Sustainable Beef: A “Global” Discussion and You

March 10, 2014 08:53 AM

By: Heidi Carroll, SDSU Extension, Livestock Stewardship Extension Associate

In the last few months, a global discussion initiated by McDonald’s and several other food retailers continues to intensify as best practices of animal welfare and sustainable food production methods, specifically for beef, are being identified. McDonald’s commitment to buy sustainable beef in 2016 led to the formation of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which consists of representatives from all sectors of the beef supply chain. So why is it so difficult to agree on a "globally acceptable" definition?

Sustainability has traditionally been framed around maintaining a balance between social, environmental, and economic factors that minimize negative impacts in the long term.

These areas around sustainability are impacted by the geographic location and culture in which a person lives, which makes a universally acceptable definition nearly impossible. Multi-faceted words like sustainability are very difficult to objectively evaluate, and even more difficult to regulate because they are not well-defined, universal, or have well-established measures.

Sustainable food production can become a reality when the components are broken down to simpler pieces and framed in a little common sense. This doesn’t mean the job of becoming more sustainable is any easier when it comes to evaluating an entire food supply starting at the rancher’s gate and going all the way to a finished BigMac. The real question may be, how do we get people at each step in the food chain to make individual choices that have a cumulative effect on the bigger, "global", sustainability of planet Earth for generations to come? This seemed to be echoed by the Chief Sustainability Officer at JBS USA, and president of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, "we (the Roundtable) wanted to kind of chalk the boundary lines of what we thought sustainability meant, and empower people with the tools to improve their operations, improve their livelihood, improve their social performance to ultimately improve the whole value chain." It comes down to people impacting other people. It comes down to choices.

Many areas are receiving attention in the global beef sustainability discussion:

  • Intensive forage and crop production practices
  • Pasture management techniques
  • Animal welfare, health, and feeding programs
  • Water and energy use
  • Land use / natural resource availability and depletion
  • Natural biological process of a ruminant (methane production)
  • Employee treatment and fair wages
  • Traceability of products
  • Food waste
  • Product packaging
  • Economic impacts (who pays and who benefits)

Some of these topics are better understood and quantifiable than others. As livestock producers, we should engage ourselves with diverse audiences to understand the concerns with production practices that other members of the community may have when it comes to long-term sustainability of a safe, healthy, and affordable food supply. It is important to identify areas of our individual operations that can be monitored to understand the actual impact livestock production is having on the environment, society, and economy. Assuming we, livestock producers, are already sustainable gets the discussion nowhere and brings the continuous improvement to a screeching halt. The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef should release a draft of the proposed practices that promote sustainable beef production for public comment sometime this spring or summer after the group completes an internal review of the first draft. Until a draft is released, give some thought to the daily production practices at home.

  • Evaluate local natural resources and the direct impacts of the operation on those resources. This means acknowledging the positive and negative effects on others concerning land use, water and air quality, and wildlife. Are there areas for improvement?
  • Gather information about alternative crop production methods for your area that promote healthy soils and water ways and maximize production efficiencies. Can methods that require less inputs of fertilizer, irrigation, or tillage be implemented?
  • Evaluate livestock feeding programs. Can modifications be made to existing equipment or facilities that promote decreased waste of feedstuffs or water, and essentially save money? What marketing options are available to capture the best profit opportunity without sacrificing the well-being of the animals or impacting the quality of the food products?
  • Consider the waste or garbage that is produced by all aspects of the operation. Do less wasteful alternatives exist that have positive effects on the environment and the community?

Maintaining integrity for continuous improvement of food production practices while preserving our resources can lead to sustainability of a diverse food supply. Another obvious benefit of pursuing sustainable production methods is having access to more customers. As stewards of the land, animals, and our communities, let’s start the discussion at the ranch gate to make sustainable food production more of a reality.

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