Beef Industry Groups Meet to Discuss Sustainability but Leave with a Marketing Plan

A coalition of beef producers and major food companies met last month in Brazil to address an issue of increasing importance: the significant, harmful environmental impact of raising beef cattle in a world with a growing population and declining resources.

Instead of developing a workable blueprint for sustainability, they walked away with a marketing manual.

The meeting came shortly after the release of a recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that concluded that if humans chose to eat less meat, it would have a greater impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions than better cropland or livestock management.

The UN's emphasis on the effects of animal agriculture on greenhouse gas emissions is not new. A 2006 report published by its Food and Agriculture Organization, titled Livestock’s Long Shadow, concluded that:

  • Animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than all transportation combined.

  • The livestock sector “may well be the leading player in the reduction of biodiversity, since it is the major driver of deforestation, as well as one of the leading drivers of land degradation, pollution, climate change, overfishing, sedimentation of coastal areas and facilitation of invasions by alien species.”

  • The livestock industry also emits 65 percent of all human-produced nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that has 296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, and 37 percent of all human-produced methane, another potent greenhouse gas.

In an open letter to the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef (GRSB), more than 20 public interest organizations, including the Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, and Friends of the Earth, wrote that the document that resulted from the meeting in Brazil is “fundamentally flawed.”

Instead of setting any standards or creating a certification program for beef produced in a more sustainable way, the Roundtable laid out a vague set of ideas that reinforce a “business-as-usual” approach and ask farmers to voluntarily make changes, without specifying what those changes should be.

“Rather than asking its members to take a long, hard look in the mirror, it appears as if the GRSB’s chief concern is to protect the vested interests of those stakeholders who profit most from the existing intensive and unsustainable production model – and who stand to lose the most from change,” wrote the public interest critics.

With the human population expected to reach over 9 billion by 2050, we need to shift our dietary habits toward foods that can be produced in more sustainable ways and that use the least resources possible. If we are serious about addressing climate change, we need to reduce government subsidies that support the production of beef and other meat products that undermine our climate commitments. Sixty-three percent of U.S. government food subsidies support the meat and dairy industries while less than one percent support the production of fruits and vegetables. We should reverse these subsidies to reflect both what federal nutrition guidelines recommend and what’s best for our environment.

Photo by Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, used under a Creative Commons license.

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"Business-as-Usual" is NOT a solution-- these numbers are truly terrifying!
The article fails to mention that numerous leading conservation organizations including WWF, Rainforest Alliance and National wildlife Federation (and others) are a part of the coalition. Selective reporting that narrowly calls the effort "...a coalition of beef producers and major food companies" leaves the impression that the initiative is merely a industry effort and lacks support from the conservation community, which feeds into the reporters narrative that the Sao Paulo meeting merely resulted in "....a marketing manual." I don't know if the reporter actually attended the Sao Paulo meeting, or if they have an understanding of the mission, vision, goals & objectives of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, however it appears as though their reporting was biased and either mistakenly or willfully failed to tell the whole story. Efforts to increase the sustainability of the food society eats are never easy and don't ever result in over night solutions. It's unfortunate that articles like this find fault in a single event rather report on the amazing circumstances that has created an opportunity for the conservation community to work with beef producers, processors and retailers to improve the sustainability of the global beef industry. Like it or not hundreds of millions of people eat beef every day, and there is a real and pressing need to improve the sustainability of beef production. Certainly the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef effort has to be about more than marketing, however to attempt to shoot down a broad based multi-stakeholder initiative, (exactly what is needed to solve the complex issues associated with beef production), through selective reporting is troubling.
chad Edward hatten