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What’s Really “Green” in the Confusing World of Beef Marketing Claims?

By 3p Contributor

By Jonathan L. Gelbard, Ph.D.

In my previous post, I described general categories of greenwash common in beef marketing. Here, I dig deeper to (a) illustrate limitations of green claims that are common in the sector, and (b) raise awareness among beef marketers of how to communicate environmental claims in an accurate, transparent, and verifiable manner.

I want to emphasize that I don’t see most greenwash in the beef sector as deliberate. Rather, it seems that many beef marketers simply lack:

  • Scientific expertise needed to accurately communicate about whether and how beef is produced in a manner that verifiably minimizes key supply chain hot spots, and

  • Green marketing expertise in how to substantiate green claims.

In addition, they are not taking advantage of the best tool to avoid greenwash: Comprehensive sustainability standards and independent, third-party auditing and certification.

Here’s a few of the most common examples that I’ve encountered, and limitations of each claim:

Produced on “Sustainable” or “Regenerative” Ranches/Farms: What are examples of measurable, verifiable attributes that justify the “sustainable” or “regenerative” claim? What certification(s) or other forms of evidence verify the claim? 

Regenerative, a new claim associated with hot trends in food, has no consensus definition in the beef marketplace. An increasing number of producers claim to use regenerative practices. However, there is no consistency regarding what it means, or evidence to support the claim.  According to some proponents, simple “pasturing of animals raised for meat is considered to be a regenerative system of production.” However, narrow “grass-fed” and “pasture-raised” claims fail to verify whether grazing is well-managed. Regenerative capitalism advocates offer a definition of being more in tune with Nature than “sustainable.” However, there are not yet standards that codify what regenerative grazing means in terms of verifiable on-the-ground results. The beef marketplace needs such standards to help buyers recognize credibly regenerative ranchers.

Grass-fed, pasture-raised, free-range: Terms like “grass-fed” and “pasture-raised” refer to whether the beef comes from cows that were “finished” (i.e., spent the last few months of their lives) grazing grass (and other plants) on ranches rather than eating grains in feedlots. It’s important to remember that all beef cattle spend the first half to two-thirds of their lives grazing (see this infographic of the beef product lifecycle).

  • An important question to ask is “certified grass-fed/pasture-raised by whom?”. Too many brands don’t specify. In some cases, these labels mean what you picture. In other cases, claims are misleading because they allow producers to feed animals manufactured grass pellets and cereal grain crops (like corn) in the pre-grain state. Is that what you picture when you buy beef labeled “grass-fed” or “pasture-raised?”

  • Even worse, the “Pasture-Crafted” beef marketed by Cargill is “grass fed grain finished, guaranteed tender and traceable to birth on sustainably operated ranches.”  Since “grass-fed, grain-finished” also describes conventional beef, and there is little transparency regarding how Cargill defines and verifies its “sustainably operated” claim, I worry that this product is just “beef: with adjectives”.

  • The scope of benefits provided by grass-fed and pasture-raised beef is largely limited to “feedlot free.” These attributes help buyers avoid contributing to the alarming environmental, public health, animal welfare, and community impacts of industrial livestock production. Yet they fail to answer critical questions about whether the grazing operation was well-managed, such as:

    • Are grasses and soils healthy or is the ranch overgrazed?

    • Are streams clean, or are cows defecating in the water, harming fish and wildlife and posing health risks to families swimming downstream?

    • Does the ranch manage with nature by coexisting with wildlife, or are managers shooting and/or poisoning predators and iconic species such as wolves and bison?

    • Are healthy plants and soils sequestering heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) deep into the soil, or are degraded, eroding soils losing carbon as CO2 emissions?

The answers to these and other questions are important not only from an environmental standpoint. There’s also a powerful business case for well-managed ranching.  This is one reason why grass-finished beef from verifiably well-managed ranches is my gold standard. It’s just frustratingly hard to find what I’m looking for unless I’ve visited the ranch and confirmed it’s well-managed. The certification that would comprehensively address my concerns is not yet commercially available (the Grasslands Alliance piloted their standard on multiple working ranches and posted it for public comment).

Local, Farm to Table, From a Local Family Farm: I love local food and family farms, but distance and farm size alone tell us nothing about whether beef was produced on well-managed vs. poorly-managed operations. 

Humanely-Raised, High Animal Welfare: For most working to advance beef sustainability, it is critical to treat animals humanely so that they have wonderful lives and “only one bad day”. Yet like “grass-fed”, animal welfare claims (for example Whole Foods’ 5-Step Ratings) tell us about only a narrow subset of management practices. They don’t address most other impacts of poorly-managed operations, such as those to soil health, water quality, land and wildlife conservation, climate-disrupting pollution, and treatment of farm workers.

Natural: This claim means nothing in terms of real, measurable benefits.  What are specific attributes that justify the claim? What evidence verifies it?  In some cases, “Natural” means “Hormone free” and/or “Raised without antibiotics”. Buyer beware – read the label carefully.

“From a holistically managed ranch” or “We use rotational g razing”: Holistic management is a decision-making framework that producers can use to adaptively manage their operation. Many “regenerative” ranchers practice some form of Holistic Management (as defined by Allan Savory of the Savory Institute) without accepting all of Savory’s scientifically dubious grand claims. These claims have inflamed conservationists for decades (e.g., see this response by eminent scientists to Savory’s 2013 TED talk). It will take a separate post to cover the intricacies of both this controversial topic and the related scientific debate about whether and under what conditions rotational grazing can generate triple bottom line benefits (See, e.g., Part I, Part II, Part IV of “The Rotational Grazing Debate”; and recent pieces here, here, and this journal issue). It’s an important scientific storyline to follow given its implications for accurate, transparent beef marketing.

Whatever management approach ranchers find to best suit their situation, I just want to see scientifically-sound (and ideally independent, third-party) proof that it generates the claimed benefits. You can hear my nuanced insights regarding environmental and social benefits of Holistic Management starting at 32:20 of this podcast.

Climate crisis-related claims (e.g., “Our grazing practices sequester carbon”): Depending on a ranch’s climate, soils, and land use history, well-managed grazing can sequester at least some carbon into soils AND improve resilience to drought. Carbon-related claims should be accurately communicated, with supporting evidence.

Beware grand claims about well-managed grazing being a “silver bullet” capable of reversing global warming. In a 2014 article exploring many benefits of soil carbon, esteemed scientist, H.H. Janzen, concluded that carbon sequestration has the potential to remove only about 5% of current fossil carbon emissions from the air. Echoing findings from multiple other studies, he stated that, “global soil carbon sequestration can, in theory, contribute significantly to CO2 mitigation, but the benefit may never be prominent and is better seen as one among many incremental ‘wedges’ in a portfolio of multiple mitigation practices enacted together (Pacala and Socolow 2004; Del Grosso and Cavigelli 2012).”

In other words, current scientific consensus is to view management practices that sequester carbon as an important “slice of the emissions reduction pie”, but not “the whole pie”.

Another climate crisis-related claim that beef marketers like to make is that because U.S. beef is responsible for only a small percent of America’s heat-trapping emissions, it is “sustainable”. Does the fact that beef production is responsible for a low percentage of U.S. emissions also mean that it generates a sufficiently low amount of emissions to qualify as “sustainable”? Or is the percentage simply low in relation to the high emissions of the U.S. energy and transportation sectors?

It turns out that the way most beef is produced in America still generates an exceptionally high amount of climate-disrupting emissions in relation to most other kinds of food. According to the EPA Greenhouse Gas Inventory, beef’s emissions from cattle burping and manure alone (about 128 MMT CO2 eq/yr-1, which does not include feed crop production) are greater than those of many countries. Clearly, this “sustainable” claim qualifies as greenwash.

While legitimate debate continues over many of these issues, there is growing consensus on what constitutes “sustainable” beef in the marketplace.  In the next post in this series, I’ll introduce a science-based framework for understanding your beef-related green purchasing choices.

Jonathan L. Gelbard, Ph.D. is Principal and Senior Conservation Scientist at Conservation Value Solutions. As a researcher, writer, speaker, and advisor, he digs deep to identify root causes of problems, and catalyzes transformative solutions. Dr. Gelbard was Senior Scientist at the Grasslands Alliance, a partnership between NGO’s, certifiers and ranchers that developed and piloted a comprehensive certification standard for U.S. and Canadian beef cattle and bison grazing operations. The Grasslands Alliance is currently fundraising to support its development of certification and continuous improvement programs. Click here to learn more.  

Image credit: Flickr / Rusty Clark

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