When beef industry stakeholders gathered for the inaugural Global Conference on Sustainable Beef in 2010, many entered with high levels of skepticism. Beef producers in particular worried about how participating groups would define “sustainable beef” and whether the initiative would lead to unsound or unrealistic expectations.
More than a few raised their eyebrows when learning the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) hosted the conference as a founding member of the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef (GRSB), along with sponsors Cargill, Intervet/Schering-Plough Animal Health (now Merck Animal Health), JBS, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart. One agenda item in particular caught the eyes of beef industry participants; a keynote address from Jason Clay, WWF’s senior vice president of market transformation. Many expected the worst and wondered why the beef industry would invite criticism from a likely adversary.
We came away, however, with a better understanding of the value of collaboration, a realization that Clay and his organization recognized the role of beef in feeding a hungry world, and the role of ranchers in protecting natural resources and wildlife habitat while producing that food. While participants didn’t necessarily agree on every point, they discovered common ground shared by producers, packers, retailers and, yes, even conservation groups.
Seven years later, the GRSB continues to move forward, along with national roundtables including the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB), both with constructive input and support from WWF.
John Butler, CEO of Beef Marketing Group and immediate-past board chair for the USRSB, took a “wait-and-see” approach toward the WWF’s involvement in the roundtable. Over the past two years, though, he has come to see WWF as a valuable and constructive contributor to the process. The organization has embraced the roundtable’s spirit of collaboration, pragmatism and compromise. “We’ve all learned a lot by hearing their perspectives,” Butler says.
As the USRSB develops and eventually publishes sustainability recommendations, Butler says the collaborative, multi-stakeholder approach will add credibility. The industry and general public will see the results are not representative of any single special interest.
A first step in a collaborative effort is to find common ground on which to build. Butler says WWF recognized a few key points early on. They agree with other members, for example, that beef production practices vary considerably across different geographic regions and environments. Standards and indicators for evaluating sustainability need to be tailored to individual production environments, rather than “one-size-fits-all.” Also, individual production sectors face unique challenges, meaning ranchers, rather than packers or retailers, should develop standards for their sector.
Clay encourages flexibility in measuring sustainability. In his 2010 address, he said sustainability
should be a precompetitive issue, with all stakeholders and industry segments cooperating. In determining what to measure, he suggested rather than trying to maximize any single variable in production, we should seek ways to optimize many variables, focusing on outcomes rather than practices.
The task of improving sustainability in beef, and food production overall, is daunting, Clay says. In a 2010 TED Talk, he stressed the human population is living at around 1.3 times the earth’s carrying capacity. “If we were farmers, we’d be eating our seed. For bankers, we’d be living off the principal, not the interest. This is where we stand today.”
To influence change, WWF has concentrated on engaging with large companies and organizations, rather than trying to sway millions of producers or consumers.
“Three-hundred to 500 companies control 70% or more of the trade of each of the 15 commodities that we’ve identified as the most significant,” he says. “So 100 companies control 25% of the trade of all 15 of the most significant commodities on the planet. We can get our arms around 100 companies. A hundred companies, we can work with.” Companies, he adds, can push producers faster than consumers can. “By companies asking for this, we can leverage production so much faster than by waiting for consumers to do it,” he says.
Following his presentation to the initial Global Conference on Sustainable Beef, Clay told NCBA that U.S. beef production, for its scale, “is head and shoulders above most of the rest of the world in terms of how long it takes to get an animal to market, the production of greenhouse gases during that time, how much feed it takes, how much land is required and how much water.” Future improvements likely will hinge on greater efficiency—bringing cattle to market faster—to reduce inputs per unit of production.
Much of the improvement can take place at the bottom, Clay adds, saying 40% to 50% of global impacts of any commodity are probably caused by the 25% of producers with the lowest performance. “So if we don’t move the bottom, then it doesn’t matter in some ways if the top gets better, because the bottom is what everybody’s going to continue to point at.”
“Here’s the bottom line,” he says, “we can argue a lot today about what is and what is not sustainable. But by 2050, with 9 billion people on the planet, nearly 3 billion more than today, consuming twice as much as we are now, whatever is sustainable today isn’t going to be in 2050. So we’ve got to get better. We’ve got to figure out how to do more with less. I think with livestock, what we need to do is figure out where we are and what the ranges are. Then we can look at what role management and genetics and other things have to do with improving production.”
Jason Clay to Present at Kansas State University
Beef producers and other industry stakeholders will have an opportunity to join in a presentation from Jason Clay at the Henry C. Gardiner Global Food Systems Lecture series at Kansas State University, McCain Auditorium, Manhattan, Kan., on Sept. 11. His lecture is titled “Feeding the World, Sustaining the Planet.
Clay currently serves as senior vice president in charge of markets and food at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Over his career, Clay has operated a family farm, taught at Harvard and Yale universities, worked at USDA, and spent more than 25 years working with non-governmental organizations before joining WWF in 1999. He is the author of 20 books and is National Geographic’s first-ever Food and Sustainability Fellow. For more information, visit www.k-state.edu/globalfood/lecture-series
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