IF YOU'RE going to copy someone’s homework, you have to choose your source wisely. When the same errors appear on multiple papers, it’s a dead giveaway that someone hasn’t done their own thing.
The same homework on the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) appears to have been circulating around Queensland’s Nationals - or, in the case of Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, so recently ex-Queensland as to be still part of the club.
The effect has been to produce a lot of metaphors about the fate of the Australian beef industry should it engage with the GRSB.
Warnings about “climbing into the cauldron”, being “on the menu”, trapped in “green-mail” and (from Mr Joyce, a tireless inventor of new metaphors), letting the “innocuous happy hand of a third party into your business plan” have been fired off in the cause of ensuring the beef industry isn’t ensnared in an expensive Green plot.
Missing from this commentary: evidence. Genuine concern, no question, but based on fear rather than fact.
The GRSB was formed to define what “sustainability” means across the world’s massively diverse beef production regions. Once that definition is in place - probably after the GRSB meets in September in Brazil - the terms and GRSB endorsement are available to supply chains to underpin any efforts they make to market “sustainable beef”.
This is of special interest to McDonald’s, which has undertaken to preferentially sell “sustainable beef” from 2016.
The GRSB has said it will not be involved in sustainability verification protocols: given the diversity of the global beef industry, from the pampas to the Rockies to the Queensland Gulf and Tasmania, verification schemes will have to be locally developed.
It’s all voluntary. A seat on the Global Roundtable is voluntary. Building a supply chain using the GRSB definition will be voluntary. For producers, participating in a supply chain will be voluntary - and therefore, paying verification fees, if they are part of the deal, will also be voluntary.
It’s hard to see where the Nats get their sense of entrapment out of this project.
There is, of course, WWF. The conservation organisation has a history of working to change unsustainable agricultural practices around the world, and this hasn’t earned it friends among those charged with unsustainable practices. That includes elements of Queensland’s agricultural sector.
But on the GRSB, WWF is one member among 50-odd. When it comes to decisions, the roundtable operates on one vote per member, majority rules.
Also on the roundtable: Cattle Council of Australia, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (US), the Brazilian Roundtable on Sustainable Livestock, JBS, Cargills.
There are a handful of other conservation organisations, but the balance of the membership is more likely to skew perceptions of the GRSB toward “industry greenwash” than “green plot”.
(The irony about WWF-phobia is that the organisation’s approach - of engaging the industries it would like to reform - is viewed with distaste by other environmental groups. Most prefer to change from without rather than within.)
So what does victory look like for the Australian opponents of the GRSB? The Australian members, including CCA, leave the roundtable, making it essentially the Pan-American Roundtable on Sustainable Beef. The slightly less-round roundtable goes ahead and produces a definition of sustainable beef production, but without Australian input. And here in Australia, McDonald's, Woolworths and any other retailer wanting to slap a “sustainable” sticker on beef employ a supply chain to source beef using the Pan-American definition - the definition we didn’t define.
It’s the same result as if we’d stayed on the GRSB; just that the Australian beef industry wasn’t part of creating it.
Senator Barry O’Sullivan thinks the GRSB process can be replaced by a local “square table” to look at the existing quality assurance programs used by Australian beef producers: and, having taken stock, issue “a final statement to … reassure our major business customers”.
Two questions arise: why? and credibility.
We’ve been telling our major business customers about Australia’s beef quality assurance programs for years. The point of building the programs was to shout about them.
And a cosy industry event will have all the market credibility of a cosy industry event.
On the other hand, consumers love brands and the supposed virtues they embody: organic, cage free, Australian Made, sustainable, Since 1903.
The Stanford Social Innovation Review, among others, observes that WWF’s panda is one of the most widely recognised brands in the world, “more trusted by the public than the best-known for-profit brands”.
WWF’s brand aura isn’t lost on GRSB’s corporate members, like McDonalds, Wal-Mart, Woolworths and JBS. Without the panda alongside their brands on the GRSB literature, the initiative would ring hollow with consumers.
If, as Mr Joyce has said, “the Australian producer has nothing to fear when it comes to sustainability”, then maybe riding on the panda’s back is no bad thing for beef producers, either.