Big names in beef attempt to define beef sustainability

Mar 21, 2014

— International roundtable releases global definition

When a big player like Mc- Donald’s says they want something, the response needs to be a big one. So when offering a definition of sustainable beef, one international organization gave a global answer. The definition isn’t new, but the approach might be.

Last Monday, the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) released its draft “Principles and Criteria for Defining Global Sustainable Beef.” The group—composed of several big names in beef production, packaging, and retail, among others— defined beef sustainability along three familiar lines, but added some more nebulous portions.

“We define sustainable beef as a socially responsible, environmentally sound and economically viable product that prioritizes Planet (relevant principles: Natural Resources, Efficiency and Innovation, People and the Community); People (relevant principles: People and the Community, and Food); Animals (relevant principles: Animal Health and Welfare); and Progress (relevant principles: Natural Resources, People and the Community, Animal Health and Welfare, Food, and Efficiency and Innovation).”

[Editor’s note: Emphases above are original to the document, not added by WLJ. All such emphases included in quotes from the GRSB document are original.] Defining sustainability along the three lines of social, environmental, and economic should be familiar to those in the U.S. beef industry; they are the same three points covered in the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s (NCBA’s) sustainability research project.

Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, Director of Sustainability Research at NCBA, told WLJ that the three-pronged definition of sustainability isn’t unique to NCBA’s and the Beef Checkoff Program’s research but that they have been using it for a while.

“When we worked through those definitions in 2010, we were some of the very earliest adopters of that definition, so that was how the U.S. defined it around the table. Canada had those definitions also, so it certainly wasn’t just us.

The differentiation of principles and criteria—as evidenced in the document’s title and highlighted in the above definition—make up the majority of the newly released document. It introduces itself explaining that the hierarchy of decision-making must start with objectives, which give way to principles, which guide criteria for definition, which then suggest indicators of success and finally means of measurement of success. The document pointedly outlined what it is and is not.

“This document represents the collaborative effort of the members of the GRSB to define the Principles and Criteria that we believe must be addressed in order to achieve sustainable beef production systems and value chains around the globe. The Principles and Criteria build upon our vision and mission and are intended to be high level to allow for multiple regional approaches to achieving sustainable outcomes. This document deliberately avoids the equally important, but more context-specific levels of Indicators, Metrics or Practices, which are commonly found in other sustainability efforts.”

The principles it sets forth—natural resources, people and the community, animal health and welfare, food, and efficiency and innovation—are described as broad statements of objectives that cover essential elements within the context of “sustainability.” Each of the five principles has a list of corresponding criteria.

The criteria across the principles tends to be very general and without specific details. As an example, among the criteria for the natural resources principle is “[Greenhouse gas] emissions from beef systems, including those from land use conversion, are minimized and carbon sequestration is optimized.”

The goal however is not to create a list of boxes to be checked off on the road to sustainability, but instead to offer a framework with which more regional bodies can craft their own sustainability directives.

“These principles and criteria establish a global framework for ensuring sustainable performance in beef production,” said Ruaraidh Peter, GRSB Executive Director, in the group’s announcement of the document. “The definition covers all elements of the global beef value chain, including production, processing, distribution, sale and consumption. GRSB members believe sustainability is a journey of continuous improvement that requires the shared participation and responsibility among all actors—from producers to consumers. The GRSB definition provides a broad road map for this journey, allowing different regions to establish specific indicators, metrics or practices.”

The document itself notes its dedication to “continuous improvement” and general nature of its guiding principles “precludes the setting of benchmarks.”

Who is the GRSB?

The group is an international nonprofit composed of various industry and environmental stakeholders.

Membership at the roundtable comes with a fee in the form of annual dues ranging anywhere from $250-15,000 based on size. Membership is divided into six different constituency categories—producer, commerce and processing, retail, civil society, regional roundtables, and observing members—of which the first five have representation on the group’s executive board.

The executive board is made up of two representatives and an alternate in each of the five represented constituency groups. NCBA is one of the board members for the producer group, JBS and Elanco are the commerce and processing group with Cargill being the alternate, and Sam’s Club/Walmart and Mc- Donald’s being the retail representatives.

The executive committee is headed up by President Cameron Bruett of JBS USA. Forrest Roberts, CEO of NCBA, fills one of the four Vice President seats, the other two currently filled being Gary Johnson of McDonald’s and Roger Cady of Elanco.

Current membership in GRSB, as listed in their recently released definition, sees a lot of representation of the U.S. While some of that is from familiar names in cattle and beef production, it also sees a lot of representation from U.S.-based environmental groups such as the National Wildlife Federation, the Rainforest Alliance and the World Wildlife Fund.

Despite the potential for conflict with such groups the consensus is that the efforts have been collaborative so far.

“Our membership has worked in a collaborative fashion to boldly confront the challenges in every segment of the beef value chain,” said Bruett, President of the GRSB and Head of Corporate Affairs at JBS USA.

“We are confident that through leadership, collaboration and the promotion of a science-based approach, we can achieve our vision of a world where all aspects of the global beef value chain are environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable.”

“I would say it has been a collaborative effort,” Stackhouse-Lawson told WLJ.

“They have taken into account the feedback and con cerns of the various constituencies. It has been an open dialog around sort of creating this framework and this idea. Of course, again, we need to weigh in as an industry to make sure that it stays practical and meaningful to the beef value chain.”

She said that NCBA had participated significantly in the development and editing

process of the draft document. However, since the group is collaborative, they were not the sole contributor.

“The conversations have been very open and honest at GRSB. We have made it clear that efficiency and innovation are the beef industry´s greatest opportunity to improve sustainability.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor