From the March issue of Drovers CattleNetwork

Is livestock sustainability sustainable?

“I know we’re sustainable, or I wouldn’t be the fourth generation on this ranch,” says Cherie Copithorne-Barnes of CL Ranches Ltd. in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Copithorne-Barnes is involved in the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB), a global effort to define and promote sustainability in the beef industry.

“Sustainability is a word that is often hijacked,” says Kim Stackhouse, NCBA director of sustainability research, a participant in GRSB since its inception nearly a decade ago. “It doesn’t mean totally organic. It’s about doing more with less and making continuous improvement. Beef is arguably one of the most sustainable industries.”

The sustainability culture has shifted its focus in recent years, from concentrating on greenhouse gasses to emphasizing a holistic system that includes water use and quality, land use, environmental impact, and economic health.

“Nobody wants to get in the way of profit,” says independent livestock sustainability consultant Dr. Jude Capper. “GRSB criteria are designed with an eye on economics. Without that, we won’t have an industry.”

A global industry-wide effort involving processors and retailers as well as producers, the GRSB issued its “Principles & Criteria for Sustainable Beef,” an overarching framework of guidelines designed to increase beef’s sustainability throughout the world, last November at its first biennial conference.

The principles and criteria focus on five key elements:

Natural resources — Maintain and restore ecosystem health. Criteria focus on air and water quality, water conservation, deforestation, land management and soil health, native plant and animal biological diversity, and compliance with resource management laws.

People and the community — Respect for human rights, cultures and participation in the food chain. The focus is on adherence to labor laws, workplace safety, land and property rights, and respect for basic human rights.

Animal health and welfare — Ethical treatment of animals throughout the beef chain. Criteria focus on an environment that encourages good health and normal behavior, and minimizes physical discomfort.

Food — Continuous improvements in food safety, beef quality, waste reduction and transparency. Criteria addresses management practices, documentation and third-party validation and oversight.

Efficiency and innovation — Education, partnerships, shared information and scientific evidence are key to continued sustainability and economic viability. Resource management, waste reduction, energy usage and technology are utilized and shared throughout the beef production chain.

“Much of this is intentionally vague,” admits Ruaraidh Petre, GRSB executive director. “Because there is no way a cookie-cutter approach could work. Beef production in Asia, South America or Australia are very different scenarios.

“In some ways, it enhances global competition,” he continues. “The United States has a lot of legislative oversight that other countries do not have. This will guide them toward meeting minimum standards.”

Petre says GRSB looks beyond the typical environmental issues at the big picture, like labor issues that outpace the U.S. struggles with immigration and a migrant agricultural workforce. “There are recent instances of slavery that have been reported in other parts of the world. No one wants that to be part of the beef industry.”

With the global focus in place, GRSB has now passed the baton to the national and regional levels to find practical application in the grand gesture.

Widening the network

That’s not to say the more localized effort is left to flounder on its own. GRSB is continuing to offer guidance and direction as the momentum builds. Countries such as Canada, Mexico and Brazil are well on their way.

In the United Stastes, Stackhouse and the NCBA have spent the last three years assessing the industry’s current state of sustainability and developing metrics to measure improvement.

“We’re trying to determine how to approach the next step, using our existing framework as much as possible,” Stackhouse says. “We don’t want to create another organization that may not be useful. Anything we start, we want to be meaningful.”

Any effort must also be industry-wide. Stackhouse says beef sustainability is not just about the producer. “The responsibility does not just fall on the cow-calf producer, or the feedlot.” Every element of the supply chain can improve sustainability through less packaging, reduced food waste, or more efficient lighting and climate control.

Just as the global criteria are geared toward a broad audience, so is the U.S. element. “One-size-fits-all is not sustainable,” Stackhouse says. “We have too much variation from one state or region to another. In some places a practice may be very sustainable and in others totally un-sustainable.”

Between 2005 and 2011, 5 percent of the Checkoff research budget went toward sustainability assessments, with a focus on environmental and social aspects — a total of $2.1 million since 2010. Stackhouse says sustainability is the newest of the Beef Checkoff research programs, taking its place alongside beef safety, human nutrition and product quality. A lifecycle assessment, which benchmarked the sustainability of beef from 2005 to 2011, suggests the U.S. beef value chain has improved its overall sustainability by 5 percent and its environmental and social sustainability by 7 percent.

Stackhouse says there is no set timeline for more concrete action, and it’s unlikely there will be big changes in store. “We’re already far ahead of most of our counterparts when it comes to having an efficient industry. Doing more with less is already standard practice.”

Hooves on the ground

Things in Canada are progressing a bit more rapidly, due in part to fewer players. Canada has one-tenth the beef producers of the United States and only two major packers.

Two simultaneous projects are in the works — a full and complete lifecycle analysis by the Roundtable, and the McDonald’s Project, a pilot project focused on key indicators and components of the production chain. Both are due to launch this spring. The projects were developed individually, but both align with the GRSB initiative.

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association is heavily involved in the effort, lending a voice to producers as a balance to consumer input, according to Copithorne-Barnes, who serves as chairman of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. “By working collaboratively with all stakeholders, the definition of the indicators to define sustainable beef are being created in a way that the entire industry can live with.” That’s vitally important to producers who are sometimes skeptical of the movement.

U.S. style

So, what will the U.S. version look like?

Mark McCully, vice president of production for Certified Angus Beef, says it may be a matter of various buyers implementing their own protocols for producers, documenting or validating what is already being done. He envisions a system based on education — not a highly audited pass-fail structure — with a focus on greater transparency.

Capper agrees there is not likely to be a centralized program, standard or certification. The assessment phase will point out what’s already being done well and where the needed improvement lies, and companies will define their own standards. “Economics is still the biggest part of this issue, but outlets like Safeway or Wal-Mart will continue to try to buy better and greener.”

McCully stresses this is not something producers need to fear. “We’re talking about environmental stewardship here. This is not a new concept.”

Rather, he says, farmers and ranchers should embrace the effort, created in response to consumer concern. “GRSB may come down to better communication with the consumer. It gives the industry a platform to provide information.” Engaging at different levels, aligning production systems, creating management systems — with the consumer in mind — are all part of the picture.

“Right now, they’re asking politely,” Copithorne-Barnes says. “But the consumer has made it clear our word isn’t good enough any more. We have to quantify and prove we’re doing things satisfactorily.”

She says just having all the players at the table is invaluable and creates an opportunity for NGOs to hear the “other” side of the story in a non-threatening setting. “It gives us a chance to explain why certain things are done the way they are, that it maybe isn’t as bad as they think. The conversation goes both ways.”

“That’s where we fit in,” McCully says. “As a brand the consumer looks to and asks questions of, we can help define what that message looks like. The social side, the economic component of sustainability — if we’re at the table, we can help craft the needed defenses of the system. Our goal as a leading source of protein is to let people know we have a great product raised in a responsible way. This is about the consumer caring about the same things producers do — the planet, animals, making progress.”

A new era of trust and partnerships is on the agenda as beef takes its place in the global sustainability effort. There are others. Dairy, soybeans, palm oil, even biofuels, have similar projects in the works.

“Beef has a role to play in solving the world’s problems,” Petre says. “Ruminants have a role on this planet, and we can use them to our advantage. But we can’t afford to stick our heads in the sand and pretend problems don’t exist.”

“Change is never easy,” Capper, adds “especially at the global level. But GRSB isn’t proposing anything crazy or out of the box. It’s about caring for water and animals, being socially responsible, and minding the environment, all while maintaining profits.”

It’s also about remembering sustainable production is not the end game; it’s an ongoing endeavor.