What is “Sustainable” Beef?

January 30, 2014

We've heard that beef production can take quite a toll on the planet, so should consumers be asking not which products are sustainable, but which ones are more sustainable?

Originally published on Food, Nutrition & Science.

In a recent episode of the TV hit sitcomModern Family, one of the main character’s neighbors scolded him for being less than “green." While Mitch offered up the fact that he is an environmental lawyer who recycles and drives a Prius, his neighbor one-upped him with his solar-powered house, biodiesel-fueled car and cactus-landscaped yard. Which neighbor was living a more sustainable lifestyle? It depends on your definition of the word “sustainable” itself.

Sustainability is no longer a label that we can simply slap on products in the name of being green or earth conscious or globally responsible. It’s an important aspect of the food industry that affects each aspect of production, from farm to table, ensuring there will be enough resources to feed future generations. Many companies have restructured their businesses to reflect these needs and their sustainability methods span the gamut, from reducing water waste and improving energy efficiency to recycling internal memos or converting to email.

But when it comes to defining sustainable beef, it’s another matter entirely. Matthew Prescott, Food Policy Director for the Humane Society of the United States, says that it’s difficult to pinpoint what is “sustainable” when it comes to food products because the scale is so relative. When it comes to beef, grass-fed cows, for example, are certainly better for the planet (and animal welfare) than grain-fed feedlot cows, because it takes so much land, water and energy to produce grain compared to growing grass. But beef cattle, even those on grass, can still sometimes be quite a burden on the planet and wildlife in certain circumstances. 

Making the scale even more relative, both types of beef production are typically more environmentally damaging than producing meat-free proteins, which typically require fewer resources. So the question consumers ought to ask, says Prescott, is not which products are “sustainable” or “unsustainable” but which products, of those offered to them, are “more sustainable” or better yet, the “most sustainable.” 

Additional complications come from the fact that meat production is incredibly fragmented. Farmers and ranchers may raise animals that they own, but who are slaughtered and packaged in facilities owned by large companies. Or they may just own their land and, in the case of cows, feedlots, but the animals themselves may be owned by other companies; and sometimes, the slaughter facilities are owned by yet another. All of this segmentation up and down the supply system makes it hard to standardize criteria surrounding issues like sustainability, food safety or animal well-being. And then there’s the matter of cost.

Study after study shows that consumers want the products they’re buying to be produced under higher animal welfare and environmental standards. Sometimes, tackling these matters can cost a little bit extra, and the consumer can be asked to pay a little more. For example, switching to cage-free eggs may cost a bit more, but there are fewer hidden costs – like less animal cruelty and less Salmonella risk. Other times, like in some cases of animal welfare, modernizing facilities to treat animals better can be an economic win-win. Dozens of food retailers, for example, have demanded better animal treatment in their supply chains, making meat products produced under better conditions more prevalent in the market place, and therefore less costly,” says Prescott.

McDonald’s announced recently their commitment to purchase “verified sustainable beef” starting in 2016 following a two-year examination of what exactly defines sustainable beef through the collaboration of several stakeholders across the industry. This is important, because McDonald’s sells 1 billion pounds of beef annually in the U.S. In 2011, McDonald’s joined with World Wildlife Fund and other beef suppliers to create a Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. This organization is currently working to draft guiding principles and best practices for beef production.

“It’ll certainly be interesting to see what changes the Roundtable produces,” says Prescott. “It’s promising that environmental organizations are decently-represented on the Roundtable, along with major meat producers and fast food outlets. If nothing else, when stakeholders of varying goals and disciplines sit down to engage in dialogue around these important issues, a deeper understanding of the issues may emerge for all parties, guiding the further development of standards and best practices.” 

Meat production standards may certainly continue to improve as consumers demand change. At the same time, there is much discussion over shifting our protein focus to plants. Bill Gates’ new Future of Food program – all about the need for humanity to center plant proteins more squarely on the plate – notes that only about eight percent of all the world’s possible plant proteins have even been explored in terms of creating delicious, meaty, yet meat-free, foods that are healthy, sustainable and protein-packed. Along with Gates, PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel is backing a company called Hampton Creek (read our interview with Hampton Creek here), which is making mayo and other products that ordinarily contain eggs through yellow peas and other “clean” plant proteins. So while animal production standards will likely continue improving as the consumer learns more about how meat is produced today, the shift toward a more plant-centric diet may firmly take root over the next five to ten years.  

The food industry has been, and will continue to be, hands-on when it comes to these issues. And doing so makes good sense. Technomic found, for example, that consumers rank animal welfare and the environment high on their list of priorities when it comes to their purchasing decisions. Citigroup found that failing to address animal welfare presents a ‘headline risk’ to food companies, and the World Bank reports that doing so can put companies at a ‘competitive disadvantage’ in the global marketplace. So it has become a bottom line imperative for food retailers to proactively address these types of issues,” adds Prescott.