Now they need a definition

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McDonald's McDonald’s this week announced it plans to begin purchasing “sustainable beef” by 2016. Eventually the company hopes to purchase beef exclusively from certified sustainable sources, but they acknowledge it could take time, first to define just what sustainability means in different environments and production systems, then to develop verifiable supply chains.

A McDonald’s web page outlines the company’s plan for sustainable beef, which includes:

  • Create principles and criteria for sustainable beef production
  • Identify and test sustainable beef production practices
  • Lead with transparency and engagement
  • Work closely with our suppliers and other partners for change in the industry

Fortunately, McDonald’s has been receiving input from a variety of stakeholder groups as they work to define and promote sustainable beef production. The company is one of the founding members of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB), which includes membership from conservation groups, producer associations including the NCBA, retailers and companies providing products and services to the global beef industry. In addition to McDonald’s, founding members include Cargill, Elanco, JBS, Merck Animal Health, Walmart and the World Wildlife Fund.

In November 2010, the roundtable organized a Global Conference on Sustainable Beef, which drew about 300 participants including producers, packers, retailers, restaurateurs, environmentalists, scientists and others. At that time, the coalition had no formal organizational structure, but the group announced in 2012 it has adopted statutes and bylaws that will guide its work, and formalized the organization’s commitment to a global beef supply chain. The group emphasizes the “triple-bottom-line” approach to sustainability, meaning the production chain must be environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable.

During the 2010 conference, much of the discussion centered on defining sustainability and identifying sustainable or non-sustainable practices in beef production. There seemed to be general agreement that use of technologies that improve production efficiency can contribute to sustainability. Participants also seemed to agree that while beef production can be sustainable, there is no “one size fits all” solution. Meeting the triple bottom line of sustainability will require different production systems depending on various cultures and environments, and that producers around the world have opportunities to improve efficiency and intensify beef production toward higher profits and greater sustainability.

In response to the announcement, sustainability consultant and GRSB member Jude Capper, PhD, the following to Facebook: “Given their multinational reach, the definition will almost certainly be different for beef sourced from or sold in, for example, the USA vs. Brazil or Australia. How will they account for that and yet still make the definition both understandable to the consumer and specific to that region? As a point of note, GRSB is not proposing a global standard or verification scheme given the wide variety of regional beef systems.”

McDonald’s acknowledge the complexity of the issue in its statements on sustainability.  “While the road to sustainable beef is complex, we believe it is possible to achieve success. There are many best practices for beef sustainability, and we see momentum building to achieve our goal of purchasing sustainable beef.” The company statement goes on to say, “Each part of the beef industry is owned by a different entity and operates independently, with practices unique to its role in the supply chain. For instance, McDonald's beef suppliers, abattoirs, and patty processors do not own farms. They use a variety of different approved practices. And, diverse types of cattle make up the world's beef supply.”

So, stay tuned. While nothing will change quickly, it could be that in a few years you will need to meet some defined standards for sustainability for your cattle to qualify for the McDonald’s supply chain.

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January, 08, 2014 at 05:13 PM

Why? The people you are trying to please think McDonalds is evil and unhealthy why would you even give them a say in your business. The word sustainable is the most over used word in the english language today. No business can stay in buisness if it does not use management practices that work for the long haul. We continue to give these people creditablity when they should be laughed at and ignored. Stand up grow a pair.

January, 09, 2014 at 12:08 PM

In the upper south, beef can indeed be produced in such a way that it provides high quality protein in quantity while renewing the land where it grazes. Eight dollar corn is the worst thing that ever happened to the countryside around here. Far too much marginal rolling and hilly land is being row-cropped that should never have been taken out of pasture in our region. Crops are sprayed indiscriminately with enormous rigs that leave no protective grass waterways. That's not sustainable; millions of tons of irreplaceable topsoil washed down the river in just our most recent heavy rains. There are gullies in harvested soybean and corn fields this winter where fescue sod held the soil in place for decades prior. The lure of high dollar corn and beans from land rented out for row-cropping, without the year-round work of raising livestock, was just more than some tired old cattlemen could resist. Now their herds, their pastures and their fences are gone, and with them a great deal of fertile topsoil. If McDonalds can offer incentives to get those farms back into grass and cattle, that would be great.

January, 09, 2014 at 09:07 AM

It would appear this is may be just so much lip service fostered by the environmental and politically correct community. During last summer's sustainability tour in MT, the definition was clearly articulated that all the other facets of sustainability hinge on economic sustainability. If sincere, the way to not only define but demonstrate sustainability is for retailers to embrace the pilot program presented. Let's not reinvent the wheel or perpetuate paralysis by analysis.

Iowa  |  January, 09, 2014 at 09:49 AM

Perhaps they need to start by defining what is not sustainable, such as adopting production systems that significantly increase the time and resources needed to produce a pound of beef. I agree that this is lip service for public relations - if they fully implemented what those against standard production practices wanted them too, they wouldn't have enough beef to supply half of their restaurants.

shaun evertson    
Nebraska  |  January, 09, 2014 at 09:52 AM

It's just not gonna happen in any reasonable or rational way. They're trying to pound improperly-shaped pegs into holes they don't fit. The top down approach can't work in an optimized distributed system. Look at the USDA. People who've never left the beltway sit in closed offices and make political and politically correct decisions about things they can't be bothered to understand in any meaningful way. This is no different. In some sense, actually, it's worse. McD's is basically working hard to sell consumers a product they can't conceivably deliver.

shaun evertson    
Nebraska  |  January, 09, 2014 at 09:54 AM

...a product they can't deliver because it doesn't exist. There's a difference between fantasy (psychosis?) and reality.

kansas  |  January, 10, 2014 at 11:00 AM

W.E. - You apparently missed the previous Green, Sustainable, Enviro-Friendly Eco-Memo regarding the Absolute World-Saving Necessity of producing more Bio-Fuels like ethanol and bio-diesel. The "bubble" of $8 corn, and those who rightly chased the $$, was recently burst by our Eco-Nannies at the EPA who've quietly backed away from the World-Saving Necessity Thing like a dead skunk. You need someone to blame for your erosion and the rape of grasslands?... Think Sierra Club, GreenPeace and their BF/facilitators in the USDA, EPA and DOE. Oh, and several of the Mega Corps listed as members of the GRSB (I'm looking at you Cargill). We and our allied industries chase that "gubbermint chee$e" of subsidized Sustainability - however it's "defined" this year.

January, 11, 2014 at 09:56 AM

Kudos to McDonalds for finding a way to market using the enemy's own meaningless buzzword! Now we need to launch a campaign against anyone who might shun the new "sustainable" McDonalds products -- you know, any and every first-world elitist who claims never to shop at McD's -- these effete cranks must now occasionally shop McDonalds and put up or shut up. Then we shall see just who it is who the evil ones are who actually are degrading our lives on this planet, after all.

January, 12, 2014 at 10:28 AM

Be careful when you start blaming groups that do not stand to profit from too much corn. Greed is the beast that forced ethanol into our gas tanks. You can blame Cargill's vested interests, but not Green peace and the Sierra Club. Don't know where you got your information, but I just copied this from a couple of different sources: The Sierra Club does not support corn ethanol. Did Green Peace back ethanol? Here's a quote from The Fiscal Times: In 2011, Greenpeace and the Clean Air Task Force (in conjunction with several business and farm organizations) requested hearings on the Renewable Fuel Standard that mandated ethanol use. In a letter to Senators Inhofe and Boxer, they cite a study by The National Academy of Sciences, which found “that using corn ethanol in engine fuel is increasing air pollutants, exacerbating global warming, degrading water sources, and damaging biodiversity.” - See more at: By far, there are more of us who really practice sustainable farming who favor balance in all things. We need no Eco-nannies, as you call these environmental groups, because we observe, respond, adapt to and practice ecology on our farms every day.


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