Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

leonkaye headshot

Will a Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef Matter?

Words by Leon Kaye

Are you concerned over the beef industry’s impact on the environment and animals? Never mind the fact that more land is used is used for animal pasture and to raise feed than to grow food for humans: A movement is underway to make beef more sustainable. Held in São Paulo, Brazil, last month, the major supporters of this conference included McDonald’s, Cargill and the animal pharmaceutical company Elanco. Over the course of four days, 300 attendees at the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) issued what the organization described as the “release of the first global definition for ‘sustainable beef’.”

The summary of what occurred in São Paulo will hardly endear the GRSB to advocates of a more plant-based diet and for an improved management of resources. The GRSB is actually pushing for the production of more beef, citing issues including food security, links between the consumption of animal protein and test scores and the need to do “more with less.” So brace yourself: In order to meet the demand of income and population growth, the planet will need to product 43 percent more beef by 2050. So exactly how will this be done?

The global beef industry will have to adopt a quintuple bottom line, according to the GRSB. After 18 months and several rounds of public comments, this coalition is asking the entire value chain to adhere to these five principles:

  • Natural resources: We have lots of buzzwords here: biodiversity, carbon sequestration, water recharge and resource use efficiency. Yes, the GRSB calls for native forests to be protected from deforestation, as well as for minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. Companies are urged to achieve “continuous improvement” and compliance with all local, national and international laws. (The issue of growing grain for cattle feed is barely addressed in any of GRSB’s documents, by the way. Do not count on a massive return to grass-fed beef anytime soon.).

  • People and the community: The respect for human rights and diversity is part of this clarion call. Businesses are urged to conduct themselves with integrity, and for a legal minimum wage (where applicable, mind you). Land rights, a huge issue hobbling agribusiness the past several years, is also on this agenda.

  • Animal welfare: A balanced diet, adequate water and feed to meet cattle’s physiological needs and health care are central to ensuring animals’ welfare. A “competent person” should be available to gauge whether sick or injured cattle should be nursed back to health or euthanized, and cattle stress should also be “minimized.”

  • Food: The “continuous improvement” mantra continues here, as companies in the entire beef supply chain should be vigilant in ensuring beef quality while reducing contamination and waste.

  • Efficiency and innovation: This could cause some head scratching, as earlier principles discussed animal welfare, but this principle is focused on efficiency. “Product value and carcass utilization” are to be maximized across the entire value chain, and all stakeholders within the beef industry are urged to “innovate.”

Peruse GRSB’s website and decide for yourself whether this is a step forward for an industry that is often cited as a bigger polluter worldwide than the globe’s entire transport sector. Or is this another public relations move to put a kinder, more responsible face on the world’s beef producers? Whether GRSB really can help address the challenges the world faces as it seeks to feed nine billion people by 2050 remains to be seen. Get past the wonky prose on the site, however, and you can see where this coalition will be directing much of its communication. After all, as quoted during the conference, “being transparent with the consumer is the language of trust,” and to that end, communication sustainability with that huge customer segment, millennials, will be high on the agenda.

Do you think beef has a future in a more crowded world? In your opinion, what must the industry do in order to become more socially responsible and sustainable? One result is clear: the clunky prose dished out by the GRSB will give its adversaries, such as PETA, more ammunition in the continuing fight over the meat industry.

Leon Kaye is based in California and most recently worked for a renewable energy investment company in the Middle East. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter. Other thoughts of his are on his site, greengopost.com.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye

More stories from Energy & Environment