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Leon Kaye headshot

The Global Effort to Make Beef More Sustainable

By Leon Kaye

As society tries to find new solutions to feed a growing population that could soar to 9 billion by 2050, meat consumption is one of the largest obstacles to a more resilient global food supply.

The growing worldwide middle class, and its demand for more protein, is seen as one of society's biggest long-term environmental challenges. Plenty of reports, including this recent one by the World Resources Institute, posit that a reduction in meat consumption — especially beef -- and eating less dairy is crucial in order to guarantee that the world develops a more sustainable diet.

One country, Denmark, has even suggested a tax on red meat. Such an idea would trigger guffaws in countries such as Argentina and Uruguay, the economies of which were built on the global demand for beef.

The global beef industry has taken notice of the shifting market, and companies across its value chain have formed a coalition, the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB). This organization, which includes growers, producers, restaurants and retailers, promises an agenda of “continuous improvement in sustainability” that it says will ensure the industry will become more environmentally responsible, socially conscious and economically viable.

To learn more about the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef and its aims, 3p spoke with the organization's executive director, Ruaraidh Petre, by telephone while he was traveling in Europe.

Petre spent almost his entire adulthood working within farming and the meat industry in one role or another. He first started as a farmhand in northwestern Australia before he moved to Scotland, where he became a farm manager on an estate that raised both sheep and cattle.

His work with various NGOs within the global livestock industry took him to places including Afghanistan, Tibet, India, Tanzania and what is now South Sudan. He eventually became a regional director in southern Africa for the nonprofit Solidaridad, an organization that works to develop socially and environmentally responsible supply chains in developing countries. And over the past four years, he has become GRSB’s executive director, working from his home base in the Netherlands.

Having spent much time on the ground within the livestock industry, his experience leaves him convinced that, despite the beef industry’s large global impact, the sector is best served by having advocacy organizations work at a national or regional level, Petre explained.

The GRSB serves as an advisory body, offering assistance on anything, including developing standards or writing bylaws, to kindred organizations in countries such as Brazil, Canada and the U.S. “Issues in one country are different from another country,” Petre told 3p. “Our job at GRSB is to make sure there are benchmarks and a global view of sustainability issues in general, and to ensure that there is progress.”

Ruaraidh Petre: Each country has its own challenges when it comes to beef

In Brazil and emerging beef markets such as Paraguay, deforestation is the biggest challenge. In the U.S., the amount of grain required to feed cattle riles many critics of this country’s beef industry.

And from the GRSB’s perspective, these environmental and social challenges, while very real, are not necessarily black-and-white. Take Brazil, where GRSB has worked with Aliança da Terra, a civil organization that represents thousands of beef producers in Latin America’s largest economy. Indeed, vast swathes of Brazilian land have been lost to cattle ranching. “But it’s important to remember that this land was cleared for cattle, not crops,” Petre insisted, “because for many of these people, that was the cheapest thing to do in order to make a living.”

After many forests in Brazil were felled to raise cattle, that land eventually became treated with phosphates, lime and other soil enrichments in order to grow crops such as soy and cotton. “We recognize the scale of the problem, but it is important to remember that from the locals’ perspective, this was all part of economic development,” Petre said. “Of course we do not want to cut down trees, but if you do not offer an alternative for these people, you’re not going to stop it.”

Aliança da Terra’s partnership with GRSB has resulted in several benefits, Petre told us, some of which include better land-management systems, improved fencing, more resilient grasses and better quality cattle. From Petre’s point of view, while that forest may not reappear, that land at least can be put into better use as pasture land, instead of growing crops that do little but exhaust the soil — and hence continues to feed the deforestation frenzy.

When grazing is the best option: Local economies and healthy soil

It is that related issue, land use, that Petre and the GRSB insist is deserving of a more nuanced discussion.

Ten years ago, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a report outlining what it said was the global livestock industry’s disturbing environmental impact. Depending on the source cited, anywhere from 25 percent to 40 percent of the earth’s surface is devoted to the livestock industry (the FAO estimate is 30 percent).

But Petre’s response is that we need to do more than simply look at land-use statistics. “We’re talking about a long-term carbon management cycle,” Petre explained. “Managed properly, the raising of cattle ensures that carbon stays in the soil.

“You can’t do that with many crops, which require highly intensive fertilizers in the soil. If you at least rotate between grazing and cropping or go for a complete grazing system, you can slow down that erosion. And if you manage it really well, you can increase the rate at which that soil can sequester carbon,” he continued.

Rather than focus on the amount of land, laser in on how that land is managed, Petre averred during our conversation.

Take Scotland, where Petre worked for several years. Much of the country receives at least 200 days of rain annually. “You can try growing crops, but you won’t have high yields,” he said, “so you are much better off raising cows and sheep in Scotland than many crops.” The solution is to ensure that cows are not over-grazing and that ranchers and herders are careful stewards of the land, so that the soil can hold that precipitation for the long term and therefore prevent the devastating effects of erosion.

Then there is the opposite problem in the dry climates of southern Africa, as in Namibia and Botswana. “Down there, the crops are irrigated, and you are going to run out of water,” Petre explained. “You may as well produce something that can survive on grass, which is why in addition to this region, the steppes in Asia, savannas in Africa, the pampas in Argentina — these areas are not good for raising crops, but cattle can be part of grass-based ecosystems with less of an impact on local water supplies.”

But what about grain-fed beef?

At that point I interjected: But most beef in Canada and the U.S. is grain-fed, and we are devoting land to produce grain to feed livestock. So, how can the beef industry and all of these sustainable roundtables reconcile the environmental differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef?

“That’s an interesting point,” he replied, “but the world is never as simple as we’d like it to be. Even grain-fed cattle have a diet of 80 to 85 percent roughage, in other words, grasses. And as cattle on such a diet, remember they are eating the whole plant, not just the grains or kernels.”

Indeed, part of the issue with grain-fed cattle in North America is that the production of grain is subsidized by the Canadian and U.S. federal governments. But at the same time, grain-fed beef is the reality on this side of the pond because of consumer preference.

Feeding cattle grain during the last three to four months of their life cycle allows for that marbling and fat that both chefs and consumers covet. Grain allows that fattening process to occur faster, more efficiently and with less energy — with the caveat, of course, that while purely grass-fed cattle consume only grass and therefore, sun, their grain-fed cousins require more inputs.

“But you can finish raising the cattle faster, and actually produce lower greenhouse gas emissions if you finish on grain,” Petre told us. If you’re looking at energy consumption in its entirety, not just by sources such as conventional fuels versus the sun, the energy density required by grain-fed cows is lower, he insisted.

The bottom line

The argument over the benefits as opposed to the pitfalls of the global beef industry will not end anytime soon. But nevertheless, Petre and the GRSB are in this for the long haul.

This organization, Petre emphasized, is committed to collecting data from various beef-producing countries over the next few years so that they can have this baseline information and share it with their stakeholders. National sustainability organizations in large beef producers, including Australia, the U.S. and Canada, are working on lifecycle analyses so everyone can see where more improvement can be made. And as far as labor and human rights fare, Petre said the GRSB and all national boards need to be committed to the Ruggie Principles espoused by the United Nations.

On the ground, Petre described new best practices that he sees as empowering. The GRSB’s outreach, along with programs run by its partners, have resulted in more land managers becoming increasingly careful stewards of their land as they ensure that the grasses and grains consumed by their cattle are more optimized than ever before. He’s seen more meat-packers become more conscious about recycling water while reducing the amount of packaging they use.

And while emerging beef producers, such as Paraguay and Colombia, present their own set of environmental challenges, Petre told us he looks forward to developing relationships within these markets in order to ensure that the beef industry continues to provide stable employment and cautious land management.

Much will be required of the roundtable in order to change the hearts and minds of many who have already decided that a conversation including both sustainability and the beef industry is, quite simply, a non-starter.

But these discussions are well worth having, and the GRSB is on a strong start by having this 28-year veteran of the livestock industry, who has spent far more time in the pasture than in the corner office, at the helm of this organization. They'll need it if this sector is going to stay relevant during the 21st century.

Image credits: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshot

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