U.S. beef sustainability initiative faces hurdles

Questions remain about what sustainable beef production means, while distrust continues between groups

PHOENIX, Ariz. — An American initiative established to advance beef sustainability has released a set of indicators designed to guide the sector toward becoming more economically, environmentally and socially sustainable.

But convincing those in the trade to get on board could be a challenge.

There is probably no extra money in it, there are lingering questions about what sustainable beef production means and a level of distrust continues as groups with divergent opinions meet at the roundtable.

The United States Roundtable for Sustainable Beef consists of members from throughout the beef value chain. Its goal is the improvement in sustainability of the U.S. beef value chain.

McDonald’s Corp., a charter member of the U.S. and global roundtables, plans a pilot with suppliers across the value chain to test the indicators, said company representative, Rickette Collins.

McDonald’s customers want to know that it is a responsible player, she said.

“It is something we value in many of our supply chains,” she said during a session at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association convention held in Phoenix from Jan. 30 to Feb.2.

The company promised by the end of 2020 to source a portion of its beef from sustainable suppliers in its top 10 markets that make up more than 85 percent of its beef volume.

Those who have to do the actual work on the ground said a checklist offers a path to continuous improvement for any operation that may already be doing a good job.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t get better. Continuous improvement is inherent in ranching,” said California rancher Mike Williams.

“There are ways to educate and do research and do practices to show producers better ways to run their ranches. If you run your ranch better, you will see economic benefit,” he said.

Representatives from the ranching community, feedlots and processors, as well as corporate partners like McDonald’s and Cargill Meat Solutions, acknowledged lingering skepticism surrounds the program.

More companies are adopting the concept of sustainability as part of their corporate policies, said Glen Dolezal of Cargill.

But the program must offer practical, science-based and scalable solutions to manage environmental footprint, water resources, antibiotics, animal welfare, waste, worker safety and sustainable feed, he said.

“I believe the beef industry is sustainable today,” said Tom McDonald, vice-president of JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding Co. and a member of the roundtable.

“I believe the fact that feed yards exist is a testament to the efficiency of our industry, not only doing more with less, but taking care of our people, our cattle and the environment and still making enough money to keep everything running is sustainability,” he said.

Sitting down at the table with members from the environmental community was an uneasy experience, said McDonald.

“I didn’t trust those guys,” he said.

However, part of the deal is working with groups that hold opposing opinions about food production.

“It is important to listen to all sides,” said Dolezal. “We work with them because we don’t want to be surprised. We want to know what is coming next.”

Some members seated around the table may never see eye-to-eye, but there is a willingness to listen, said Williams.

“I may not agree with the World Wildlife Fund about wolves but maybe they are learning my economic viability is important to wildlife sustainability,” he said.

Canada’s experience with non-governmental organizations has been mostly positive, said Dennis Laycraft, past-chair of the Global Round Table and executive vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

“The benefit of that co-operation is really quite remarkable,” he said.

“They are changing more than we are changing as a result of the interaction of beef ranchers, feedlot operators.”

Membership at the table is voted on so those groups seeking to destroy the beef industry are unlikely to get a seat.

Laycraft said connections are critical among opposing groups to prevent bad government policy. Proving beef production is a sustainable process could head off proposals like a tax on meat.

“If we don’t connect with them, we are starting to see all these ill-conceived ideas,” he said.

Canada has already launched its list of sustainability indicators and McDonald’s tested the program to see if it was possible two years ago.

The next Canadian pilot project involves companies like Cargill and Cara Foods offering a financial bonus to those who provide certified sustainable beef.

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