McDonald’s and Harvey’s are now serving ‘sustainable beef’— but what exactly does that mean?


By Wayne Roberts, Corporate Knights Magazine

via The Toronto Star (Canada) - Dec. 1, 2019


You may not have heard of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, but if you’ve had a burger at McDonald’s or Harvey’s lately, you might have eaten beef that’s been certified sustainable by the Calgary-based multi-stakeholder Roundtable.


McDonald’s became the first company in Canada to serve up a portion of its Angus burgers (at least 30 per cent) from certified sources last year. Then Harvey’s began partnering with the Roundtable in August for its Original Burgers, joining A&W, Earls, Cactus Club Cafe and other food outlets in an effort to serve more environmentally responsible beef.


The fact that these restaurant chains are concerned about sustainable beef is welcome news. But what exactly is sustainable beef? The devil is in the details, and a closer look at the requirements imposed by the Roundtable reveals that they can be hazy and rife with loopholes.


The cattle conundrum


Beef cattle have been the bêtes noires of environmental movements for almost half a century.


Frances Moore Lappé skewered them in her bestseller of the 1970s, Diet for a Small Planet. She noted that it takes at least seven pounds of high-quality staples to produce one pound of grain-fed beef, in effect manufacturing scarcity and contributing to global hunger.


More recently, cattle have become symbols of consumer excess in the age of global warming. Our beef habit has been blamed for the carbon dioxide released when grasslands and forests in the Brazilian Amazon — long revered as the mainstay of global climate stability — are uprooted to grow soybeans for animal feed.


On top of that, the digestive systems of the animals themselves deserve part of the responsibility for the release of methane — a gas with more than 20 times the global-warming impact of carbon dioxide. Although scientific studies vary considerably in their estimates, cows and steers are said to account for two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions coming from livestock. Raising animals for meat is said to be responsible for some 14.5 per cent of all human-caused global warming emissions, similar to the share of emissions that come from cars.


Booming sales of dairy and beef imitations are a sign of increased intentions to break loose from those environmental impacts and from the health concerns tied to eating red meat. Little wonder that beef sales are facing a decline in Canada.


All of which has prompted Canada’s beef industry to respond. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association formed an alliance — the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef or CRSB — with McDonald’s Canada, Costco, Loblaws, the World Wildlife Fund and beef suppliers Cargill and JBS to “legitimize sustainable beef production in the public eye and underpin producers’ social licence to operate.”


To its credit, several aspects of the CRSB’s work go beyond hot air to grapple with issues of sustainability. The Roundtable deserves recognition for defining and benchmarking several pivotal and measurable sustainability challenges. It accepts the wide breadth of a “triple bottom line” approach and recognizes that sustainability is not as one-dimensional as reducing waste or greenhouse gases.


“Consumers are increasingly inquisitive about the food they’re eating and want to know it was produced in a socially responsible, economically viable and environmentally sound manner,” rancher Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, founding chair of the CRSB, said in a statement last summer.


To be deemed sustainable, ranchers and processors must show progress on issues such as soil health, water conservation, biodiversity, animal welfare and workers’ rights. From farm to fork, the Roundtable commits to delivering a product that “prioritizes planet, people, animals and progress.”


Green beef full of bull? ...


Smaller is better ...


Regenerative ranching ...