The Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef is about to propose a definition of sustainable beef.

 22 January 2014 — By March this year the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef, which includes representatives of all stages of the supply chain from producers to retailers, will propose a definition of sustainable beef based on six principles: people, communities, animal welfare, food safety, natural resources, and efficiency and innovation, writes Ian McConnel.

The announcement by McDonald’s that it will begin purchasing verified sustainable beef from 2016 is further evidence of how corporations across major commodity sectors are seeking to reduce their footprint on the environment.

This commitment is the first of its kind in the global beef industry and an important signal to producers that independent verification of impacts on the environment will increasingly be required by the entire beef value chain.

In Australia, beef is more than just a culinary passion; it is also the lifeblood of many rural communities. We have a national herd that numbers over 26 million and supports an industry worth more than $8 billion a year. The beef industry employs over a third of all workers in agriculture, and puts more money into regional and remote Australia than any other.

Australia’s 59,000 or so beef properties also cover about 43 per cent of Australia’s entire land mass, which makes the beef industry a critical player when it comes to managing the health of our environment.

The impacts of beef production on Australia’s terrestrial and marine environments have been enormous. New analysis to be released by WWF in the coming weeks shows that 45 per cent of Australia’s forests and woodlands have been cleared since European settlement, primarily for livestock pasture and to a lesser extent, crops.

The impacts of beef production go beyond the loss of terrestrial habitats. In the Great Barrier Reef catchment, clearing land to make way for paddocks and its subsequent management has increased the amount of sediment that ends up on the Reef between five and nine times more than natural rates. Sediment, combined with other agricultural pollutants, is one of the main drivers of declining coral cover and the loss of sea grass beds.

With a growing consumer demand for Western diets around the world, indications are that meat production and consumption, and its associated environmental impacts, will continue to increase over the coming decades.

WWF is striving to meet this challenge by working with farmers, industry and retailers to reduce the environmental impact of beef production. While there may be important issues around the Western diet and its reliance on meat, WWF’s focus is on ensuring that production and supply chains are as sustainable as possible. In this way we can minimise our impacts on the environment no matter what the world’s dietary trends look like.

But the “sustainability” of beef needs to incorporate more than just environmental considerations. It must also take into account financial, social and ethical factors that impact on the industry’s ongoing viability.

By March this year the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef, which includes representatives of all stages of the supply chain from producers to retailers, will propose a definition of sustainable beef based on six principles: people, communities, animal welfare, food safety, natural resources, and efficiency and innovation. Once feedback and public comment have been sought, the GRSB will release a final definition of the term in August this year.

Settling on a definition that takes into account all of these factors and can be applied across the various production systems that exist around the world is a significant challenge. The question of how to do that while remaining robust and addressing the range of sustainability issues is a difficult one that will involve the establishment of national and regional indicators within a set of global sustainability criteria.

With one of the world’s best traceability systems, the Australian beef industry has a head start and a competitive advantage to meet the demand from McDonald’s and other responsible buyers. Australia also has some of the world’s leading science and technology for assessing the impacts of grazing on the environment, based on years of research.

McDonald’s commitment to purchase sustainable beef will help pave the way for other large corporations to do the same, with significant net benefits for the environment and communities.

As one of the major buyers of beef around the world – and the biggest in Australia – any step McDonald’s takes towards sustainability will create demand across production areas, and will ensure there is a system in place for sustainable purchasing that other corporations can then use.

The challenges ahead are significant but farmers, industry and retailers are increasingly demonstrating a willingness to reduce the negative impacts of beef production in a way that ensures industry profitability and viable rural communities.

Ian McConnel is WWF-Australia’s sustainable beef coordinator