News Feature | April 25, 2014

Sustainable Beef Efforts Continue But Face Hurdles

By Isaac Fletcher, contributing writer, Food Online

Sustainable Beef Efforts

Steps continue to be taken toward sustainable beef supply chains, but the lack of a universal definition for sustainability hinders progress

Last week, the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) sat down for a meeting in Brisbane, Australia where 20 members worked on a system for defining the term sustainable for a diverse global production system. While the GRSB is not focused on building a universal certification system, it does hope that a standardized definition of sustainable will open the door for other organizations to use the definition and create their own sustainability verification systems. A system of verification and certification for sustainability is an important step in ensuring that supply chain adapt to more sustainable practices and can be held to a standard for measuring their sustainability effectiveness.

Cameron Bruett, head of Corporate Communications at JBS USA and the chairman of the Brisbane meeting, comments, “We are in no way pursuing a certification program. We are in no way led by any one organization with the goal of putting producers out of business or increasing costs on a system where the margins are already razor thin.” Underscoring the GRSB’s desire for a standardized definition, Bruett goes on to say, “We do want an environment where if you’re talking about sustainable beef on a global scale, there is a common approach. Even if our systems are different, we’re addressing the same areas in a responsible manner.”  Once the GRSB has pinned down a definition, supply chains are free to use that definition to create their own verification systems.

There are currently multiple definitions of sustainability being used throughout various beef supply chains. Not having a precise and universal definition creates hurdles due to the fact that there is room to pick and choose whatever definition best fits a certain supply chain or producer. This in turn makes transforming outdated practices into more sustainable ones challenging and slow going, as companies are able to hide behind obscure labeling claims of freshness and responsibility.

After a definition is created, the GRSB plans to move on to supporting businesses and initiatives that incorporate beef sustainability. GRSB executive director, Ruaraidh Petre explains, “We aim in the future to share information about sustainable practices throughout the supply chain.”  Reiterating GRSB sentiment, he continues, “That doesn’t mean a certification system, but it does mean telling the story of what we’re doing and how that is making things better, not just on the environmental side, but on the economic {side}.”  Hitting on what may be the most critical point in achieving sustainability goals, Petre states, “You’re not going to get anywhere if it’s not economically viable. That’s part of the story that has to be shared.”

Members of the GRSB believe all beef systems can be made sustainable; it is just a matter of continuous improvement over time. Bruett argues, “This is not about picking organic versus grass-fed versus feed-lotted cattle. We believe any system can improve; any system can make progress and improve its environmental performance, its societal impact, and become more economically viable.”  In the eyes of the GRSB, it is about the approach, and for the issue to be approached voluntarily and effectively, a universal definition for sustainability must be reached.