Corporate pledges spur livestock operation analysis

Sustainability review | McDonald’s project examines on-farm practices

CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. — It is one thing to assume the Canadian beef supply is produced in a sustainable way, but proving it is another thing altogether.


Companies such as McDonald’s and Walmart have promised to sell beef from sustainable operations. As a result, the Canadian industry is embarking on a life cycle analysis to measure its full impact on the environment, society and the economy.


“Conversations with McDonald’s recognizes the strength of the Canadian industry and its sustainability. That is why they have come to Canada to do this project,” said Fawn Jackson, environmental co-ordinator for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. 


McDonald’s is piloting its sustainability promise in 2016 and Walmart will follow in 2020. However, producers are questioning the meaning of sustainability and what is required of them to meet those standards.


“They know if they put something in place that industry can’t meet, they can’t do it. They are looking for some level of comfort that the Canadian industry is sustainable,” said Bob Lowe of the CCA’s environment committee. 


The fast food chain is likely to take a practical approach because it needs the beef, said CCA executive vice-president Dennis Laycraft.


“We are stressing continuous improvement, but I am convinced where we are going to land on this is they are going to look at the operator, not the cattle,” he said at the association’s semi-annual meeting in Charlottetown Aug. 13-16.


An 18-month-long life cycle analysis is underway to provide factual information on what happens on farms and ranches. It will look at the social, economic and environmental impact of beef production and explain to the public what is going on as well as provide recommendations for improvement, said Jackson. 


The life cycle analysis, conducted by Deloitte Canada, is an opportunity to show that the industry is behaving in a responsible manner by properly managing cattle and riparian and grassland areas, but it may also point out negative aspects of the industry.


“We might not like some of the data we are going to see,” she said. 


The recently created Canadian Round Table on Sustainable Beef is leading the initiative. It hosts a wide array of producer, environmental and consulting groups as well as pharmaceutical companies, processors, retailers and food service. 


The group has met once in Calgary and will be meeting again in Kelowna Sept. 24-25 to set the agenda of what it hopes to achieve. 


Each member wants the industry to survive but has different desires such as protecting biodiversity, water or profitability, Jackson said. 


There are three steering committees: membership, budgets and governance; communication and sustainability. 


Once this analysis is completed, future projects could reassess original data to measure improvements in the care of the land, water, biodiversity and animals. 


“Consumers want to know that their food comes from a safe place from people who are taking care of their animals and the land,” Jackson said. 


“We want to make sure we acknowledge here in Canada that all producers here are largely doing the right thing already.”