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What’s Really Green – A Look at Beef, Part V – How Can You Prove It? (i.e., Filter Out the Bull)

By 3p Contributor

By Jonathan Gelbard, Ph.D.

Previously, I explored impacts of poorly-managed grazing operations and feedlots, and triple bottom line benefits of good management. For buyers sourcing beef from well-managed ranches and farms, the next question for evaluating the credibility of related claims is, “How Can You Prove It?”

Here I provide an overview of types of certification and verification programs that you can use to distinguish credibly well-managed operations – and that producers and brands can use to verify their sustainability-related marketing claims. This is not a review of labels, but rather a summary of the current certification/verification landscape for beef.

Certifications & Other Eco-Labels – What Do They Really Mean?

First, it’s important to remember the limits of what eco-labels mean: each signifies compliance with a suite of requirements, which are often codified in a certification standard. For USDA labels (e.g., Organic certification, and process verifications such as Raised Without Antibiotics), USDA rules detail requirements. To understand what eco-labels mean, carefully read underlying standards or rules to determine whether they address the issues you care about.

Next, research how programs work – particularly scoring requirements. There are often “critical criteria” that operations must comply with – in some cases immediately, in others after a brief (e.g., 1-3 year) transition period. For non-critical criteria, it is not mandatory for producers to meet all of them to qualify for most labels – just enough to achieve the minimum score required. Thus even for certified beef, all the issues you care about may not be addressed – yet.

“Yet” because well-designed certification programs have continuous improvement requirements, which incentivize producers to remedy “issues of concern” that auditors identify. This is smart program design because it recognizes that most ranchers operate on thin margins and are extremely time-constrained, so it’s important not to let the perfect get in the way of the good. Collaborating with producers to achieve continuous improvement goals also shrinks the change of transitions to good management into small, confidence-building “wins” on the journey to (and beyond) certification.

Types of Certification & Verification Programs

There are different types of certification and verification programs, which vary in diversity of issues addressed (e.g., programs focused on single issues such as animal welfare, grassfed, or “raised without antibiotics”; organic; industry-affiliated programs; and comprehensive independent third-party sustainability certifications).

Single Issue Labels: Many labels focus on a specific issue of concern to consumers. A few examples include:

1) Raised Without Antibiotics and Hormones: Programs for verifying antibiotics-related claims vary in meaning, from animals that are “never-ever” fed antibiotics (if they get sick, they are removed from the program), to animals that only receive antibiotics when sick, not for “non-therapeutic” purposes (usually meaning when feedlots routinely provide antibiotics to animals that are not sick – often in feed or water – to prevent diseases and/or promote growth). Most of the below programs contain restrictions on antibiotics and growth promoters (including hormones and controversial beta-agonists), and USDA has process verification programs for claims of “raised without antibiotics” and “raised without the use of hormones.”

2) Certified Grassfed (e.g., the Grassfed Ruminant standard of the American Grassfed Association, certified grassfed by A Greener World (AGW), the discontinued USDA Process Verification for grassfed claims): These and other programs support “grassfed” labels, which as I described in Part II of this series may not mean what you picture. Some grassfed programs also include guidelines safeguarding animal welfare and/or land health.

3) Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) by AGW, Certified Humane, WholeFoods Five-Step Program: These and other animal welfare labels distinguish beef produced on operations that treat animals humanely, ensuring that they live quality lives with only one bad day at the end. They verify that farms meet thorough standards of animal welfare (e.g., Certified Humane’s beef cattle standard).

AWA’s standard for beef cattle and calves is rigorous, but its reach is limited because it requires continuous outdoor pasture access (so generally applies to operations that sell into grass-fed/pasture-raised supply chains, about 1-4% of U.S. beef sales). WholeFoods Global Animal Partnership (GAP) program rates meat according to five “steps” of increasingly stringent animal welfare requirements. However, the retailer’s beef purchasing standards include surprisingly few incentives to curtail water and air pollution, threats to wildlife and biodiversity, climate disruption, and mistreatment of farmers and workers.

4) Wildlife-Friendly, Predator-Friendly, Bird Friendly: These and other wildlife-related certification programs recognize operations that meet Wildlife-Friendly and Predator-Friendly standards, and Audubon’s new “Bird-friendly” conservation ranching standard. They distinguish ranches and farms that have implemented wildlife conservation management practices, and generated related results. As with the above programs, these labels are limited in scope, though some offer criteria or modules that address animal welfare and broader environmental sustainability concerns.

Organic & Regenerative Organic: The USDA Organic label distinguishes beef produced on ranches certified as meeting the Pasture Standard for Ruminant Organic Livestock. Requirements (summarized here) are largely inputs-based: e.g., no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, no antibiotics or hormones, no genetically modified or other prohibited feed ingredients. They also include a pasture management plan that addresses priorities such as soil health, water quality, pasture access, animal welfare, and well-managed grazing. No explicit requirements address cattle’s climate-disrupting methane and nitrous oxide emissions (though soil health, organic feed, and requirements including prohibitions against synthetic fertilizer promote carbon sequestration and reduce emissions). There are also no mandates for conserving biodiversity – the program provides related recommendations in its Guidance for Natural Resources and Biodiversity Conservation

Producers and buyers are aware of the gaps in the Organic pasture standard and some have expressed interest in an “Organic-Plus” label. The Rodale Institute, Patagonia, Dr. Bronner’s and others are developing a “Regenerative Organic” standard that starts with USDA Organic certification, and adds requirements for Soil Health and Land Management (mostly based on NRCS conservation practices, and soil health testing), Animal Welfare, and Farmer and Worker Fairness.

Industry Affiliated Programs

Several frameworks backed by the beef industry offer more or less comprehensive definitions of “sustainable” beef, guided by the Principles and Criteria of the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef.  The Canadian Roundtable on Sustainable Beef recently released a certification standard that is broad in scope, offering criteria in the principle areas of Natural Resources, People and the Community, Animal Health and Welfare, Food, and Efficiency and Innovation.

Natural Resources indicators require management planning in areas including grazing and nutrient management. Plans must address considerations such as soil health, water quality, air quality, climate-disrupting emissions, native ecosystems, and habitat for wildlife. The CRSB standard seems designed to “raise the floor” of management quality by recognizing continuous improvement of conventional producers. It could serve as a “stepping-stone” program that encourages certified producers to continue their sustainability journey via partnerships with independent, third-party sustainability certifiers.

The U.S. Roundtable on Sustainable Beef (USRSB) emphasizes that it, “will not mandate standards nor verify individual stakeholder performance”. Rather than offering label, it aims to “move the curve” advancing sustainability of the entire U.S. beef industry by developing indicators and metrics to track progress, and self assessment guides to assist producers in improving results. This is a similar approach to new USRSB partner, Field to Market, which monitors progress of priority indicators to advance sustainability of commodity crops including corn, a common livestock feed.

 Comprehensive Sustainability Certifications: Independent third-party sustainability certifications such as those offered by the Rainforest Alliance (which uses the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standard) and the Food Alliance distinguish the broadest array of positive outcomes. The Rainforest Alliance certifies tropical operations, while the Food Alliance – having certified over five million acres of U.S. farms – is supporting the introduction of the Grasslands Alliance’s outcomes-based sustainability standard, developed following ISEAL protocols.

Each of these comprehensive programs contains “Principles” that include some combination of (language varies slightly by standard):

  • Effective Planning and Management System;

  • Wildlife Habitat & Biodiversity Conservation;

  • Natural Resource Conservation (including soil health conservation and management, vegetation health, water quality and conservation, integrated pest management, and waste management);

  • Improved Livelihoods and Human Well Being; and

  • Humane Animal Care.

The Grasslands Alliance standard is the first to include “Climate Smart Ranching & Farming” at the principle level, and the latest SAN standard features a “Continuous Improvement Area” of “Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions”. Protocols of both the Grasslands Alliance and the Food Alliance include stringent “Nutrient Management” requirements that cover not only fertilizer application, but also manure management practices. The Grasslands Alliance is now inviting partners to collaborate on developing innovative certification, producer support, and monitoring and evaluation programs.

Also under development is the Savory Institute’s Land to Market initiative. This program aims to positively impact 1 billion hectares (2.5 billion acres) of grasslands through Holistic Management by 2025. Through a partnership between the Savory Institute and Michigan State University, the program will implement an “Ecological Outcome Verification” tool that involves, “robust measurements of key indicators of ecosystem health.


If you’re confused at this point, you’re not alone! One key takeaway is that you need to read a labeling program’s standards/rules to understand whether and how well it addresses the issues you care about.  It’s a lot of work, which is why many beef buyers (myself included) feel better served by comprehensive programs that cover all the issues we care about in a single label.

The certification landscape is also challenging for producers, who I’ve heard lament various versions of, “how many labels do I need to address all of my customers’ concerns? Every label is an application I need to fill out, an inspection I need to spend time on, and a certification fee I need to pay.”

That’s a good lead to the topics I’ll explore next: what are key barriers to advancing sustainability in the beef sector, and what are solutions to each barrier?

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.  


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