At the beginning of 2014, perhaps in the spirit of New Year's resolutions, McDonald's announced to the world that it planned to source sustainable beef for some of its burgers by 2016. Walmart made a similar assertion in October 2010, when it decided that it didn't want to sell any meat from cows that were grazing on what was once the Brazilian Amazon. Its deadline is the end of 2015.
That doesn't leave either company a whole lot of time. Sure, there are working definitions of "sustainable" floating around, the general consensus being that it pertains to food produced in a way that ensures ecological health and economic stability for farmers, through socially just practices and the efficient use of non-renewable resources. Unlike "organic," the golden child of good food and government regulations, there are no formal requirements or certifications required to call something "sustainable." If I say this here burger is sustainable, unless you pull a Portlandia, you'll just have to take my word for it.
The closest thing to a globally agreed-upon definition is coming our way in November, via the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, or GRSB. The GRSB is the first committee to rustle up the world's major beef producers—Cargill, Tyson, and JBS from the United States, and Marfrig, Brazil's main supplier—to talk about how they can stop wrecking the environment. It's headed up by a very well-traveled executive director, Ruaraidh Petre, who cut his teeth working on sustainability efforts with food producers in India, Pakistan, and Botswana. Petre has a huge job ahead of him, and the whole matter of defining sustainable is only the beginning.
"We have no idea how much of the current global production of beef is sustainable," he told me from his office in the Netherlands. "We need to get a grip on what our members are doing and if it's actually working."
There will also be roundtables for each country, once the major definitions are solidified. Although the US hasn't yet made any formal moves to gather one together, Canada and Brazil both have established councils already. (Hey, Americans take their time!) Meanwhile, GRSB will work on a comprehensive data collection system for the state of the sustainable beef industry worldwide. It's a daunting task: There are 729,000 beef producers in the United States alone, and it's hard to get that many people on the same page about anything, let alone get a clear view of what's happening on farms. (See the spate of so-called ag-gag laws cropping up across the states, which discourage or outright ban whistle-blowing on the mistreatment of animals and/or land.)
"Implementing a formal national certification program is challenging due to the sheer complexity of the beef system," Dr. Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, the head of sustainability research for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, told me in an email. "A rancher in Georgia has very different resources available to him or her than a rancher in Idaho, which means a one-size approach to sustainability in beef is simply not sustainable."
But just how are efforts to sustainably source some of McDonald's 260 million pounds of beef going? Jon Rump, McDonald's Manager of Global External Communications, told VICE in an email: "Our plan is to begin purchasing a portion of our beef from verified sustainable sources by 2016. Geographies including Brazil, Australia, and Canada have demonstrated leadership and advancements in sustainable beef. It is likely that a portion of the verified sustainable beef we purchase by 2016 will come from–and will be sold in–one of those countries. It is not our intent to serve sustainable beef in all of our restaurants around the world by 2016. As we scale our learning, we will scale our plans for 2020 and beyond. The GRSB and its members have been very diligent and helpful in charting the course for the entire beef industry."
Easier said than done, I'm afraid. Just ask Chipotle, which has been addressing this important topic for years. The fast-food darling of sustainability currently operates around 1,650 outlets nationwide, with no signs of slowing: It has at least 180 more stores slated to open in 2014. The company raked in over $900 million in revenue this past quarter—peanuts compared to Walmart's $127.4 billion and McDonald's $10.9 billion, but nothing to shake your fist at.
Yet no matter how much money you have, you can't buy sustainability that doesn't currently exist. Chipotle bought 45 million pounds of domestic "responsibly raised" beef in 2013, but a US beef shortage led it to source even more from Australia. Chipotle's even let its "responsibly raised" standards slip altogether because the supply just wasn't there.
Not even Chipotle would call that an ideal set-up, but the reality is that the sustainable food movement is not yet built to scale. Chipotle has 1,600 stores. McDonald's has around 14,100 US locations (we'll leave their global empire aside). It takes about 36 months to raise cattle to slaughter, and unlike with chicken, which now take around 60 days to grow, we haven't yet found a way to speed that up.
Of all the beef produced in America, only around 5 percent is grass-fed, which some say is a key components in sustainable beef production. Add to the fact that the US beef supply is at a 60-year-low. Anyone trying to get their hands on a reliable source of sustainable (especially grass-fed) beef, let alone millions of pounds of it, has a problem.
"We've struggled with beef supply, [because] it's contracting across the board," Chris Arnold, Chipotle's director of communications, told me. "We used 35 percent more beef this year than we did last year. So we've filled that gap with grass-fed beef from Australia."
Researchers concur that even though the demand is very real, the supply isn't ready to comply. "The supply chain is underdeveloped for the grass-fed, no-added-hormones, wildlife-friendly, and other alternative, sustainable food markets for which our farmers are producing," Ferd Hoefner, the Policy Director with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told me. "If something the size of McDonald's is going to have any hope of supplying their customers with what the company says is sustainable beef, they'll either need to weaken their standards or delay their 2016 goal."
With beef prices at record highs, and McDonald's still charging $1.19 for a double cheeseburger (that's two patties, AKA the infamous quarter of a pound, folks), all of a sudden "sustainable beef" ending up in your Big Mac in less than two years seems a bit dubious.
The company does have one big advantage, though: money. "The bigger guys have more power to push the supply chain. If you're going to buy organic at that kind of supply scale, you have more influence than we have," says Arnold.
Purchasing power aside, the Golden Arches sells burgers, so they can be less picky and use more parts of sustainably-raised cows than Chipotle, which only uses two cuts of beef for their grilled-to-order steak. "We buy 23 percent of the whole animal," says Arnold. "That means that sellers need buyers willing to pay price premiums to account for the rest of the carcass. We need people willing to buy the other 77 percent so that what we want remains available."
It remains to be seen if McDonalds, Walmart, and other large corporations are able to make good on their marketing promises. The official definitions, as well as their self-generated deadlines for crossing over to the bright side of food production and sourcing, are still on the horizon. Holding these companies accountable for what actually goes on before the food hits our plates, however, will be the real tough sell.