Do new standards represent a genuine move towards boosting the sustainability of one of the world’s greatest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, or do they miss the mark by steering clear of specific standards and binding enforcement mechanisms?
WASHINGTON — Last month, for the first time, a significant cross-section of the global beef industry agreed to a set of broad principles aimed at nudging the sector toward greater sustainability. Yet some prominent watchdog groups say the new criteria are overly broad, and worry they will allow products to be marketed as “sustainable” without requiring major changes from the industry.
While other such initiatives do exist, the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is by far the largest. The multi-stakeholder group’s membership — which has expanded significantly in recent years — includes many of the world’s largest producers, the four largest global processors, as well as huge retailers including McDonald’s Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. It also comprises prominent civil society representatives, including those among the environmental community.
The industry is already moving on the issue. McDonald’s, for instance, has announced that it will begin offering sustainable beef by 2016. Until last month, however, there was no global definition of what that term actually meant.
In early November, after a year and a half of formal discussion and debate, more than 96 percent of the roundtable’s General Assembly members voted in favor of a document outlining the initiative’s principles, criteria and definitions. Yet that significant margin of support masks a broader and ongoing contentiousness around these new principles.
For instance, the Cattle Council of Australia — the industry representative of one of the world’s major beef producers — has refused to endorse the principles, although it remains a part of the roundtable. The organization cites concerns over roundtable requirements around the management of native vegetation, as well as nutrition guidelines for cattle, as being insufficiently transferable to Australia’s climate and environment.
Indeed, organizers say the issue of how to create a single global standard that remains relevant to local contexts and country-to-country legislation and regulation was one of the most problematic aspects of creating the new principles. So, too, was satisfying a range of constituencies that can be competitive and even antagonistic toward each other.
“This is the first initiative that involves a range of players from the beef industry. We actually have, and have managed to sustain, conversations among parties that traditionally don’t get on with one another,” Ruaraidh Petre, executive director of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, told MintPress News.
“So just the fact that we keep talking to each other is an achievement. Similarly with the Australians — they’re not 100 percent happy with what we’re doing, but we still have them at the table.”
The roundtable defines sustainability as resting equally on environmental, social and environmental concerns. In pursuing this balance, the new principles urge those involved in the global beef supply chain to put in place policies to, for instance, minimize greenhouse gas emissions, protect native forests, reduce waste and increase efficiency, and respect workers’ human rights.
While these themes are being welcomed by many observers, they strike some as overly broad and lacking specific — and binding — guidelines.
“Theoretically, [the roundtable] is an incredible concept, and the fact that the industry got together and started to talk about this should be applauded,” Andrew Gunther, program director at Animal Welfare Approved, a group that audits and certifies practices on small-scale farms, told MintPress.
“The really important thing here is simply the industry’s acknowledgement that there are sustainability problems in beef production. This is the industry saying it knows it has challenges and discussing how to address them.”
Gunther continued: “The problem is that they seem to be trying to define what they’re already doing as sustainable. The new principles seem more about marketing than actual change.”
Last month, Gunther and representatives of 22 other civil society groups, including Friends of the Earth and Consumer Reports, wrote a letter stating that they “overwhelmingly reject” the roundtable’s new principles and criteria.
An unsustainable past
Using current production methods, beef is one of the most environmentally damaging food sources, and beef consumption is arguably one of the more environmentally destructive human activities.
In July, a widely cited study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that livestock production in general causes around a fifth of annual greenhouse gas emissions, and constitutes “the key land user and source of water pollution by nutrient overabundance.”
“Empowering consumers to make choices that mitigate some of these impacts through devising and disseminating numerically sound information is thus a key socioenvironmental priority,” the researchers find. “We show that minimizing beef consumption mitigates the environmental costs of diet most effectively.”
The study reports that beef is on average some 10 times more damaging than any other type of livestock production. Cattle, for instance, require 28 times more land and 11 times more water than the production of other animal proteins, including dairy. The researchers, using a decade’s worth of U.S. government data, say the report was the first time that this impact has been quantified.
Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations’ key research body on climate issues, warned that reducing meat and dairy consumption is “key” to bringing down levels of agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions. By 2050, it is estimated that half of all greenhouse gas production globally will come just from cattle and lamb production.
The Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef’s new principles do not address the debate on whether or not people should reduce their consumption of beef as a key component of sustainability. In a question-and-answer document on some such criticisms, the group notes that beef consumption is already falling in many developed countries while rising in developing countries that, it states, need additional sources of protein.
Instead, the roundtable starts from the perspective that raising cattle need not be environmentally destructive. Simultaneously, it acknowledges that “sustainability is not always built into business models,” and warns that this must change “if we are to avoid catastrophic problems in the future as we work to meet the growing global demand for protein.”
Animal Welfare Approved’s Gunther agrees that beef production is not inherently unsustainable.
“Beef can be the most sustainable meat product that farms produce. Cattle eat grass, which we can’t eat, and use land that can’t be used to grow vegetables, while helping with the sequestration of carbon,” he said.
“The problem is simply that [the roundtable’s] process has no teeth — enforcement mechanisms are specifically excluded. If we’re going to fix the food system, we need transparency and a system that encourages consumers to make sustainable choices.”
“From zero to this”
The letter sent last month by Gunther and nearly two dozen other civil society and watchdog groups offers detailed concerns about the new roundtable principles, particularly from an environmental and consumer perspective.
In addition to the fact that the principles offer no specific performance standards, the groups object to vague standards on the misuse of antibiotics. Likewise, the new criteria deal only partially with the issue of how and where cattle feed is sourced — a significant consideration in the industry’s broader environmental footprint. The letter lists several other concerns, too.
“The approval of these principles and criteria is a lost opportunity,” the letter states. “Rather than asking its members to take a long, hard look in the mirror, it appears as if the [roundtable’s] chief concern is to protect the vested interests of those stakeholders who profit most from the existing intensive and unsustainable production model — and who stand to lose the most from change.”
Still, others involved in the roundtable process suggest that many of the criticisms raised in the civil society letter did receive significant discussion during the negotiations process that led to the new principles. The roundtable’s website includes a document that runs through many of these issues point by point, explaining, for some, why certain actions weren’t taken or, for others, that changes could take place in future iterations of the principles.
Ultimately, supporters emphasize that the principles constitute a first, negotiated step for an industry that has never before moved on the issue of sustainability. These new criteria, they say, will now undergo regular updates as the industry moves forward.
“To a certain extent I think there’s been some misunderstanding of this process’s ultimate objective. It was not to develop a specific, auditable standard, but rather to create a set of relevant but also broad guiding principles that can be applied in different settings and also built upon,” Sabrina Vigilante, director of marketing at Rainforest Alliance, a certifier that was part of the roundtable process and which has endorsed the principles, told MintPress.
“These principles and criteria may not be perfect, but we think if they didn’t exist each country would simply go in very different directions. In our opinion, this is a very good starting point for an industry that went from zero to this.”