In February 2012, a group of industry and environmental groups joined together to form the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB).  According to its website, the GRSB is a global, multi-stakeholder initiative that seeks to advance the sustainable production of beef by addressing issues such as soil, water quality, energy use, animal welfare and nutrition.

The partners in the GRSB include Cargill, JBS, McDonald’s, Merck Animal Health, the National Wildlife Federation, Rainforest Alliance, the Nature Conservancy, Walmart and the World Wildlife Fund.

It is surprising to see these groups banding together to work on an issue when there may be significant conflicts of interest: the environmental and conservation groups are seeking to reduce the environmental impact of beef production; the industry groups want to continue producing beef at a level to meet increasing global demand; and the retail groups want to dispel alleged myths about beef production and increase consumers’ trust in their products.

Jason Clay, World Wildlife Fund’s Senior Vice President for Markets Transformation, initiated the roundtable approach and said WWF is encouraged to see such a strong commitment from the major stakeholders in the beef industry to work collaboratively to create a more sustainable beef supply chain.

“At World Wildlife Fund, we recognize that these collaborative efforts are instrumental to our goal of preserving the most important biological places on earth and, ultimately, living in harmony with nature,” Clay commented.

Why Sustainability?

Although beef consumption in the United States is declining, global consumption is on the rise. Scott Hanson, managing director of Meat & Livestock Australia, said “[global] demand is set to grow increasingly over the next five years, vastly outstripping the globe’s capacity to supply.”  In 2011, global beef consumption reached 64.5 million metric tons (about 142 billion pounds) and is estimated to climb 24 percent by 2020.

Conservation and environmental groups have long criticized the beef industry for its significant contributions to a number of environmental problems.  For example, beef production requires an enormous amount of land and water.  Crop production and grazing activities take up 58 percent of the earth’s habitable area.  Beef production alone uses 60 percent of all the land used to produce food, but provides only 1.3 percent of the calories.  The threat of increased deforestation to make room for more cow operations is a major concern.  In terms of water use, one liter of water produces just one calorie of beef.  Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are linked to water and air quality issues, including increased levels of greenhouse gases and degradation of water sources.

The environmental impacts of beef production, which are already quite serious, become even more significant in light of a growing world population and projected increase in demand for beef.

The Global Conference on Sustainable Beef

The idea for the Global Roundtable came out of the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef held in November 2010 in Denver, CO.

In the opening session of that meeting, Bryan Weech, Director of Livestock at World Wildlife Fund, said the purpose of the conference was to begin a dialogue about sustainable beef production. Weech was quick to note that this event was not an attack on or defense of industry, but an effort to bring together representatives from all steps of beef production to discuss sustainability.

Bob Langert, Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility at McDonald’s, explained why McDonald’s was participating in the conference.

Langert noted that McDonald’s had commissioned a group of students from the University of California – Berkeley to examine McDonald’s entire beef system for its sustainability.

The students pointed to several ways McDonald’s could improve its system.  One suggested improvement was to use preferred suppliers who meet certain environmental, animal welfare and labor benchmarks (see 2006 Corporate Social Responsibility Report, pages 26a – g).  Additionally, the students recommended pilot projects to demonstrate environmental stewardship, for example using methane generators on waste lagoons.

The second reason McDonald’s participated in the conference had to do with building trust with their consumers. Langert said part of earning consumers’ trust is showing that the products McDonald’s buys (like beef) are produced in a responsible way.  Consumers expect a socially responsible supply chain, and Langert said McDonald’s continued success requires serving food in a convenient, safe, fun and very responsible way.

Langert cited what he called the mischaracterization of sustainability as the third reason McDonald’s was invested in the conference.  He said sustainability, in general, has been incorrectly defined by too many stakeholders.  In his view, the food industry is under attack and is being negatively portrayed by “opinion makers.”

Langert said media portrayals, whether in coverage of obesity or health or environmental degradation issues, sometimes do not give an accurate picture of what is truly going on.  “What the heck?” he continued, “The guy that heads up the U.N. effort on climate change called on people to eat less beef.”

Animal welfare abuses and food safety threats are being defined as part of the total umbrella of factory farming, and Langert thinks “the real story is that the beef industry is made up of excellent men and women and processors that take pride in what they are doing and manage their businesses responsibly.”

For this reason, McDonald’s approached the World Wildlife Fund more than a year ago to suggest this conference. Langert said that “today there is window of opportunity to come together and demonstrate that we all can be very proactive and strategic in our approach and tell our story even more.”

McDonald’s has had past successes working with “really incredible third parties that focus on science and market-based solutions.” Langert said that World Wildlife Fund is committed to coming up with socially, environmentally and economically viable solutions and, because of that, McDonald’s was willing to work in collaboration on the issue of sustainable beef production.

In closing, Langert presented some thoughts from the steering committee, including its earnest desire to improve the sustainability of beef globally (from environmental, social and economic perspectives); its strong support for working collaboratively with a variety of stakeholders involved in beef production to find science-based solutions; and its commitment to continue to do more for sustainable beef, both locally and globally.

The rest of the conference involved presentations by international beef producers and organizations, discussions about def
ining sustainability, and presentations by groups that are already working toward sustainable beef production (for example, the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition working to preserve and increase grazing land in California).

The purpose of the conference was to bring together a number of different stakeholders with different interests and goals to begin the conversation about defining sustainability and finding ways to accomplish their goal.  One of the conclusions of the conference was the idea for a Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef

The aim of the GRSB, as listed on its website, is to advance continuous improvement in the sustainability of the global beef value chain through a number of actions.  Those steps include:

– “Identifying, evaluating, and enabling increased adoption of current leading production and supply chain practices, policy, and technology;

– Promoting the adoption of leading employment and economic development practices;

– Supporting action-oriented, regional, and local multi-stakeholder initiatives focused on producing measurable outcomes;

– Addressing high-priority issues related to sustainability by sharing locally relevant and science based information; and

– Providing a forum and opportunities for constructive engagement, information exchange, and technical problem solving.”

The website does not provide any examples of how the Roundtable is going to accomplish these goals, but lists a few existing initiatives, such as the Brasilian Sustainable Beef Working Group, the Florida Ranchlands Environmental Services Project, and the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition.

GRSB Registers as Non-Profit

One of the first steps the GRSB did was to register as a non-profit.  Ruaraidh Petre, president of the Roundtable, said that the formation of the non-profit “reaffirms our collective support of activities that deliver measurable, science-based outcomes that are focused on high priority environmental and industry-related issues.  More efficient, environmentally sustainable approaches to bringing beef from farm to fork will help conserve our planet’s finite resources while also supporting our communities and our members’ bottom lines.”

It is unclear how the GRSB is going to accomplish those goals.

GRSB registered under Article 60 of the Swiss code, which allows it to support local, regional and national roundtable members who propose new innovations, technologies, and share best practices in beef production systems.  The group will also be able to distribute several million euros that the Dutch government pledged for new trainings and technologies to improve the efficiency and productivity of smallholder and frontier farms.

Since November 2010, GRSB has initiated a number of dialogues in key beef producing regions to share information and practices across the diverse beef industry, including in Argentina, Australia, and Brazil.

GRSB has more activities planned for the near future: it will participate in the Australian Beef Conference in May 2012 and hopes to host the second Global Conference on Sustainable Beef later this year so that global stakeholders can review and comment on the new statutes and bylaws.

The members of the GRSB are strange bedfellows, to be sure, so keep an eye on what comes out of this Roundtable in the coming months (and perhaps years).


Alli Condra is pursuing her LL.M. in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas, and is the recipient of the Marler Clark Graduate Assistantship.