Sara Hessenflow Harper
Sara is the Director of Sustainability & Supply-Chain Solutions for Vela Environmental, a division of Kennedy and Coe, LLC where she leads the firm's Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) On-Demand Services. This blog explores the topic of agricultural sustainability. Follow Sara on Twitter: @SustainAg. Views expressed are solely those of Sara Harper.
Chipotle's Environmentally Costly Decision
May 30, 2014
There is no easy prescription when it comes to creating a sustainable food system. There are always tradeoffs. The easy thing to think is that you can just find a more "sustainable" place to source your product from – some magical place that has no problems. Of course, every place has its challenges, they may differ – but there will always be environmental impacts from any system that successfully feeds billions of people. The right focus should be on examining how the producers are managing the problems they are dealt.
This brings me to Chipotle’s latest marketing stunt in which their co-founder announced on the Huff Post Green blog that they will begin instituting the policy of importing Australian grass-fed beef rather than make up for supply shortages of their "Responsibly Raised" beef with conventional U.S. product.
"We believe that in addition to the simple fact that our Australian grass-fed beef is delicious, serving it is an important step in our never-ending journey to help build a food system based on what we call Food With Integrity. Returning to grass-based farming systems for cattle is a core component of our long-term vision."
-- Steve Ells, Chipotle Co-founder
Chipotle is of course free to choose where they source their beef and what attributes they market to the public. They are not, however, able to avoid the fact that they are choosing to elevate a vision of agriculture: cows eating only grass, into the best environmental choice for a growing global population facing fewer natural resources in the future. But they are indeed making that claim. I guess that doesn’t matter since their slogan is not Marketing With Integrity.
Chipotle wants to have their cake and eat it to, but the truth is – cattle that are finished on grain more efficiently convert their food to weight, require fewer animal numbers to produce the same amount of meat and as a result, have less environmental impact than the beloved vision of cows grazing endlessly in a pasture. The fact that these environmental benefits of the current beef system are not better known, measured and reported is, I believe, a great weakness for the current U.S. beef system, leaving them vulnerable to exactly this kind of specious marketing.
With all the work I have done in the environmental sector, I know how hard it is to really be able to say for sure that swapping one choice with another is in fact, environmentally better, because again – there are always tradeoffs. So, I’d be really curious to hear from the folks at Chipotle if any of the questions below were considered before they pulled the trigger to source from Australia as the more "responsible" choice.
What are the environmental impacts – particularly water use and greenhouse gas emissions, of refrigeration, ocean shipping, land transport for Chipotle sourcing from Australia instead of the U.S.?
Is the extra demand on water for grazing cattle for export out of a dry country and the extra carbon emissions for solely grass-fed beef a good use of resources when there is literally a huge and growing population that beef could go to nearby in Asia? In other words, what is the indirect environmental impact of the market signal Chipotle is sending for greater distance exports to the U.S.? Who is going to make up for the market share into Asia? It will probably the U.S. beef sector.
Your stated preferences for grass-fed, hormone-free beef translates into a system that needs to raise roughly double the number of cows to create the same overall amount of beef. How do you account for these added environmental impacts in claiming your system is better for the environment? Keep in mind, the more cows you need to make the same amount of beef = the more environmental impacts you are creating!
Since solely grass-fed cattle require significantly more time alive to reach their processing weight, and convert their feed with far less efficiency than grain-finished cattle, how are you accounting for the added days of impact multiplied by double the cattle needed to make the same amount of beef.So in Chipotle’s logic, it makes more "sustainability" sense to ship in beef from half a world away – and thus, encourage U.S. producers to send their beef again, a half a world away for the grand accomplishment of accessing a system that requires more cows, alive for longer amounts of time and therefore creating more greenhouse gas emissions, more manure, more water impacts – to make the same amount of beef as a highly efficient U.S. producer that they could source from locally.
Perhaps the fact that importing beef right now is a lot cheaper because of low cattle numbers in the U.S. has something to do with this decision? I know, I’m too cynical.
When you add it all up, it is really not defensible for Chipotle to claim that shipping grass-fed beef in from Australia is the more sustainable, more pro-environmental choice.
That’s the fun part – pointing out how Chipotle is so off the mark. The harder part is for the U.S. beef industry to recognize the need to embrace environmental assessment, documentation and communication on issues that consumers and food companies are increasingly caring more about.
I hear all the time, "Ag needs to tell its story." Truthfully, ag needs to PROVE its story. To do that, there is really no way around the hard work of measuring and managing more than just the typical profit bottom line – but doing a far better job of assigning value to the many intangible things that are a part of profit.
Just because Chipotle is wrong about how they characterize U.S. beef does not mean they are wrong about the market forces that are interested in the topic.
I’m working with a group of producers called Triple Bottom Line (TBL) Commodities that joined together three years ago to better understand and define sustainability and add value to their operations in the process.
Now more than ever, the agriculture industry needs more than just a good defense, it needs a good offense. TBL Commodities is positioning itself to be just that. The group’s goal is to become a collection of sustainable producers that have the data to prove it. This is the way to close the trust gap with consumers, become preferred supply chain customers and maintain a social license to operate. Only then will the larger agricultural industry be empowered to get out of the never-ending loop of reacting to the latest bad public relations stunt.
Follow Sara on Twitter: @SustainAg