Birth to Burger

The Sustainability Debate

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Jimmy and Kathleen Holliman raise Simmental-Angus beef in Dallas County, Alabama. A fifth-generation cattleman, Jimmy says any producer today is likely already a good steward of the land.(DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Victoria G. Myers)

The word "sustainable" can be its own worst enemy in cattle country. Replace it with equally bad-tasting words like "regulatory" or "oversight," and the reaction will likely be the same from many of America's independent-minded cattlemen. Simply put, they don't like it. More to the point, they don't think they need it.

What is sustainability? And what does the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) mean to the U.S. beef producer? These seem like simple questions, but the path to answers is a long, twisted trip.

Like every cattle producer, Jimmy Holliman is working through it. The fifth-generation Alabama producer spent a career at Auburn University's Black Belt Research and Extension Center overseeing work in the areas of agronomy, plant breeding and beef cattle. He is also a representative for the Alabama Cattlemen's Association at the GRSB, giving him a front-row seat in the ongoing debate over sustainability.

Holliman says he's heard nothing at the roundtable meetings that makes him uncomfortable. In fact, as principles for sustainability have been developed, he notes he's been happy to hear they are things most producers he knows do anyway.

"So you take care of the water on your land. You don't overgraze," the Marion Junction producer explains. "What I'm hearing in discussions over sustainability are simple, basic things we all know make a difference. If we just do the basics, I believe we will be in good shape."

The cattleman adds that anyone in business today is likely a good steward of the land. "I believe this will recognize us for what we are already doing," he says.

Holliman raises Simmental-Angus at Circle H Cattle Farm, based in Dallas County. He boasts for every 100 acres in this southwestern side of Alabama, there are 11 cows. He doesn't expect discussions of sustainability to change that. And, he believes there's a lot more to the concept than regulations or traceability.

Lasting Legacy. At its core, Holliman believes sustainability is about survival of the family farm. His hope is that principles of sustainability will help ensure the continuation of hard-built family legacies. But, he admits his expectations going into the GRSB were that the organization would be less than empathetic to the needs of cattle producers.

"After attending a couple of the group's meetings, it became clear to me that this is about bringing together all the practices of agriculture, wildlife and industry, and to have standards that guarantee we can take care of our land and water," he says. "The goal is to ensure our farms survive and will be there for the next generations. Along with that, there is an understanding that we have to make a living, and if we are regulated to the point where we can't, then this doesn't work."

The GRSB Story. Ask why GRSB was formed, and you'll get different answers. Some see it as a top-down move to vertically integrate the cattle industry; others believe its purpose is more education-based, with a goal of reaching consumers with a positive message about beef production.

GRSB began work in 2013 and released its first "Principles and Criteria for Defining Global Sustainable Beef" in 2014. The group's mission statement says GRSB's goal is: "to advance continuous improvement in sustainability of the global beef value chain through leadership, science and multistakeholder engagement and collaboration."

Currently, GRSB includes stakeholders in the beef value chain from 15 countries and a wide range of industry. Five groups are represented, broken down as: producers and producer associations; commerce and processing; retail; civil societies; and national or regional roundtables. Brazil, Canada and the U.S. have established their own roundtables, all of which are working to establish frameworks for sustainability. Other countries are in the process of creating roundtables.

There are plenty of recognizable names on GRSB's membership list. The current board of directors alone includes representatives from the World Wildlife Fund, Rainforest Alliance, JBS, Cargill, McDonald's, A&W Food Services of Canada, Canadian Cattlemen's Association, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Willow Creek Ranch and all existing country-level roundtables.

Benchmarks To The North. For cattlemen wondering what an actual sustainability plan might look like, a clear example was put in place by the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) with the release of its first major report, "National Beef Sustainability Assessment and Strategy," in October 2016.

Ranchers in the country were in a unique position to see how sustainability, as a defining mark, might work through participation in a pilot project with McDonald's. The project, announced in 2014, aimed at identifying producers and others in the beef-production chain the fast-food giant could verify met standards for sustainability. Ultimately, the idea was to be able to track from "birth to burger" beef used in the project.

By 2016, the pilot had verified 154 cow/calf and backgrounder operators, 24 feedlots, two packers and one patty plant that met sustainability standards set for the country. All together, this equaled 8 million pounds of verified sustainable hot carcass weight Canadian beef, or 2.4 million burgers. Certainly not enough to supply the restaurant's beef needs, but a start—and perhaps a framework on which to hang future programs.

To put those numbers into context, the Canadian beef industry includes 68,500 farms and ranches, and uses 52.2 million acres—about 33% of total agricultural land use. Cow/calf producers who met the sustainability criteria equaled about 0.22% of the total. And those 2.4 million burgers? That's less than one-third of the number the chain sells in just one day.

In identifying operations for the pilot project, 31 "indicators" were used at the cow/calf level, 29 at the feeder level and 28 for processing plants. A 1-to-5 scoring methodology was established, with 5 being excellent, 3 marking achievement of the indicator and 1 considered entry level. McDonald's senior manager for sustainability Canada Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stilwell stressed the company wanted to "champion progress over perfection" throughout the process.

Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, a fourth-generation rancher from Jumping Pound, just west of Calgary, and chairman of the CRSB, worked with McDonald's throughout the pilot. She noted the work helped them bring together a clearer definition of beef sustainability for Canadian producers.

"Sustainable beef is a socially responsible, environmentally sound and economically viable product that prioritizes planet, people, animals and progress," she says.

Barnes is chief executive officer of CL Ranches, a historic operation consisting of seedstock and commercial cow/calf businesses, backgrounding lots and a mixed-grain farming operation. She describes the McDonald's pilot as a major success for the country's beef industry.

"It allowed us to tangibly see what a model of sustainability can look like. None of us were really sure what it would take to produce a program that would work, that would be strong enough to convince producers it would work, and strong enough to give food producers something they could make a claim on. It has been a tremendous learning experience, and now, we can move on and create a national program."

Barnes noted three pillars would support that effort: a sustainability assessment; a framework for verification; and new and ongoing sustainability projects to build on completed work. Assessments are to be repeated every five years.

U.S. Program In Transition. While Canada's roundtable already has a major project to its credit, the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB) is still finding its footing. The group came together in March 2015, and there have been growing pains, attested to by then-chair of the group Nicole Johnson-Hoffman. Now senior vice president with OSI Group, a global food processor, she was with Cargill during her tenure as chair. Her goal is for the U.S. beef value chain to be the trusted leader in environmentally sound, socially responsible, economically viable beef.

"Our members believe we need to be an action-oriented group. Debate and discussion won't satisfy our members if we are not moving forward in our work," she stresses. "We will develop sustainability indicators and ways to demonstrate to third parties that we are progressing. We are moving forward at lightning speed."

By February 2017, the USRSB had established six sustainability indicators, along with metrics for each sector of the beef chain. New chair of the U.S. roundtable John Butler is chief executive officer of Beef Marketing Group, a cattle-buying cooperative in Manhattan, Kansas, representing 19 feedlots. He says the final report on the roundtable's plan will be presented at this month's meeting in Denver.

In summary, U.S. sustainability indicators will include: animal health/well-being, efficiency/yield, water resources, land resources, air/greenhouse gas emissions and worker safety/well-being. Each sector of the beef chain—cow/calf, feedyard, retail, packer/processor and auction market—will have its own set of metrics (means of measuring those indicators) to measure progress and achievement.

Heritage Sustainability. Fifth-generation Iowa farmer Gary Smith is closely involved with the GRSB, acting as representative to the group for the National Livestock Producers Association (NLPA), where he also serves as chairman of the board. His involvement has given him cause to believe a sustainability program in beef will ultimately be a positive for U.S. producers.

"Our operation, Smith Farms in southwest Iowa, is a heritage farm," he says, explaining it's been in the family over 150 years. Today, the farm includes row crops and cattle, and is run with son, Brady. Smith says he is glad to see so many examples of ranchers passing the family business from generation to generation.

"To me, that is the best possible example of something that's sustainable," the producer stresses. "More than any metric you can use, if you see a farm that is providing a living for generation after generation, that says something very positive about what is happening."

Smith is familiar with concerns many have about introducing another label to U.S. livestock.

"Ranchers and the cattle industry are very protective of what they do, and they don't want to see anything that might endanger their ability to operate on their own land in the way they believe is best. But for me, there was nothing that scared me in the Canadian roundtable study. In fact, it relieved some of my fears to see what this really means. And, I was impressed at the lack of animosity between ranchers and some of the greener groups at the meeting."

Smith doesn't believe the concept of sustainability will turn into another regulatory stick. Rather, he hopes it will be a way for the industry to define itself better and have measures that show how sustainable cattle production really is, compared to how it is sometimes portrayed.

"If, for example, we can show how much carbon is sequestered by our system, it would be a good way to defend what we do," he notes.

Asked the long-wearing question whether sustainability should have a label and a premium to go with it, Smith says he doesn't know if that's where this is headed. He does believe if there are additional regulations required to be designated sustainable, there needs to be some remuneration for producers.

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman is very familiar with the premium debate and told GRSB members meeting in Canada she didn't believe a promise of premiums could go with the idea of sustainability, calling that "extremely risky." She noted sustainability was not about profit. This sentiment was echoed by others at the meeting who likened sustainability to a license to operate more than a means to a premium.

As the program continues to evolve, and the details of metrics and indicators become clearer, GRSB's vision statement seems to offer a clear direction as to the organization's ultimate goals. How that statement is interpreted is as individual as the person reading it.

"We envision a world in which all aspects of the beef value chain are environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable."

Editor's note: A longer version of this story is available in July's Progressive Farmer magazine. To see the digital edition of the magazine go to www.dtnpf.comand click on "Resources."


Victoria Myers