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Two Steps Forward

The story of McDonald’s 10-year quest for sustainable beef

A decade ago, the hamburger giant announced it would transform how it procures its most vital ingredient. It’s made progress, although you still can’t buy 'sustainable beef.'

To many, "sustainable beef" is an oxymoron, but McDonald's executives aren't giving up.

To many 'sustainable beef' is an oxymoron, but McDonald's executives aren't giving up. BGSmith via Shutterstock

Beef TOC

Ten years ago in January, McDonald’s announced it would begin sourcing "verifiable, sustainable beef" for its hamburgers. At the time, the fast-food giant didn’t have a definition of "sustainable beef" or a timetable for when it might achieve its self-described "aspirational goal" of buying 100 percent sustainable beef for its 34,500 restaurants worldwide.

"Realistically, it could take a decade or more to achieve the 100 percent goal," I wrote in a three-part series on McDonald’s and sustainable beef, from January 2014. 

A decade later, I set out to assess what’s happened since that announcement: what McDonald’s — which has pledged to reach net-zero carbon by 2050 — has achieved over the past 10 years, and what it takes to transition a sprawling industry toward more sustainable outcomes.

McDonald’s 2014 announcement was a bold move. The company at the time was only beginning to formulate a plan for how it would move its suppliers, and their suppliers, toward more sustainable practices. Moreover, McDonald’s, for all its global heft, is hardly the largest buyer of beef: It typically represents only between 1.5 and 2 percent of total beef consumption where it operates. To meet its goal, it would have to engage its suppliers, competitors and others.

McDonald’s beef comes from hundreds of thousands of cattle ranches, whose herds range in size from less than a dozen to tens of thousands. To effect the kinds of changes it was seeking, and to which it had publicly committed, the company would have to engage all these entities across more than 100 countries.

Intentions versus realities 

What I found over several months of reporting illuminates what happens when a well-intentioned company bumps up against the realities of transforming complex, global supply chains. It also portrays a large, slow-moving industry that, perhaps like cattle, seems to spend a great deal of time ruminating on what beef sustainability means, and on how to prod a sizable herd of sometimes stubborn players to move in a new direction.

For McDonald’s, progress has been slow and nuanced, but also undeniable. On the one hand, there has been a significant amount of activity, particularly focused on the farmers and ranchers at the front end of a hamburger supply chain who represent its biggest environmental impacts. McDonald’s is the undisputed leader when it comes to beef sustainability, at least among the larger players. The company is recognized within the beef value chain, from ranchers to retailers, as a key driver of initiatives and collaborations that are leading, slowly and incrementally, to sector-wide progress.

On the other hand, the company — and the global beef industry in general — is still grappling, a decade later, with crafting basic definitions, metrics and goals for beef sustainability, and with setting targets and timetables for progress. Big Mac and Quarter Pounder lovers won’t be buying a sustainable burger any time soon. And McDonald’s has yet to set any companywide sustainability goals for beef.

The goalposts are still shifting in terms of what's considered the right way forward for agriculture, for carbon reduction, for nature protection.

I asked Marion Gross, McDonald’s executive vice president and global chief supply chain officer, what data exists within the McDonald's supply chain that indicates whether the company is actually making progress. She admitted that the company still lacks clear answers. 

"We are still learning what are the right measures," said Gross. "How do we measure and validate? We do know, from some of the pilots that we've done around the world, that if you put in place regenerative agricultural practices you are able to sequester carbon and you are able to reduce emissions, but I don't think we have the final solution yet as it relates to measurement.

"It's very complex, and it's taking years to really be able to say with assuredness that we are making a positive impact and to what degree."

Moreover, the company changed the goal. A few years after its announcement, McDonald’s stopped using the term "sustainable beef," which describes an ideal outcome, opting instead for "beef sustainability," which suggests an ongoing journey.

"There were some discussions internally that we probably should have started this from the realm of ‘beef sustainability’ instead of ‘sustainable beef,’" Jenny McColloch, the company’s chief sustainability officer, told me. "‘Beef sustainability’ is a long-term ethos and journey. That was a semantic shift that was deliberate in our earlier years."

A decade later, the story of McDonald’s and beef sustainability raises more questions than answers. How much can a single company, even one as large as McDonald’s, do to transform supply chains and markets? How much is a centuries-old agricultural industry even willing to change? And perhaps most important: Can producing beef become sustainable at current levels of consumption? That is, will "sustainable beef" always be an oxymoron?

A graphic of the ecological impacts of burgers

The environmental impacts of beef production range from deforestation to greenhouse gas emissions to water pollution to land degradation. 

From pilots to progress

The environmental impacts of beef production range from deforestation to greenhouse gas emissions to water pollution and land degradation. Because beef is grown in almost every country, those impacts are global. And with beef consumption set to increase dramatically, they are certain to grow in the coming years. Even if McDonald’s achieves its own sustainability goals, it won’t have a huge impact on those damages; but the company hopes to become a model for the food industry. 

In 2012, McDonald’s, in partnership with several NGOs, trade associations, ranchers and other retailers, launched the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, whose members are "committed to making a difference in the sustainability of their industry." GRSB, in turn, spawned a dozen national and regional roundtables, from Australia to Argentina to the Americas, which focus on issues particular to their region.

GRSB spent much of its first decade simply wrangling members and building consensus. "It's a lot of players, a lot of moving parts," Ruaraidh Petre, the group’s executive director, told me from his office in Aberdeen, Scotland. "Getting a big industry with a lot of different stakeholders — some of whom, let's be honest, are pretty conservative — to collaborate has been a fairly big chunk of work."

In 2021, after nearly a decade, GRSB established a series of 2030 goals focusing primarily on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving land use and ensuring animal welfare. They’re voluntary and not overly ambitious. The climate goal, for example, aims for a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gases "of each unit of beef," a relative goal that will likely be overwhelmed by the overall increase in beef consumption: Between now and 2030, the global appetite for beef is forecast to grow at a compound annual rate of 5.8 percent, according to Grand View Research. That pencils out to just over 40 percent aggregate growth over the next six years, more than enough to offset that 30 percent emissions cut. The industry has no absolute goal to reduce beef’s overall planetary impacts.

During the first couple of years after its 2014 announcement, McDonald’s engaged in a pilot project, working with the various regional roundtables "to define what principles and criteria were for sustainability across the sector," said McColloch. The company said, in effect, "We'll source some beef from those supply chains that are aligned with those principles and criteria."

Between 2014 and 2016, McDonald’s started doing just that. It purchased a small portion of its beef from verified sustainable Canadian ranches. (Canada is one of the few countries with a program to certify beef sustainability.) That project involved nearly 9,000 head of cattle that produced about 300,000 pounds of beef, enabling McDonald’s to produce 2.4 million "sustainable" hamburger patties. That’s roughly one-tenth of a percent of the 2.5 billion burgers the company sells each year worldwide.

Among the project’s objectives: to bring the GRSB’s Principles and Criteria to life and to accelerate development of an industry-led beef sustainability framework.

"The indicators that McDonald's were using in the pilot project were a starting point for the indicators that the [Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef] used in their certification process," Greg Bowie, who raises Charolais cattle in Ponoka, Alberta, and who has served on CRSB’s board, told me. "They were very instrumental in building that trust between the livestock producers and the end users of our product." 

Starting in 2016, the company focused on building the industry infrastructure and a network of on-farm research programs to model what beef sustainability could look like. "We identified and prioritized 10 sourcing markets that were roughly 85 percent of our beef volume and said, ‘In all those markets, we're going to have a farmer network, we're going to set up flagship farms, and we're going to pursue research on beef standability programs that are aligned with the GRSB criteria and principles,’" said McColloch. "And from every one of those markets, we will source some portion of beef from those supply chains.’"

A world map showing meat consumption per capita

The United States still consumes more meat than almost any other nation, but developing countries are starting to catch up. 

Down on the farm

McDonald’s doesn’t buy beef directly from cattle ranches, feedlots or slaughterhouses. Rather, it purchases "individually quick-frozen" patties from dozens of processors worldwide, the tail end of one of the world’s most complex supply chains. And the chain of custody can be tricky: A typical cow may change hands two to four times before being slaughtered and sold to market. A single hamburger patty can contain meat from multiple cattle originating at multiple farms and ranches, even multiple continents, raised in different climates on different diets.

It all begins on a ranch. In the United States alone, cattle are grown in all 50 states; there are more than 750,000 U.S. cattle breeding operations, roughly half of whose beef may end up in a McDonald’s burger. (This doesn’t include countless slaughter, processing and packing operations.) Worldwide, cattle ranches exist on every continent except Antarctica. 

Cattle ranching requires copious land for cows to graze. In many areas, notably the Amazon, forests are razed to create pastureland. Cattle ranching is the No. 1 cause of deforestation in virtually every country in the Amazon basin, accounting for 80 percent of deforestation, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

McDonald’s says that all its beef must meet the requirements of its Deforestation-Free Beef Procurement Policy and Commitment on Forests. It has even more detailed requirements for beef sourced from Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Australia. The company has committed to eliminating deforestation from its global supply chain by 2030 for beef and four other commodities.

But the opaque complexity of the burger supply chain can lead unscrupulous suppliers to conceal the source of their beef. In 2022, for example, an investigation by Repórter Brasil found that the McDonald’s beef supply chain "is exposed to several risks of violations related to Brazil’s rural reality," including deforestation, slave labor, labor law violations and "damage to traditional communities," which "are part of the risks directly or indirectly linked to the network that supplies their restaurants."

The company says that 98.5 percent of beef used in McDonald’s products is sourced from deforestation-free supply chains, according to its 2022-23 Impact Report.

Beyond the forest

Another impact is water consumption and pollution. A 2022 study by University of Pittsburgh researchers found that around 3.5 cubic meters of "blue water" — found in surface and ground reservoirs —  is needed to produce one ton of boneless beef. That’s roughly 900 gallons of water per ton of beef.

Much of that water leaves feedlots and slaughterhouses in the form of runoff, which can release organic matter, nutrients and pathogens into waterways, according to researchers at North Dakota State University, posing risks to both aquatic life and drinking water.

Livestock farming is also one of the main contributors to soil erosion around the world, according to WWF. "Turning forests into pasture and overgrazing, or using marginal lands to grow feed, can lead to extreme loss of topsoil and organic matter that may take decades or centuries to replace."

And then there are the climate impacts, including, famously, the cow burps generated during rumination, as cows digest their feed and convert it into energy and protein. Those bovine belches release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Producing a little over two pounds of beef produces more than 200 pounds of greenhouse gases, roughly the amount it takes to manufacture 200 pounds of cement.

Talking about regeneration

In my interviews for this series I was surprised to hear players across the beef value chain, including McDonald’s, talk about regenerative agriculture, which seeks to rebuild organic matter and restore biodiversity in the soil.

Until recently, that term had been largely the domain of ecologists and the alternative ag movement. But regenerative ag techniques are increasingly becoming mainstream. And cows raised using regenerative techniques no longer end up solely in pricey, branded beef products. 

For McDonald’s, such techniques bring multiple benefits. "One of our major philosophical evolutions is that the resiliency of our supply chain is dependent on a lot of same objectives that fall under sustainability," Luke McKelvie, McDonald’s global farmer program manager and a member of the company’s cross-functional Global Sustainable Sourcing & Resiliency team, explained. "And I think one of the best examples of that is regenerative agriculture." Regenerative agriculture can bolster ranch and farm resiliency and help depleted biosystems recover and thrive, McKelvie said.

"We've come to define regenerative agriculture as a major and a critical lever that we could pull to reduce greenhouse gases," Gross said. "So that's where we're spending the majority of our time and effort right now, globally, is to continue that work with industry and others to shift from definition to solutions."

One McDonald’s-funded research project looks at adaptive multi-paddock, or AMP, grazing, which mimics wild animal migration by shuttling cattle among small, enclosed fields, or paddocks, for short durations. After the cattle move on, those paddocks are left undisturbed for long periods. The process captures carbon, sequesters water and improves biodiversity and soil health.

Peter Byck, a filmmaker focusing on climate solutions, leads the study, which dates to 2016 and was seeded by a $4.5 million grant from McDonald’s, which has been closely following the findings, which will be published later this year. Preliminary results are encouraging, and Byck is quick to reel off a litany of benefits from AMP grazing, from enhanced carbon sequestration and water infiltration to an explosion of beneficial microbes, bugs and birds. It’s also better for farmers’ pocketbooks, he says.

Another project, in the northern U.S. Great Plains, funded by McDonald’s, Cargill and the Walmart Foundation and led by WWF, has worked with ranching networks to promote best grazing management practices across a million acres of land.

"There's a huge scientific component to that, where they're taking a ton of soil samples before and after these practices are adopted," explained Kendra Levine, U.S. sustainability lead at McDonald's. "It's one of the largest efforts to collect data on this going forward, which we've been really excited about."

Not everyone relishes the notion of a global hamburger giant touting regenerative practices, at least at the scale of today’s beef industry.

"These issues have not shown to be scalable but also are kind of ridiculous greenwashing attempts to distract from the fact that we need to scale down beef consumption in order for any of these things to work," Jennifer Molidor, senior food campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, told me. "A lot of times the [regenerative] claims are overly broad and way too vague." The environmental impacts of slaughterhouses, for example, "one of the largest point sources of nitrogen pollution in the United States," are generally not considered as part of a regenerative scheme, Molidor said.

"There's no such thing as sustainable beef at current rates of consumption and production."

All together now

Some work by McDonald’s to move farmers toward regenerative practices is being done through its intermediary suppliers, giant global meat processors such as Cargill, JBS and Tyson. 

In France, for example, McDonald’s is working with a supplier that contracts with more than 30 slaughterhouses, which source from thousands of farmers, including some that supply to McDonald’s, according to Remi Rocca, senior director of impact at McDonald’s France. Together, they created an animal welfare tool, "the first at the farm level in France, and probably Europe," he told me. The company also helped to establish project CAP’2ER, a calculator that helps farmers identify where and how to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, that’s now mandatory for all of McDonald’s French suppliers. It has become "the official tool of the industry" in France, Rocca said.

Scope, scale, speed

So, is McDonald’s doing enough, fast enough, to reduce beef’s considerable footprint? Much like assessing a good burger, the answer depends on both objective and subjective measures.

Objectively, there’s a lot of work to be done. The lack of metrics and goals undermine the good intentions of McDonald’s and others seeking to address beef’s impact. Without a baseline understanding of the current state, there will be no way to know, or demonstrate to interested parties, how much and how well the company is doing. McDonald’s execs told me that metrics and tangible goals are forthcoming, but no one could say when.

And the world’s largest burger chain isn’t exactly slimming its appetite for beef. Just last month, McDonald’s said it is reintroducing, for a limited time in the United States, its Double Big Mac, a whopper of a sandwich housing four beef patties. According to Molidor, "Each of those patties comes with about 10 pounds of cow manure, 10 pounds of carbon equivalent, 600 square feet of habitat loss and 500 gallons of water." Hold the pickles, please.

There's no such thing as sustainable beef at current rates of consumption and production.

Moreover, the company in December announced plans to open nearly 9,000 new restaurants and add 100 million new members to its loyalty program by 2027. The goal, the company said, is to reach 50,000 restaurants worldwide, a roughly 25 percent increase from today’s 40,000 or so locations in less than four years.

All of which could complicate achieving the company’s 2050 net-zero carbon commitment. Indeed, McDonald’s greenhouse gas emissions, as reported to the nonprofit CDP, were essentially unchanged between 2018 and 2022, the latest reporting year, although they did decrease by about 15 percent when normalized to revenue.

As for McDonald’s competitors, I reached out to three of them — Arby’s, Burger King and Wendy’s — to learn about their efforts on beef sustainability. (Only Restaurant Brands International, the parent of Burger King, has anything about the topic on its website.) None responded.

McDonald’s executives remain bullish on the future of beef sustainability, as well as what we can expect to see in the coming years.

"I think the pace of change is going to accelerate," said McKelvie. "We're seeing more recognition throughout the entire value chain, from the ranch or farm level all the way up through those of us who serve food and those of us who buy it. I think it's becoming less and less seen as a bolt-on or an adjunct to procurement. It’s being more embedded into our everyday discussions around sourcing."

What has also changed in the last 10 years is society's, and scientists', expectations. "The goalposts are still shifting in terms of what's considered the right way forward for agriculture, for carbon reduction, for nature protection," said McColloch. "That science continues to evolve."

I asked Jason Clay, senior vice president and executive director of WWF’s Market Initiative, who worked with McDonald’s on its original sustainable beef goal and was one of the key players in creating GRSB back in 2012, how he thought McDonald’s was doing after a decade of addressing beef’s impacts.

"I think they're walking the talk, they're not just talking it," he said. But "none of these companies are moving as fast as any of us who think about it would like to see them move, or as fast as they need to be moving for the planet. But they can't pull the whole market by themselves, no matter how big they are.

"If you look at what an absolute reduction would have to be, we haven't even really scratched the surface on how to get there."

Jesse Klein provided research assistance to this article.

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