An ongoing debate in the environmental community revolves around the stance toward beef: Is it better to work on making beef production more environmentally friendly or devote their energies to convincing people that they shouldn’t be eating beef? This issue is the subject of a recent story posted on Yale Environment 360, called “Should Environmentalists Just Say No to Eating Beef?”

Environmentalists talk beefTaking the former position, and starting from the premise that even what is sustainable today may no longer be so when 3 billion more people occupy the planet (expected to happen within a few decades), the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) was launched. Members include industry and environmental groups such as NCBA, Cargill, Elanco, McDonald’s, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Federation (WWF). The GRSB website describes it as a “multi-stakeholder initiative developed to advance continuous improvement in sustainability of the global beef value chain through leadership, science and multi-stakeholder engagement and collaboration.”

In other words, the goal is to identify beef production’s practices that are best for the environment , then implement them through retail and food service partners such as McDonald’s and Wal-Mart to get the best — that is, most environmentally friendly — beef in front of consumers.

This is a means of creating change embraced by Jason Clay, senior vice president for market transformation at the WWF.

Instead of waiting for customers to demand more sustainable products, he hopes to convince the sellers to offer those products first and then customers will choose them, thus creating change in the marketplace and a demand for those products and practices. “Don’t give consumers bad choices,” Clay says in the article. “Make sure that everything on the shelf is good.”

The GRSB has committed to basing its conclusions on science, even if those conclusions are contrary to popular environmental positions. One example: Some members are pointing toward evidence that cattle in feedlots create a lighter footprint than those on pasture — even though pasture has been almost universally considered preferable in the green community.

But because this is a global initiative, beef production worldwide must be considered. Globally, the article says, the largest environmental impact of agriculture is the conversion of natural habitats to farm land. “Beef production...accounts for 60 percent of the land used to produce food but generates about 1.3 percent of the world’s calories...  CAFOs diminish those impacts — in part because they use far less land, and in part because the cattle in feedlots grow bigger and faster: The United States produces more beef than Brazil, with about half the cattle.”

On the other side, the eat-less-beef advocates may be making some headway here at home: Americans are already eating less beef. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, beef consumption in the United States declined from 27.9 billion pounds in 2002 to 25.6 billion pounds in 2011. (Although in America, we still eat more beef per  person than citizens of any other country except Luxembourg, where they exceed our consumption by 30 pounds a year.)

But globally, it’s a different story. Clay predicts the world will need much more beef in the coming years, making the just-say-no-to-beef message a very tough sell and driving his interest in “greening” beef production. Global demand is rising: According to research published in The Economist, the amount of meat eaten per person worldwide nearly doubled between 1961 and 2007.