How does a term like “sustainability” become an international trend with the power to move multinational companies?
Having just had a short brush with the bare drought-blighted pastures of California and the concrete of L.A. I can understand why Hollywood types would feel the world is in dire shape. But selling sustainability to people who make their living on the land is a bit like telling a hockey player he has to learn how to skate.
Sustainability is a given for farm people, isn’t it? — particularly those who depend on grass and native or tame forages to raise their cattle.
At least that was what I used to believe. There was a time my eyes would fog over whenever the term sustainability came up in meetings, as I waited for the speaker to move on to real world problems.
Not anymore. When your biggest customer tells you that he will only be buying sustainable beef and sets a deadline to begin, it tends to sharpen the focus. The fact that McDonald’s is interested in beef sustainability is not news. The company has been heavily involved in setting up the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) since 2011 along with Cargill, JBS and several other multinationals.
Now McDonald’s is committing to begin purchasing verified sustainable beef by 2016.
There was a time when that announcement would have sent shock waves through the industry seeing McDonald’s purchased close to 70 million pounds of Canadian beef last year. In fact, this news barely caused a murmur in Canada, largely because the industry, spearheaded by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, has been preparing for this day for some time now.
More from the Canadian Cattlemen website: Verified sustainability is coming
As McDonald’s Canada’s manager of sustainability, Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stilwell says in this issue, “I believe today we are purchasing lots and lots of sustainable beef.”
The trick, he says, is to find a way to verify the sustainability of those purchases. And that’s where Canada should shine because of the number of the tools to ensure sustainability that is already in place.
The CCA became a member of GRSB and spearheaded the formation of the Canadian Roundtable on Sustainable Beef so it would be at the table when a final definition of what constitutes sustainable beef is decided a little later this year.
The Canadian beef industry’s own sustainability tool chest is divided into three categories: social, economic and environmental.
In the social box we have the newly revised code of practice for the care and handling of beef cattle (www.nfacc.ca/codes-of-practice/beef-cattle) and the Canadian Beef Cattle On-Farm Biosecurity Standard, all backed by the latest research available, much of it done in Canada. There is also a network of federal and provincial animal care legislation on the books to deal with those who don’t live up to their responsibilities.
Economic sustainability is what consumes most people’s time and is determined somewhat by market forces beyond anyone’s control. It has also consumed a good deal of the time and money available to producer organizations in efforts to reduce the cost of production. Here I’m thinking of all the producer-funded research that has gone into reducing winter feeding costs and improved nutrition and animal health. I suppose we could toss all the time and effort put in by industry and government to gain greater access to foreign markets in this envelope as well.
Environmental sustainability is where the stewardship of cattle producers should shine. Efficient grazing management, protection of riparian areas, living in harmony with wildlife, these are a sample of the ways cattle people preserve and protect the environment. The annual environmental stewardship awards presented each year in every region of the country are just a way of shining a spotlight on these efforts.
Measuring all this may only be a matter of ensuring that everyone lives up to the standards that most people follow anyway. If McDonald’s requires more, the CCA’s Verified Beef Production program would be a place to start. In a nicely timed move Ottawa recently put up the money to add on-farm training modules for biosecurity, animal care and environmental stewardship in addition to the regular food safety course.
Nearly 18,000 beef operations have already had VBP training representing 89 per cent of the feedlot production in Alberta and 59 per cent in Saskatchewan, and somewhere around a third of the cow-calf production. A much smaller number is registered operations, again heavily weighted to the feedlot sector.
In years of shrinking checkoff revenues the people at the head of these organizations should be credited with not losing sight of the importance of sustainability.