Beef sustainability groups strive for global reach

Global roundtables could have international influence on environmental, health policies

BANFF, Alta. — The future of agriculture and the beef industry may depend on how diverse groups are able to work together and promote sustainable practices around the world. 


The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef was incorporated in 2013 and consists of producers, farm associations, processors, retailers, non-government organizations, as well as national and regional roundtables. 


“You are bringing together people who want to work together,” said global roundtable chair Dennis Laycraft of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. 


“We are trying to bring together those who have a vested interest in the future of the industry, whether it is from those who are interested in biodiversity or those interested in resource usage or another group interested in climate change,” he said. 


Brazil was the first to form a roundtable to deal with issues like deforestation and more efficient beef production.


Canada and the United States have followed with membership of about 90 members each. Mexico is also considering forming a similar group.


“North America is essentially aligning into roundtables,” he said in an interview at the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef held in Banff Oct. 4-6.


It is hoped the global roundtable would eventually have influence at the international level over issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, livestock production and its impact on the environment or human health. 


“Each country has different growing conditions but the sustainability criteria line up well enough that the information can be used to talk about what we are doing globally,” Laycraft said.


Nicole Johnson-Hoffman of Cargill, a member of the U.S. round­table, said those participating in the initiative must not promise extra money. 


“We should not make false promises to the producers who are participating in it and have put their businesses on the line in order to participate.”


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While there is no added direct financial incentive to take part, Jim O’Toole of the Irish Food Board said there are advantages.


“By adopting more sustainable practices, there are improvements in efficiency, which can be a financial award rather than a premium from the marketplace,” he said. 


Each country that has formed a sustainability initiative has common goals tailored to its own style of production, geography, climate and workforce. 


Canada started in 2013 and has 93 members sitting at its roundtable. Most recently, it released a sustainability framework to show where the beef industry is showing strengths and weaknesses.


The next step is to develop a verification system to demonstrate how the industry is continuously improving, said Fawn Jackson, executive director for the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.


The United States formed its roundtable last year with about 90 members. 


“Ultimately, our intention is for the U.S. beef value chain to be the trusted global leader in environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable beef,” said Johnson-Hoffman. 


U.S. roundtable members next want to define and develop indicators of what sustainable beef production looks like. 


“We will develop sustainability indicators and we will develop a means to verify those indicators and demonstrate to third parties and others that we are progressive in our work,” she said.


In Europe, the Farm Sustain­ability Assessment covers vegetables, fruit, beef, dairy and coffee under the sustainable agriculture initiative platform. 


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Created by Unilever, Danone and Nestle 14 years ago, the platform has a goal by 2020 to implement secure and thriving agricultural supply chains and protect the earth’s resources through widespread adoption of sustainable practices and deliver value to members, farmers and consumers. 


“That focus has widespread adoption of sustainable practices,” said O’Toole. 


“The goal of the FSA is to scale sustainable farming practices and the volume of sustainably grown agriculture products. It is important that that goal is about building scale and adoption of practices,” he said. 


Above all, farmers want standardized, easy-to-follow requirements. 


“One of the issues farmers have is that different purchasers of their products have different requirements,” he said. 


Australia does not have a roundtable, but it is developing a sustainability framework.


In 2016, the Red Meat Advisory Council, a forum for producers and processors, appointed a sustainability steering group, said rancher Andrew Ogilvie of the Cattle Council of Australia.


The newly formed group agrees sustainable beef should cover animal welfare, economic contribution and resilience, environmental stewardship and caring for the community.


“Our vision is for continual improvement,” he said. 


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