The production of everyday commodities, such as palm oil, seafood and timber can have a huge impact on the environment, affecting biodiversity, water and the climate.
The beef industry, is one of the sectors with the highest environmental impact due to the imbalances between the input required to produce the end product – the meat we eat. Producing of one kilogram of beef can take up to 15,000 litres of water – of which 13,950 litres is rainfall falling on grassland or crops – and requires 2.8 kilograms of human edible feed. It also requires 28 times more land than pork or chicken and results in five times more climate-warming emissions. The development of sustainable beef is crucial to establishing a secure food system in the future; one that creates value for people and the environment.
As part of a thought-provoking new series, The Future of Commodities, Ruaraidh Petre, Executive Director of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) shares insights on how this multi-stakeholder platform is working to drive change in the beef supply chain.
1. What is the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and why was it established?
The GRSB is a multi-stakeholder initiative created in 2012 with representation throughout the beef supply chain as well as civil society. We are focused on continuous improvements in the sustainability of the beef industry and envision a world in which all aspects of the beef industry are environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable.
The impetus came from a core group of leading processors, retailers and civil society organisations that recognised there can be negative impacts from beef expansion and that these can be most effectively addressed through a multi-stakeholder platform.
2. How is the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef scaling impact in the beef industry?
Our strategic plan aims to expand reach and impact. We help initiate discussions in producer countries to establish or link to existing Roundtables locally such as in Brazil, Canada or China.
There is still much to be done across of the globe. Our Director for Latin America continues to develop relationships with new countries – Mexico and Honduras are the most likely next candidates.
3. What are some of the main lessons learnt along the way?
Building trust takes time. It’s very important to have good participation of producers from the formation stage onwards.
There is no one size that fits all approaches – both in terms of structures to act as national organisations, and in terms of sustainability solutions to be implemented. This is in fact why we came up with the “roundtable of roundtables” approach – environments, production systems and legislatory framework all vary too much to make a standard solution that works everywhere.
Our concerns in high income countries are very different from those of low and middle-income countries. It’s very important to separate the concerns of activists who tend to have a very “high income” perspective, from those of the majority of the world’s population. That is not to disregard the issues raised by activists, but it is important to recognise that their “solutions” are often very far from realistic or even applicable in many situations. The media, and particularly social media is dominated by a very narrow range of interests, and due to confirmation bias, many of the people involved have only ever heard one side of the discussion.
4. How do you track progress to ensure change is being driven across the whole beef supply chain – from improved farmer livelihoods to increased consumer awareness?
This is a function of each of the local roundtables. This year, we are piloting our reporting framework for the first time with the Canada, US, Brazil and Europe roundtables. We will collect both quantitative and qualitative data on the actions they are taking following our Principles and Criteria. This first year is a test for the reporting framework itself, but we also expect get useable information to identify which of our criteria are most practical to address and which need revision (due in 2019).
It will also create a baseline for GRSB, against which we can map our P&C with sustainable development targets, such as corporate commitments or the SDGs. We expect this to help direct our own ambitions for the coming years. A parallel piece of work taking place this year, is to collect global publicly available data on the performance of the beef industry, against which we can track our progress in years to come using the national RT reporting.
5. What does a ‘climate-smart’ future for beef look like?
One of the most positive aspects for the beef industry is that the soils of grazing and rangelands are already the largest carbon sink that we can directly influence. Maintaining soil quality and protecting it from degradation is therefore of key importance – degraded soils (and most arable land) are net sources of emissions, whereas healthy soils are sinks.
In some areas of the globe, especially in South America, zero net deforestation is a very significant path to become more climate-smart.
Enteric methane emissions attract a lot of attention in the media, as methane is a strong, though short term GHG. There is already a body of knowledge and ongoing research into reducing enteric emissions. Diet, forage species, feed additives and genetics can all play a role. With currently available techniques, it is possible (not yet always economically feasible) to reduce enteric emissions by up to 80%.
Our member roundtables are all addressing climate change in one way or another. For example, the USRSB (United States Roundtable for Sustainable Beef), McDonald’s and Arizona State University have just established a sizeable research project to look at Adaptive Multi-Paddock grazing in the US. Another member, the Savory Institute is implementing holistic grazing projects around the world through their network of hubs.
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