THE strongest reaction to the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef's (GRSB) draft "principles and concepts" document has been fear. This is a poor basis for clear thinking.
"Verified sustainable beef" presents as much threat to producers' autonomy as organic, EU or Pasturefed Cattle Assurance System (PCAS) accreditation.
Producers who see merit in being accredited as "sustainable" will volunteer for verification. If there's an auditing process, they will pay to the extent that the returns are worth it.
It’s all about choice. Not getting involved in the GRSB takes away choice for Australian producers.
To believe that sustainability verification will somehow become mandatory is to believe that WWF has the capacity to wedge every beef producer in Australia, the United States, Canada and Brazil into a regulatory scheme.
That's politically impossible, logistically impractical, and outside conspiracy theories, there is no evidence that it's on any agenda. If every beef producer is “verified sustainable”, there’s no market value in it.
Alongside the thrillingly scary stories being told about the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) and the evil WWF, there is a much duller tale.
It describes a retail food market in which margins have been driven to rock-bottom. Unable to compete on price, food companies are looking for other ways to push consumer buttons.
It turns out that the statistic called “the consumer” has an empathetic side.
When faced with a whole lot of similarly-priced product on the shelf, the consumer will often choose items labelled with things like “Dolphin-Safe” or “Fairtrade” over goods with no other endorsement.
McDonald’s is looking for differentiation in an increasingly crowded fast-food market. (Who knows - its management might even be genuinely interested in putting the company on a more sustainable footing.)
WWF has proven to be an effective arbitrator of supply-chain sustainability initiatives for commodities like salmon and palm oil. McDonald’s thus hires WWF to look at its supply chains.
To nobody’s great surprise, WWF comes up with a question mark against beef. Particularly in the Americas, mega feedlots and Amazon deforestation for cattle ranching has given beef production some bad press.
McDonald’s decides to pull together a broad, consensus-based roundtable initative, which has worked in other commodities, to work out how a “sustainable beef” supply chain might work.
The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef does a lot of head-scratching: beef production is fabulously diverse in method and geography.
Finally, it puts together a rather fuzzy document that offers some “principles and concepts” around the idea of beef sustainability as a first step, and releases it for comment.
All hell breaks loose.
Or at least in Australia, where the document, and the initiative as a whole, has been interpreted by some as the first thrust towards total green control of the beef industry.
This would be a hell of a coup. No other sustainability verification system - Dolphin-Safe, Fairtrade, Forestry Stewardship Council, or anything else - has taken a stranglehold on a commodity. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which also involves WWF, has been roundly criticised by other environmental groups as being ineffective.
A note on WWF. It's a conservation agency, and it has a job to do. Anyone who doesn't regard nature conservation as important has the option of emigrating to China, where they can breathe the particulate-rich air of development at all costs.
Sometimes the winds blow in WWF’s favour, as with the 1999 Queensland land clearing laws. Sometimes they don’t, as with the 2013-14 winding back of those laws. WWF is no more powerful than the farm lobby, and depending on who occupies the seat of political power, often much less so.
On the GRSB, WWF is a minor player compared to the votes from cattle producers and beef processors. It is also a necessary one if a sustainability initiative is not to look like a beef industry inside job, and carry any weight with consumers.
Release of the GRSB “principles and concepts” document has tossed the ball to the Australian beef industry.
It can look over the ideas and work out how they can be interpreted across Australia’s diverse environments, so that producers and processors can participating in whatever the GRSB develops - should they want to.
Or the industry can hide under the table and tell the GRSB that it won’t play, and rule out choice for everyone in the Australian beef industry.
In which case, McDonald’s, which bought 71,000 tonnes of Australian beef in 2013, has the choice of not playing with the Australian beef industry either.
Ditto for other buyers of beef who might be interested in branding their product with some form of sustainability endorsement.
The Cattle Council of Australia has sensibly been at the table on this project from the beginning. If its membership somehow dictates that it doesn’t want CCA involved, then it’s to be hoped that a group of progressive producers picks up the traces and finishes the work for their own benefit.
Someone is going to benefit from “verified sustainable beef”: if not in higher returns, in market access.
It may as well be Australians.
An in-depth look at McDonald’s sustainable beef strategy is available in a three-part series on www.GreenBiz.com