Beef industry wrestles with sustainability — Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef looks to capture and define the word “Sustainable”

Beef industry wrestles with sustainability

When asked to define what sustainable beef production looks like, Bob Patterson lifts his cowboy hat and points to his gray hair.

Photo by Candace Krebs — Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs for JBS USA, described the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which he helped to launch, as the "United Nations" of worldwide beef sustainability efforts.

By Candace Krebs
Contributing Writer

Posted Jul. 26, 2015 at 8:00 AM

When asked to define what sustainable beef production looks like, Bob Patterson lifts his cowboy hat and points to his gray hair.

Patterson is the third generation on his ranch near Kim, with his family’s fifth generation already becoming engaged in the operation. He’s also the current president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.

Cameron Bruett has heard that response from cattlemen many times. But now the immediate past chairman of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and the head of corporate affairs for JBS USA is collaborating with his colleagues throughout the beef supply chain to come up with a formal definition, one he hopes will resonate with increasingly conscientious consumers.

The U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef held its first ever general assembly just prior to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association summer conference in Denver recently, bringing together a variety of representatives from producer organizations, businesses and academia.

The group heard presentations on how sustainability initiatives are taking shape in various agricultural segments and in neighboring countries and heard the president of the industry’s best known source verification company explain how to begin “building out” a verification infrastructure.

Tracking and monitoring all aspects of production is nothing new on today’s increasingly sophisticated ranches, according to several Colorado cattlemen in attendance.

“Many of us are doing this right now,” said T. Wright Dickinson, of Maybell. “We already collect data on things like annual forage growth and species populations,” added Steve Wooten, another Kim rancher, who has been actively involved in multiple conservation projects.

But how to specifically define and benchmark what Bruett called “a huge nebulous issue,” and how to sell producers on the idea of verifying their management techniques, remains uncharted territory.

Throughout two half-days of workshops and committee meetings, the presentations were sprinkled with sometimes obscure business lingo, including terms like “non-prescriptive,” “pre-competitive” and “mass balance.”

At its simplest, though, sustainability was spelled out as the “triple bottom-line” of environmental soundness, social responsibility and economic viability.

Monte Anderson’s working definition was even more straightforward: “to keep making what we make.” Anderson runs Simplot’s potato sustainability assessment program that started several years ago as an Integrated Pest Management survey monitoring pesticide use. He shared with the group how his program has evolved in response to McDonalds’ demands for assurances about the potatoes in its French fries.

The beef industry has already started highlighting its proficiency at doing more with less. Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, NCBA’s executive director of global sustainability, outlined the results of the check-off-funded life cycle assessment survey, which showed a 2 percent decline in greenhouse gas emissions and 3 percent decline in water use from 2005 to 2011. Turned into colorful graphics, the figures depict a shrinking carbon footprint — an accomplishment that happened without much concerted effort by the industry.

“Cattlemen were sustainable before sustainability was cool,” noted Texas Cattle Feeders Association chairman Tom McDonald. He is vice president of environmental affairs for JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding and heads up a working group that will determine what attributes should be used as key sustainability indicators.

Many of the benefits agriculture offers, such as allowing families to work together and rural communities to prosper, are “intangibles” that are hard to wrap into a sustainability metric, McDonald emphasized.

Even so, the group heard about a number of initiatives already under way to demonstrate accountability in agriculture. Field to Market, a sister organization to the roundtable that covers commodity crop production, aims to have 50 million acres enrolled by 2020. The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy is a check-off funded effort by dairy co-ops and processors that includes an environmental assurance program with enrollment by about 90 percent of the country’s dairies. (Several large cooperatives mandate it for their producer-members.)

Collaboration was also a theme. Simplot’s Anderson said it’s important that the various computer systems “talk to each other” as much as possible so that producers aren’t asked to fill out a different survey for every potential buyer in the marketplace.

Getting rank-and-file producers on board will be challenging but vital to success, several speakers said.

Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, a graduate of Texas Christian University’s ranch management program who spent several years running a large ranch in Uruguay before being named CEO of CL Ranches of Alberta, Canada, said a carefully crafted sustainability program in Brazil backfired because producers weren’t engaged in its development and didn’t cooperate in its execution.

McDonalds is hoping to avoid that fate as it develops a Canadian pilot program, which it eventually plans to hand over to the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, currently chaired by Copithorne-Barnes.

“Producers aren’t sold on it yet, because they fear it will be a massive auditing concept,” she said.

The industry needs a system that demonstrates progress without being overly restrictive or burdensome to producers, she and several other speakers said. Leann Saunders, president of Where Food Comes From, the Castle Rock-based third party verifier that is helping to set up Canada’s pilot system, said organizers had already gone through hundreds of drafts as they attempt to establish the right set of indicators.

As the U.S. roundtable members prepared to break up into smaller working groups to talk about developing a sustainability framework of their own, Saunders gave them several pointers based on 20 years she and her husband John have spent working on source verification systems.

Saunders warned that it’s hard to avoid subjective evaluations when making assessments, especially when it comes to “softer” attributes like community contributions. Self-assessment, which is popular with producers, has less credibility with consumers. She recommended a format that would allow early adapters to demonstrate progress without penalizing those who chose not to participate.

Cost should also be a consideration, she added.

“You can’t have 100 percent verification tomorrow,” she said.

The first general assembly was just an early milestone in what participants agree will be a lengthy process. Wooten called it “baby steps.”

“My mind is spinning,” he admitted after a blitz of presentations. But he also said it was time to hunker down and play catch-up on an issue that has clearly caught fire with the public.

“We’re here because sustainability became a buzzword before we had a chance to define it,” he said.