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Two Steps Forward

Down on the farm, the beef industry inches toward sustainability

Farmers and ranchers are on the front lines of a sprawling supply chain that ends up as burgers and steaks. Progress toward reducing the industry’s impacts has been plodding.

A photograph of the Blythe family, cattle ranchers in Kansas

The Blythe family hopes to be running cattle on the tallgrass prairie in Kansas for generations to come. Source: Debbie Lyons-Blythe

 This is the second article in a three-part series. Read Part One here.

Beef TOC

Just outside White City, Kansas, in pretty much the geographic center of the United States, Debbie Lyons-Blythe, her husband, Duane, and their five grown children are working to transform how beef cattle are raised. Blythe Family Farms, started by Duane’s great-grandfather in 1890, raises around 200 mostly Angus cows — a midsized herd by American ranching standards — which are eventually sold for beef.

"Our responsibility is to just care for the prairie," Lyons-Blythe told me. "So, we're really focused on sustainability and conservation practices."

Lots of beef ranchers can say that — after all, multigenerational farms are by some definitions sustainable, and conserving the land is Job One for any farmer or rancher — but Debbie and Duane are doing the hard work beyond simply ensuring that their ranch and family legacy are handed down to their kids — from rotational grazing to planting cover crops to maintaining water quality and protecting the prairie. 

The tallgrass prairie where the Blythes' herd ranges is a remnant of an ecosystem that once stretched across the United States from Canada to Mexico — nearly 250 million acres, roughly the combined size of California and Texas — dating back to retreating glaciers about 10,000 years ago.

Today, 96 percent of the prairie is gone — destroyed by farming, urban sprawl and transportation — the remainder found primarily in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, where the Blythes farm. The terrain is too rocky to plow, so grazing animals have long played an important (if sometimes controversial) role in preserving the prairie. Among other things, they help maintain tallgrass lands by stimulating plant growth and by compacting the soil with their hooves, storing carbon, and by opening new areas for seeds to germinate and take root.

"The reason that the prairie still remains here is because of the cows," said Lyons-Blythe.

The Blythe family, and other farmers and ranchers around the world — who represent the beginning of the beef supply chain and its biggest environmental footprint — are helping herd the beef industry toward more sustainable outcomes. They’re doing that on their own initiative and at the behest of McDonald's, as covered in Part One of this series, as well as Walmart, Tyson, JBS and other large beef producers, processors, restaurants and retailers. As in other sectors, large, branded companies are pushing their upstream suppliers — in this case, ranchers such as the Blythes — to reduce their environmental impacts.

A flow chart that details the supply chain for the beef industry

The global beef industry sprawls across every continent but one, encompassing millions of farmers, thousands of slaughterhouses and processors, and countless other intermediaries. Source: Cortney Cowley/Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City

A change of climate

Concerns about beef production have grown significantly since I last took a deep dive into the topic 10 years ago. Consumption of plant-based, cellular and other alternatives to conventional meat, while still nascent, is projected to grow at a compounded annual rate of 7.7 percent, according to MarketsandMarkets. Vegetarian and vegan diets have become mainstream, partly for health reasons but also due to planetary and animal welfare concerns. Global meat consumption is essentially flat, even though world population has grown by a half-billion humans since 2014. Concerns about biodiversity, including the impact of modern agriculture on the loss of topsoil and on the creatures that help ensure soil health, are growing. Bankers, investors and insurers are paying ever closer attention to the environmental and social impacts of agricultural supply chains, and the risks those impacts engender.

The stakes are high. Beef has an outsized impact when it comes to emissions into the air, water and soil, and in degrading land, aquatic systems, biodiversity and other natural resources. Indeed, beef far and away outpaces all animal protein sources — poultry, fish, pork, even other red meat sources — in its impacts.

Beef accounts for one-third of the global water footprint of farm animal production and has a disproportionate impact on climate change, according to the World Resources Institute: "If cattle were able to form their own nation, they would rank third behind China and the United States among the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters," just ahead of India.

But it’s not just the outpouring of pollutants that should worry the industry and its backers. The climate crisis itself threatens to send parts of the cattle industry into a tailspin.

A dicey future

For starters, scientists forecast significant changes in temperature, humidity and water availability that will negatively impact cattle ranching, not to mention agriculture in general.

Cattle have a very low threshold for heat stress, said Arik Tashie, senior innovation data scientist at ClimateAI, which uses artificial intelligence to quantify and forecast climate impacts on agricultural operations. "And once they eclipse a certain threshold, the animals become stressed and don't grow as quickly." Different types of cattle suffer heat stress at different levels, so breeds and genetics can play a role; temperature rise and precipitation loss can make cows more sickly, affect their development and reduce the quality of the meat they produce.

That has led to a growing recognition that the future of beef production can, and must, be sustainable, if not regenerative — for planetary reasons as well as for the survival and resiliency of the industry itself.

Whether the kinds of practices being implemented by the Blythes and others in the name of beef sustainability are possible at the vast scale of the global beef industry remains an open question. Roughly 60 million metric tons of beef are produced annually worldwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and beef consumption is projected to grow rapidly in China, Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, all regions at high risk for increased drought.

From the ground up

As the recognition of beef’s environmental impacts grows, there is little agreement on who is responsible for reducing them — the world’s biggest beef-selling brands, the mom-and-pop operations that raised cattle, or the many players in between. 

A dozen years ago, the beef industry ecosystem came together — large retailers such as McDonald’s and Walmart, major beef processors such as JBS and Cargill, leading advocacy groups such as WWF and The Nature Conservancy, industry associations and other parties — to create the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef. That organization spawned more than a dozen regional roundtables around the world. Their collective goal is, in part, to define and ultimately measure the beef industry’s impacts on the planet as well as to communities, farmers and ranchers, and to the welfare of cattle themselves.

It’s a daunting challenge, particularly given the sprawling nature of the global industry: millions of farmers, thousands of slaughterhouses and processors, and countless other intermediaries, as well as the restaurants, supermarkets and foodservice operations offering beef. Bringing together and harmonizing their various perspectives, cultures and needs presents a supersized challenge.

Progress has been plodding, to say the least. The roundtables spent their first decade largely wrangling members to come up with a common definition of "sustainability" as it relates to beef production. That’s astonishing but inevitable, industry experts assert, given the extremely broad range of interests, economic incentives, cultural norms and political clout within the beef value chain across more than 100 countries on six continents. "You can produce beef on the edge of the Arctic Circle and on the edge of the Sahel and everywhere in between," Ruaraidh Petre, executive director of the GRSB, told me.

A dozen years in, the global roundtable is finally getting ready to unveil a reporting framework, "and an actual form for our members to fill in on progress reporting," said Petre. In some beef-producing countries, "that means just starting with a baseline. Some countries do not have their climate impact figures for previous years. So, they're just starting." Others, such as Australia, Canada and the United States, "have known their climate impact for quite some years, and they're now going to be reporting against that to track progress."

The world’s biggest retailers are trying to reduce beef’s environmental impacts out of economic necessity as much as planetary concern. Sustainability, they believe, can help ensure the reliability and resilience of their supply chains and meet the growing expectations of their customers, investors, employees and other stakeholders.

"Big retailers like Walmart, McDonald's and others have set huge goals and started developing integrated supply chains," said Rob Manes, a wildlife biologist, co-director of The Nature Conservancy’s Regenerative Grazing Lands strategy and scion of Kansas farmers and ranchers. "Coming together has been a huge step forward."

But the nature and scale of the changes needed to make beef production sustainable can’t be top-down. Rather, they need to take place at the ground level, literally.

The biggest opportunities to reduce beef’s environmental footprint, according to Manes and many of the largest beef processors and their customers, is in caring for grazing land, where cows spend much of their lives. Developing and improving grazing management plans by farmers and ranchers has become a vital mission for beef sustainability advocates. And the various sustainable beef roundtables have leaned into that opportunity.

"We now have a fairly standardized approach to grazing management planning," said Manes, who sits on the board of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

A grazing management plan is a tool to help cattle ranchers "organize their land, improve forage production, determine livestock sustainability, allocate budget resources and determine the effort and time to achieve long-term livestock production goals," according to Mississippi State University Extension. A good grazing management plan, according to The Nature Conservancy, improves vegetation condition and wildlife habitat, harvests feed grain and hay using methods that protect birds and wildlife, uses integrated pest management rather than heavy doses of pesticides, and conserves critical habitat.

The aim is to raise livestock in a way that mimics natural processes that can regenerate soil health. Such plans typically move cattle across the land in a way that encourages the growth of healthy forage and avoids overgrazing and soil erosion or degradation. However, many grazing management plans are informal, perhaps unwritten, passed down from generation to generation.

Those informal plans may be insufficient by today’s standards, and formalizing them is one big part of the roundtables’ mission. The U.S. roundtable, for example, is surveying the grazing management plans of its members, according to Samantha Werth, the group’s executive director, including the barriers to adoption when they don’t yet exist.

After the group completes its current benchmarking study, she said, "we're going to be working with Trust in Beef and our other member groups to develop resources that will help to get after the producers who are interested in making a change."

That phrasing tacitly acknowledges that in most places, grazing management plans are voluntary, not required, despite most experts’ assertions that they are foundational to beef sustainability. Trying to prod cattle ranchers to change decades-old practices has become a top priority for beef sustainability experts and organizations.

Among the measures: Reducing the fertilizer, water, pesticides and other inputs that go into cattle feed, which are among the biggest unaddressed part of their beef footprint, according to research conducted by WWF for McDonald’s; maintaining or restoring soil fertility through cover crops, or by moving cattle around a ranch to allow parcels to recover; and better managing cow manure to keep it out of waterways or, increasingly, harness it to produce bioenergy that can be used on the farm.

The status quo is not acceptable. ‘Entrench and defend’ is not acceptable.

Market forces

Culture, as the saying goes, eats strategy for breakfast. When it comes to beef, market forces may devour both of those.

A growing number of the world’s biggest beef suppliers and retailers are starting to bake grazing practices into procurement specifications. Walmart, for example, as part of its aspiration to become a "regenerative company," has already surpassed its 2030 goal for its U.S. stores to "more sustainably source fresh beef by improving grain sourcing and grazing management practices across a total of 12 million acres." (The company says that it has achieved this on about 15 million acres.) However, the acreage of "more sustainable grazing management practices" Walmart is counting is based on suppliers’ self-reported data.

Other big players are on similar paths. In 2020, Tyson Foods, which produces about a fifth of the beef, chicken and pork sold in the United States, said it would verify sustainable beef production practices on more than 5 million acres of cattle grazing land in the U.S. — what it claims to be "the largest beef transparency program in the U.S." The company is working with BeefCARE, an independent sustainability verification program for cattle ranchers that uses third-party audits to verify that farmers and ranchers have, among other things, "effective written grazing lands management plans."

For Tyson, helping farmers and ranchers develop grazing management plans helps unlock the door to more sustainable outcomes. "The status quo is not acceptable," Justin Ransom, the company’s senior director of sustainable food strategy, told me. "‘Entrench and defend’ is not acceptable. So, how do we show up differently and have a new conversation that, quite frankly, we've not been successful with in the past?"

The story is similar at JBS, the world’s largest beef supplier.

Sustainability "needs to be about helping producers become more resilient and adapt to a changing climate," said Jason Weller, the company’s global chief sustainability officer. "And a lot of the same practices we need to help producers adapt are also about mitigating and reducing emissions. If you're solving for producers’ economic production success, helping farms be more resilient to a changing climate, you're then going to be decarbonizing the supply chain."

(On Feb. 28, the New York state attorney general filed a complaint over alleged greenwashing by JBS USA. The summons alleges that JBS USA has engaged in ongoing deception through its claims that it will be "Net Zero by 2040.")

For Walmart, Tyson, JBS and others, it’s often a matter of learning alongside their suppliers. "Our theory of change within the whole program is, ‘How can we do place-based projects in a specific geographic location to understand what it takes to implement those practices?’" explained Mikel Hancock, senior director of sustainable food and agriculture at Walmart. "And then ‘How can we influence or inform those within the supply chain with those learnings to drive widescale systems change?’ What they're doing is leveraging that information to make their farms more sustainable and profitable on things that are important to them."

It's a far cry from the older model, where big companies, Walmart included, saddled suppliers with onerous sustainability requirements, then expected them to foot the cost.

Indeed, some companies are providing financial assistance to farmers and ranchers, helping them defray the cost of transitioning to regenerative practices. The companies I spoke with were reluctant to provide details on how, and how much, they are willing to subsidize farmers, or pay a premium for beef produced using sustainable or regenerative practices, claiming such information to be proprietary.

But that financial assistance may be insufficient to engender change at the scale necessary to transform the beef industry.

"If society were to get serious about decarbonization, it would definitely involve the greatest inflow of capital in the history of mankind," Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs at the U.S. arm of JBS, said. But, he added, "There is no investment in climate-smart agriculture," a surprising statement for a company with a $10 billion market cap. "There's marginal investment on the sidelines but not the level of investment required to really tackle some of these problems. It would take huge capital inflows and investment from the commercial investment banking sector and others to make that huge leap forward that you're talking about in a very short time."

Still, "a company like Cargill or Tyson can have a huge amount of power to drive change," said Petre, the GRSB executive director. "They're all big corporations that have made commitments to climate and nature-positive and other things." Because they have the buying power to drive change through their supply chain, "they're probably the ones who are actually making the most difference on the ground."

It’s not always that simple. "We're at the very tail end of the supply chain and so it’s really difficult to drive change all the way back through multiple areas," Walmart’s Hancock said. "We are working hard at it, though, and believe that we can inform others." But, he added, "I also think it's extremely important to recognize that we don't have it all figured out."

What gets measured

These and other initiatives could go a long way to reducing beef’s footprint. But "could" is a key word. Despite more than a decade of collaborative efforts by the roundtables, not to mention the efforts of trade groups, universities, environmental advocacy groups and the public sector, there are still few baseline metrics that the industry — and the rest of us — can use to assess the industry’s aggregate progress as well as that of individual companies.

"It's been very difficult to align around meaningful, measurable, actionable metrics that one can cascade and apply to everybody," said Bruett.

Indeed, that’s been a primary goal of the roundtables, but results have been elusive so far, except in a few jurisdictions. One is Australia, where there are 54 sustainability indicators for beef farmers covering animal care, environmental stewardship, economic resilience and people and communities. The standardized metrics also have enabled the creation of carbon markets and a forthcoming market for biodiversity credits, said Jacob Betros, manager of beef sustainability at Meat & Livestock Australia.

But in most regions, let alone globally, standardized metrics and reporting frameworks continue to be years away as roundtables make painfully slow progress on agreeing even on how to measure sustainability outcomes.

"The challenge is that everyone already has a job either as a full-time rancher or as a part-time rancher who also has a full-time job on the side," said the U.S. roundtable’s Sam Werth. "And that's why it takes so long because everything we do is industry-led, it's volunteer led, but with the caveat that everyone has full-time jobs on top of this."

Consensus, it seems, remains as elusive as "sustainable beef" itself.

Does the public care?

One looming question in all this is how much is, or will be, driven by consumer demand. So far, the public’s appetite for sustainable beef hasn’t been exactly ravenous.

"What we see is more people who are shifting the mix of what they're eating for a variety of reasons — sometimes health, sometimes environmental considerations, sometimes local support considerations for their regional producers," said Jenny McColloch, who until recently was McDonald’s chief sustainability officer. "But I don't believe there is one consumer trend that is demanding sustainability in beef."

Still, some of the large beef processors and retailers have tried to create brands connoting sustainable practices and production, usually offered at premium prices.

Tyson, for example, has gone through a series of beef-branding exercises. It started with Progressive Beef, which identifies meat that "comes from feedlots that put a high priority on cattle care and sustainability," followed by Brazen Beef, which "leads the shift toward a more climate friendly future," before landing on Climate-Smart Beef, which aims to "drive adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices." The company’s goal is to have a million head of cattle in the Climate Smart program in the next seven years.

Cargill, for its part, offers Pasture Crafted beef, in which its labeled products can be traced back "to an animal on one of the supplier’s sustainably operated ranches."

These brands seem aimed more at retailers and other supply-chain partners than at the beef-buying public. And the ambition behind such labels can be underwhelming. Tyson’s Brazen Beef, for example, is touted as the first beef product to receive the U.S. Agriculture Department’s "climate-friendly" label, which means demonstrating a modest 10 percent greenhouse gas reduction from pasture to production compared to conventionally raised beef.

The environmental community has not exactly been supportive. Last year, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to "prohibit climate-friendly claims on beef products." It said that any such claims should be backed by third-party verification and should include a numerical on-pack carbon disclosure."

"There is no such thing as 'climate-friendly' beef," the petition flatly stated.

Jesse Klein contributed research to this article.

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