When McDonald’s announced on January 7, 2014 that it will begin purchasing verified sustainable beef in 2016, it wasn’t just a gesture. It was another step in a path the company has been following since 2009 when it engaged a team from the World Wildlife Federation to do a study identifying the top priorities for making a difference. It was no surprise when beef, and making sure it was sustainably produced, was at the top of the list. The problem was that there was no solid, globally useful definition for sustainability. So, starting with a 2010 conference in Denver that included 350 participants from the planetary Who’s Who of the global beef industry, including ranchers, feeders packers, processors, wholesalers, restaurateurs, and environmental organizations, they started trying to define sustainable practices. The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GSRB) was created in 2012 to continue work on a definition, and in March of 2014, they released their draft Principles and Criteria for comment.
What’s different about this effort is that it integrates the ideas and work of everyone who is a part of the beef supply chain as well as non-governmental organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, and the National Wildlife Federation. Traditionally, the players separate themselves into cattlemen’s associations, cattle feeding associations, meat processing associations, restaurants, grocery stores, and environmental organizations. Participants in the 2010 conference realized that they all felt that their way of life was under fire, and that they were working hard at being sustainable. By sitting in rooms together, and talking, everyone began to see that there were more pieces to the puzzle, and that working together, instead of fighting, would produce something that would benefit them all.
What Does It Mean to Go Global?
One of the challenges with defining sustainability is that raising beef is different in different parts of the whorl and different problems need to be addressed. As Cameron Bruett, Chief Sustainability Officer at JBS USA, and President of the GRSB, puts it: “Sustainability is one of those issues that’s defined by the geography in which you’re located, based upon which element you’re focused on. In Australia, there’s a lot of land-rights issues. There’s environmental issues around the Great Barrier Reef and things of that nature. In Brazil, it’s all about Amazon deforestation, the use of slave child labor and encroachment on indigenous territories. In the United States, it’s slightly less defined.” To deal with this diversity, the roundtable decided to focus on five to ten critical areas that should be addressed no matter where you are in the world. If a producer is addressing those issues in way that’s suitable for his/her region, then that’s the path to sustainability.
The GRSB is focused on creating a broad definition of sustainability and then on empowering local organizations and agencies to interpret the principles and criteria in a way that makes sense for their particular ecosystem, given the existing regulatory striation and social environment. Bruett says the GSRB’s goal is to create a system of shared responsibility and ownership so that all segments of the supply chain can work together to improve the overall sustainability of beef.
What Does the Draft Document Say?
It’s not an easy read. In an effort to address everyone so that no one takes offense, the language is a bit obtuse. But with the background above, it becomes a little easier to translate what they’ve written into more user friendly terms.
They start with “The Triple-Bottom Line:
We define sustainable beef as a socially responsible, environmentally sound and economically viable product that prioritizes Planet (relevant principles: Natural Resources, Efficiency & Innovation, People and theCommunity); People (relevant principles: People and the Community and Food); Animals (relevant principle: Animal health and welfare): and Progress (relevant principles: Natural Resources, People and the Community, Animal health and welfare, Food, Efficiency and Innovation).
The rest of the document breaks things down into those principles and the criteria that will help us figure out if we’re headed in the right direction as well as the intent behind each area. It’s a dense 12 pages, but well worth the read. Check it out and then, if you have comments to share, here’s the link. Comments are being accepted through May 16, 2014.
Read More About It
For our Spanish speaking readers, here is the document en Español.
Joel Makower wrote a great series with very interesting information about the beef supply chain, why and how McDonald’s makes these kinds of changes, and insights into the GSRB. You can find them here: