The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB), a diverse organization seeking consensus GRSB makes progress toward framework for sustainable beefon sustainability issues, this week released a draft document outlining “Principles and Criteria for Global Sustainable Beef.” The draft document is open for public comment through May 16.

GRSB’s membership includes conservation groups, producer associations including the NCBA, retailers and companies providing products and services to the global beef industry. Founding members include McDonald’s, Cargill, Elanco, JBS, Merck Animal Health, Wal-Mart and the World Wildlife Fund. From its inception, GRSB prescribed to the “triple bottom line” approach in defining sustainability, meaning a a sustainable beef system must be environmentally sound, economically viable and socially responsible.

In November 2010, the roundtable organized an international conference in Denver, which drew about 300 participants including producers, packers, retailers, restaurateurs, environmentalists, scientists and others. During that conference, much of the discussion centered on the difficultly of defining sustainability and quantifying sustainable or non-sustainable beef-production practices. The draft principles and criteria represent a step toward those goals.

The document includes five “principles,” and lays out several broad concepts or criteria for sustainable practices within each. The principles are:

  • Natural resources – Global sustainable beef stakeholders produce beef in a manner that identifies and manages natural resources responsibly and maintains or enhances the health of ecosystems.
  • People and community – Global sustainable beef stakeholders protect and respect human rights, and recognize the critical roles that all participants within the beef value chain play in their community regarding culture, heritage, employment, land rights and health.
  • Animal health and welfare – Global sustainable beef stakeholders respect and manage animals to ensure their health and welfare.
  • Food – Global sustainable beef stakeholders ensure the safety and quality of beef products and utilize information-sharing systems that promote beef sustainability.
  • Efficiency and innovation – Global sustainable beef stakeholders encourage innovation, optimize production, reduce waste and add to economic viability.

The document intentionally does not, however, delve into specific practices, indicators or metrics for measuring or rating sustainability within a beef-production system. “The reason for this is that the broad range of ecosystems in which beef can be produced makes a “one-size-fits-all” global standard unrealistic,” the authors note. GRSB members intend for national and regional groups to use the principles and criteria to develop context-specific recommendations for practices and measurements of sustainability that fit within their production environments.

Toward that goal, they hope to harmonize GRSB efforts with other initiatives with efforts such as creation and support of information-sharing platforms that provide decision-making tools for beef value chain participants, establishment of pilot projects that link value chain partners to promote the scaling and widespread adoption of best practices and establishment of a global benchmarking program.

Many producers here and elsewhere undoubtedly wish the issue of sustainability would just go away, but it isn’t going anywhere and will intensify over time. It is in the best interest of beef producers and the industry overall to take ownership of the issue, rather than allow extreme animal-rights or environmental groups to control the dialog. By participating in GRSB and engaging in the issue overall, industry stakeholders are helping define sustainability in achievable and relatively business-friendly terms that recognize the value of beef and the importance of production efficiency and associated technologies.

This is important because sustainability quickly is moving from the realm of theoretical concepts toward measurable guidelines that will affect the way you do business. For example, Drovers/CattleNetwork recently reported that McDonald’s has reiterated its plans to begin accessing its beef from sustainable sources by 2016. The company currently is trying to figure out how to define, measure and verify sustainable practices across the U.S. beef chain. As noted earlier, McDonald’s is a founding member of GRSB, so the organization’s principles and criteria ultimately will guide their efforts.

Links to the full Principles and Criteria document, and a comment form, are available at GRSBeef.org.