us with the confidence to go into a society where you're not the majority.

I'm very passionate about Tuskegee; I serve on the Tuskegee Department of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences Advisory Board today. It's a great institution.

Langert: Why do you think there's so very few African-Americans today in food and agriculture — and in the sustainability field?

Bruett: There are certainly a lot of African-American farmers and ranchers, but they might not be as involved in some of the standard institutions or trade groups. That may just be historical. Many African Americans have obviously gone to more urban settings historically for job opportunities.

When it comes to the corporate world, agriculture is a very conservative, traditional area. I think the further you get up the chain into food processing and consumer packaged goods, it becomes more diverse. But certainly, the core elements of agriculture are still to this day pretty conservative, rural and not necessarily the settings where you would find a bevy of African Americans.

Our competitors basically have the same types of plants and technology as we do. ... The only real difference in any of these companies is the people, and so we always focus on our people.
Langert: Given your animal science education, are you concerned about how science is getting lost in the shuffle in society today?

Bruett: The only way we have a chance in meeting many of the sustainability challenges that are before us, feeding this growing hungry global population, is through scientific innovation and advancements that allow us to produce more with less. Now some are marketing against that, promoting "all-natural," or traditional approaches from the '30s and '40s that drive down production and increase costs.

Langert: Can you speak to your role within JBS? It’s the biggest meat company in the world. You're influencing people in the company in this young concept called "sustainability." How do you do that?

Bruett: We're a very large, diverse company dealing in multiple geographies with customers all around the world. We're a very low-margin business. Our competitors basically have the same types of plants and technology as we do. They source cattle from the same type of farms and ranches, process those cattle using the same technology, and sell their products to the same customers. So there's not a lot of differentiation in our process from any of our major competitors. The only real difference in any of these companies is the people, and so we always focus on our people.

Langert: Is sustainability a stretch for the people at the plants and facilities?

Bruett: So many of these concepts in sustainability would be — I won't say abstract — but wouldn't be top of mind for a person working in a processing facility. They’re not waking up in the morning thinking about GHG emissions first and foremost. They're thinking about water consumption, they're thinking about energy use, they're thinking about natural gas use, but they're not necessarily translating that into a GHG footprint calculator that an NGO might like. But they're thinking about the same thing, just with a different set of terminology, a different set of parameters.

Some of our team members in the company initially saw sustainability as merely a marketing program, rather than something grounded in operational improvement and a tool that could help both improve their performance and transparently share the good work that they do every day to a skeptical public. But as we rolled out our program, which has environmental, social and economic goals, we aligned it with the work that people are already doing, developing sustainability KPIs that align with the goals they are working hard to achieve every day.

Langert: You are a real straight-shooter. Does it ever get you in trouble?

Bruett: The truth is not always welcome. I'm not trying to position myself as a truthsayer, but I do like direct, blunt conversation more so than I like being BS-ed. At times that can make people uncomfortable, but I think sustainability is one of these areas where if you're not careful and you’re not direct, you can get into website talking points very quickly, and it's just very inauthentic. If you're starting your speech with, "My company wants to save the world," you should just stop your speech now. No one believes that.

Agriculturalists are genuine people with dirt underneath their fingernails and years of experience battling weather, turbulent markets, disease and the day-to-day challenges of managing an operation. These are not cubicle people. They can see BS coming a mile away.

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