U.S. Roundtable on Sustainable Beef: What’s the Beef

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By Danika Carter

The industrial beef industry has had it up to “here” with all the questions from consumers. How do confined feedlots impact water and soil health? Are cows supposed to eat corn? How much land and water is necessary to raise beef? What are the health impacts of  hormone and antibiotics use?

They are taking matters into their own hands. The industry formed the U.S. Roundtable on Sustainable Beef and this group held their first General Assembly last week in Denver just before the annual Cattlemen’s Conference.

To kick things off, the board’s interim chair Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, VP & U.S. managing director of Cargill value-added meats, McDonald’s business unit, noted that the USRSB is “a multi-stakeholder effort. This is not an effort that will represent only one viewpoint. It won’t result in all of us agreeing and that’s terrific.” She called for divergent views, lively discussions and a collective effort to work through obstacles and build consensus. “This will not be an effort by industry, special interest or community. This will be an effort by all of us.”

It is both admirable and necessary that the beef industry is taking on the issue of sustainability. However, given Johnson-Hoffman’s comments about bringing together beef stakeholders, there are a number of groups notably absent from the USRSB meeting. There were no representatives of organic and natural producers, advocates nor certifying agencies. Nor was the American Grassfed Association in attendance.

As an attendee, I heard many derisive comments about “foodies,” “hipsters” and organic advocates — the deeper green and natural advocates that push for the changes the cattlemen are now making. For example, Leanne Saunders of Where Food Comes From referred to certifications like organic, Angus, and grass-fed, as only having niche appeal, and actually said that organic certification is “talking to the hairy women in the room.”

Retailers on the USRSB board of directors hail from Walmart and McDonald’s. There were no retailers of natural and organic foods even in attendance, let alone on the board. The environmental organizations involved are the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy, both of which have been criticized for being too close to industry.

The concern about who to include extended to NGOs. Jason Hitch, CEO & Chairman of Hitch Enterprises, Inc, a beef producer with two feedlots and 110,000 head of cattle, suggested that advocacy groups such as the Humane Society and Peta be excluded from participation in the USRSB because they seek the complete and total “destruction of the beef industry.” “If you want producers to be involved,” he exclaimed, “these groups can’t be involved.” Having groups like this in the room might discourage producers from speaking candidly.

To this concern, Johnson-Hoffman noted that everyone who joins USRSB must be in alignment with the vision and mission of the organization (producing sustainable beef) and be willing to work towards that goal. If not, this may not be the group for them. However, she also noted that it’s important that the USRSB hear from its biggest critics in order to grow. She made it very clear — she wants to hear these voices. So it will be interesting to see which of the deeper green organizations can have their memberships approved by the Board of Directors.

Some of the biggest critics of industrial beef production and feedlots comes from small advocacy groups and individuals — groups that might struggle to pay the $1000 annual membership fee to join the USRSB, even if they were to be welcomed into the group. All members of the USRSB are encouraged to join one of 3 working groups. Being a part of a working group does not require membership in the USRSB, which may make it easier for smaller organizations to be a part of the conversation and have their voice heard.

Several speakers and attendees commented that all ranchers and farmers are sustainable by the nature of what they do and by their mere existence. “Sustainability is what ranchers do every day,” says Johnson-Hoffman. They must protect the land or their operations will cease to exist. According to Billy Cook, Ph.D., senior VP and division director of the agricultural division of The Samuel Roberts Nobel Foundation, “Producers have long talked about land stewardship, but they didn’t realize that what they were doing was practicing sustainability.”

It’s clear that the USRSB’s job is not to tell the industry what to do. It is to help industry define sustainability as it’s related to the beef value chain for itself, tell producer and industry stories, educate producers, and share best practices.

It’s no longer workable for producers to keep the details of their operations private and expect consumers to trust that they are running a sustainable operation. Consumers want documentation, verification and proof.

This is an exciting time for consumers and advocates who want their food produced in a sustainable fashion. This is the time for everyone interested in sustainable beef to join the conversation and have their voice and perspective heard and included. It will be interesting to watch this project and see how the USRSB defines sustainability and which voices are included, and which are excluded.

Danika Carter is a freelance writer, social media manager and host of #EcoWed (Eco-Wednesday) Twitter parties. She writes frequently on issues of green living, eco-beauty, holistic health. She is an avid investigator of household and cosmetic chemicals. You can follow her at @YourOrganicLife.

Image credit: U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef

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