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Walmart, Cargill, Tyson, McDonald's join new sustainable beef roundtable

The newly created U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef aims to wrangle participants from across the supply chain to hash out issues related to sustainable beef — starting with what that even means.

When McDonald’s announced last year that it would begin purchasing verified sustainable beef by 2016, the multinational fast food conglomerates touched off a debate over a more fundamental question: What exactly is “sustainable beef?”

In addition to enduring concerns about industrialized farming environments, animal welfare and human health and nutrition, beef is closely associated with global deforestation to make way for grazing lands and methane emissions from cows that contribute to global warming.

The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) released a broad definition for sustainable beef in November that did not include specific metrics, indicators or practices.

“Indicators and metrics are only applicable in a narrow range of environments and systems and therefore need to be developed at the local level,” GRSB stated on its website.

Enter the newly formed United States Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB), which will try to conquer this very task.

Using the more general definition supplied by the GRSB, the new U.S. branch of the organization will “identify sustainability indicators, establish verification methodologies and generate field project data to test and confirm sustainability concepts for use throughout the United States,” according to a press release (PDF) issued last week.

The new group officially was created in January with similar organizations already in place in Brazil, Canada, Colombia and Mexico. It consists of 43 founding stakeholders from varied points on the beef supply chain, including large, publicly traded corporations, such as Walmart, Cargill, McDonald's and Tyson Foods, as well as environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Nature Conservancy.

“The founding members of the USRSB have been engaged in this effort actually for a long time, trying to bring together the members of this big value chain to address questions about sustainability and challenges of sustainability,” said Interim Chair of the Interim Board of Directors Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, who is also a vice president at Cargill.

As the new roundtable gets to work prioritizing potential areas for improvement, third party groups already are observing with interest.

"First off, it's great that all these players are coming together and talking about solutions," Jonathan Gelbard, sustainable livestock specialist with the National Resource Defense Council, told GreenBiz. "But if what they do is not credible and does not effectively address what the science clearly identifies, people are going to be watching."

A turning point for beef?

The creation of the USRSB comes at an interesting time for the beef industry, fresh off a 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture report (PDF) recommending that Americans consider limiting the amount of beef in their diets.

The federal regulator's report not only mentioned the possible correlation between type 2 diabetes and red meat, but specifically focused on the environmental concerns that accompany increased beef consumption.

“Beef production require(s) more land and irrigation water and produced more GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions than dairy, poultry, pork, or eggs,” according to the USDA.

The agency also also stated, “Beef was the single food with the greatest projected impact on the environment.”

The new USDA dietary guidelines report also was not the first to mention the possible environmental impact of beef. A study conducted in 2014 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences stated, “Beef production requires 28, 11, 5 and 6 times more land, irrigation water, GHG, and Nr, respectively, than the average of the other livestock categories.” 

Nicollete Hahn Niman, a former environmental lawyer, wife of rancher Bill Niman and author of “Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production," offers a counterclaim in support of the environmental impact of beef.

“Most of the world’s beef cattle are raised on grass. Their pruning mouths stimulate vegetative growth as their trampling hoofs and digestive tracts foster seed germination and nutrient recycling," Hahn Niman said. “These beneficial disturbances, like those once caused by wild grazing herds, prevent the encroachment of woody shrubs and are necessary for the functioning of grassland ecosystems.”

Johnson-Hoffman also made it clear that as the group is only in its initial stages, it has not yet carved out official policy positions.

“To the topic of what positions it will take. … This is a true multi-stakeholder group, which will be made up of members with many, many different perspectives," she said. "The work of this group will take in to account all of the perspectives of its members.”

Health concerns

One issue that the USRSB likely will encounter in the near future is the use of antibiotics in beef.

Just last week, McDonald’s announced that in two years, the chicken it sells will be "raised without antibiotics that are important to human medicine,” prompting immediate questions about whether the company and its competitiors will follow suit with other commodities, such as the beef for their signature burgers.

According to the Center for Disease Control, antibiotic use in food animals can reduce animal diseases and suffering, but it also can be used to artificially maximize animal growth and lead to antibiotic resistance in humans.

“We do know that is a topic of interest to a lot of people, and that for a lot of people is part of the larger sustainability conversation," Johnson-Hoffman said. "I’m certain that the members of the USRBC will work to figure out what our approach will be to that."

Nancy Labbe, WWF senior program officer and USRSB board member, emphasized the importance of tailoring any industry reforms to market realities in different locations.

“It will really be more region-specific," Labbe said. "The whole issue of antibiotics, and production in general, is very complicated. How you produce beef in Montana is going to be very different than how you produce beef in Florida."

Multi-stakeholder group

At first glance, it might seem as if the 43 founding ranchers, multinational corporations and NGOs involved in the new beef roundtable might not have a whole lot in common. But Labbe is optimistic about the prospects for collaboration.

“When you put this group of people together initially, you may think, 'What does a rancher have in common with the World Wildlife Fund?'" she said. "We probably agree on 80 percent of what it is we want to accomplish. For us, it’s about working on that 80 percent ... kind of taking a step back and making sure we're not cutting off our nose to spite our face."

Cameron Bruett, president of corporate affairs for food processing company JBS USA, has seen how the collaborative process works firsthand, serving as the current president of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, for which the USRSB has derived its more generalized definition of sustainable beef.

“Our experience in the global roundtable has been that each organization certainly comes to the table, either with a vested interest or a vested viewpoint on what they consider a priority on the broad sweep of sustainability issues,” Bruett said. “Our challenge has been that each member certainly bring their passion and their interest, but also balance that with the passion of other in the industry.”    

Hear more about the quest to define sustainable beef from Nicolette Hahn Niman and WWF CEO Carter Roberts from archived video of GreenBiz Forum 15.

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