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Large-Scale Sustainable Beef Is Still an Empty Promise

Earlier this month, an international coalition of beef-producing megacorporations put forth a document they say will guide their industry towards raising more sustainable beef. But though the language of the document is lofty, industry experts accuse...
Foto: Carol Von Canon | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Earlier this month, an international coalition of beef-producing megacorporations put forth a document they say will guide their industry towards raising more sustainable beef. But though the language of the document is lofty, industry experts accuse it of being all talk and no game.

In August, MUNCHIES took a look at the then-upcoming Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB), the group of major beef producers that includes Cargill, Tyson, and JBS in the US and Marfrig in Brazil. The corporations planned to convene on one very important issue: how to keep up with the increasing global demand for beef without completely depleting the resources that cattle-raising depends on. Food giants McDonald's and Walmart also said they'd get in on the action, and earlier this month, this group of food industry titans finally assembled in São Paolo to discuss sustainable beef. As a result of the conference, the group of shareholders released a lengthy document, its "Principles and Criteria," which outlines a set of goals for the global beef industry that, when followed, will supposedly address the social, environmental, and economic consequences of raising about 63 million tons of beef per year.

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In a letter submitted to the GRSB last month by a group of NGOs—including Friends of the Earth, Slow Food USA, and Food and Water Watch—member organizations called the GRSB's so-called plan for action "toothless."

"We—and no doubt many other organizations like us—must overwhelmingly reject the Principles and Criteria for Global Sustainable Beef," the letter's press release reads. "Unless the GRSB addresses the fundamental flaws outlined in our letter, the document will represent nothing more than an industry-led attempt to greenwash conventional beef production at a time when real, measurable, and verifiable change is so desperately needed."

"Beef and sustainability are about as compatible as war and goodness," Eshel said.

The GRSB's 12-page document does indeed seem vague in its goals. It speaks of preserving the grasslands and forests that are routinely cleared to support cattle production; upholding rights for beef workers "throughout the beef value chain"; ensuring cows' health and welfare; enforcing food safety protocol; and promoting efficiency and waste reduction. But importantly, the document notes that because these steps will need to develop at a local level, the GRSB "will not develop a seal, certification or comparable standard for sustainable beef." And, ultimately, that's because such a thing doesn't exist.

"The only sustainable beef is beef that was never produced or consumed," said Gidon Eshel, a professor of environmental sciences at Bard College who specializes in agricultural environmental sciences. "Beef and sustainability are about as compatible as war and goodness."

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Eshel pointed out that the beef industry's vast consumption of resources makes it, by definition, unsustainable, and that no amount of optimistic language on the part of GRSB members can change that fact.

"When producing a calorie from beef requires 60 times as much land as it does to produce a calorie from a chickpea, and 10 to 12 times as much land as a calorie from poultry, there's just no way to call that sustainable."

Cattle's consumption of water is just as concerning for Eshel.

"Cows require ten times as much water as pigs and chickens," he said. "We clearly have to be favoring poultry and pork over beef, and that's a fact that this group of giant corporations is doing its best to conceal."

Kari Hamerschlag, a senior program manager at Friends of the Earth and one of the authors of the group's letter to the GRSB, agreed with Eshel that the only way to make beef more "sustainable" is to reduce our consumption of it. Earlier in the year, Friends of the Earth reviewed an early draft of the GRSB document and recommended substantive changes to it. First and foremost, Friends of the Earth urged GRSB members to address the problem of the rising demand for and consumption of beef.

"Many of these principles are laudable, but unless they are backed by specific changes, they are quite meaningless. You can say you love someone, but then you go out and sleep with their best friend and really your words don't mean much!"

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"In light of the tremendous ecological and public health benefits of reduced beef consumption, particularly in regions with high consumption," the authors wrote, "we urge the GRSB to explicitly address the importance of sustainable (and therefore less) consumption of beef in the broader framework of beef sustainability."

But, Hamerschlag said, nothing in the final draft of the GRSB's report addresses beef consumption—or, really, anything of substance.

"The document is aspirational at the moment with nothing measurable," she said. "Many of these principles are laudable, but unless they are backed by specific, measurable, verifiable changes on the ground, they are quite meaningless. You can say you love someone, but then you go out and sleep with their best friend and really your words don't mean much!"

For its part, GRSB leadership claims that their principles and criteria are "high level" and meant to effect actual change. Its executive director, Ruaraidh Petre, has worked on sustainability projects in India, Pakistan, and Botswana. He told me that the world's growing population and the need to feed that population necessitates a streamlining of the beef production industry, but admitted that it will be a while before there's any concrete change as a result of the group's guidelines.

"We agree that there are pressing environmental issues in many areas that need to be tackled," he said. "To translate them into action at the level of individual businesses will take some further steps."

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Opponents of the GRSB's outline expressed concerns that the document's vague, "greenwashed" language will provide a means for the group's massively profitable members to continue their business as usual without impacting their bottom line.

"It is a brazen manipulation of information," said Gidon Eshel, the Bard College professor. "These corporations are feeding people the single-most environmentally impactful food you can imagine, but they recognize that their consumers are beginning to catch wind of some of the problems with eating beef, so they're trying to put forth a different image."

"Just look at the list of sponsors," Eshel continued. "Dow Chemical, McDonald's. People cannot be taken for a ride by sweet talk from McDonald's. Come on, guys! Are we really to take our information about sustainability from a group of behemoth corporations that have millions of dollars riding on the continuation of their practices?"

McDonald's, one of the group's most high-profile members, has a particular stake in the game: The chain is the largest single buyer of American beef, and its 14,000 US locations blow through about one billion pounds of meat per year. Earlier this year, the company announced plans to begin purchasing some sustainable beef by 2016—though it hasn't said how much, or explained exactly what "sustainable" means.

"McDonald's is not defining sustainable beef nor creating a McDonald's standard," Michele Banik-Rake, director of McDonald's Global Supply Chain, told me in an email. "Rather, we are following the 'Principles and Criteria' outlined by the GRSB and supporting the work of the regional and national roundtables in developing indicators and verification methods aligned to these."

"We have committed to two things in 2016: to purchase a portion of our beef from verified sustainable sources and to set an aspirational goal for 2020," she said.

No word yet on what that "aspirational goal" is, or where GRSB members plan to find all the water or land they'll need to continue raising beef. But Jude Capper, a livestock sustainability consultant who was involved in planning the principles put forward by the GRSB, stands behind the sincerity of the group's goals and is hopeful that they'll soon be expressed in measurable actions.

"Although individual companies may, on occasion, engage in greenwashing," she said, "I do not believe that this is possible with regards to a global industry consisting of millions of beef producers, processors, and retailers. Given the diversity between producers, systems, and regions, gaining consensus on the principles and criteria is a huge achievement."