Going national with verified sustainable beef

Alberta rancher Cherie Copithorne-Barnes heads up this national project.

As McDonald’s verified sustainable beef pilot heads to the finish line this April, the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) is stepping out with initiatives that have been in the works since it was formally established in early 2014. Anticipate hearing lots more from this group in the months ahead with the national verified sustainable beef framework and the national beef sustainability assessment projects on track to be finalized by the end of the year.

Producers have been well represented at the CRSB through memberships of provincial cattle associations from British Columbia through Ontario as well as the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and a multitude of national industry organizations. Other members represent processors, retailers, food service, financial agencies, animal health and supply companies, government, NGOs, and conservation groups. From a handful of potential members when the roundtable was first discussed in 2013, membership has grown to 44 organizations with another 40 observers — largely scientific advisors and youth delegates.

Now it’s your opportunity to participate in the process with the opening of the 60-day public consultation on the CRSB’s draft sustainability indicators for primary production on February 9. The document is posted on the CRSB website at crsb.ca.

The Canadian stabilization initiative has advanced rapidly since November 2014, when the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) released its global definition of sustainable beef as, “a socially responsible, environmentally sound, and economically viable product that prioritizes planet, people, animals and progress.” As members of the GRSB, the Canadian roundtable and the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association had a hand in setting that definition.

The role of the CRSB is to fit those global principles to the realities of the Canadian beef industry, in part by developing a framework for producing and sourcing verified sustainable beef in Canada.

The first step in this process was to develop production indicators that will need to be measured on the farm, ranch or feedlot, explains CRSB community engagement manager Monica Hadarits. The first draft of indicators for cow-calf and feeder operations were released last month. Indicators for processors and fabricators will follow once they are sorted out.

These indicators are anchored by research, address important elements of sustainability, and are outcome-based. So instead of dictating specific practices, an indicator states an expectation and it is for producers to decide how to achieve it. In this way, they remain achievable no matter where you live.

The final list of indicators was whittled down by CRSB special committee that was set the take last July lead by Tim Hardman with the World Wildlife Fund, and Page Stuart of the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association.

CRSB chair Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, a rancher from Jumping Pound, Alta., was amazed at how quickly they reached consensus on the beef indicators. A similar process is going on for other commodities.

“The roundtable does have an advantage when it comes to reaching consensus because we are all sitting on something new. Everyone is trying to figure out how to contribute and wants to be involved,” she says.

“We follow an established and globally accepted platform with public consultations to ensure validity and instill confidence in producers and consumers. It does take more time, but at the end of the day when the product is rolled out, there will be no surprises. All stakeholders will have had opportunity for input into the process. Everyone may not agree 100 per cent with everything, but can agree that what we are producing is a solid first step,” she explains.

CRSB members gave their feedback first, before the draft was released for public comment. Likewise, comments from the 60-day public consultation will be reviewed and considered for the second draft that will be subject to public comment for a further 30 days starting in May. The final version will be submitted to the CRSB council for approval and the Global Roundtable for endorsement. Plans call for them to be reviewed again every five years.

In the meantime, a CRSB verification committee, formed in November, must determine how actions taken to satisfy the indicators will be measured at the farm, ranch and feedlot.

This 24-member committee chaired by Emily Murray of Cargill, and Ross Ingram of Loblaw, are working with subject matter experts on verification protocols, and chain of custody requirements. Their work will also be subject to feedback from CRSB members and the community at large.

We already know that they will encourage the use of existing programs such as Verified Beef Production and Environmental Farm Plans to verify progress.

“It could be that we are 99 per cent of the way there and won’t need to add much more. We want to be complementing what we already have to create a system that’s also acceptable to others outside of production,” notes Copithorne-Barnes.

Answers to outstanding questions, such as who will oversee and carry out the verifications, who will pay if there is a cost, will start to show up over the next three to four months as the process plays out.

The CRSB will oversee several projects to test the indicators and verification procedures before finalizing a national framework.

Monica Hadarits, CRSB community engagement.
Monica Hadarits, CRSB community engagement.

It’s fair to say that both committees were given a hearty hand up by McDonald’s Canada which has been conducting its own verified sustainable beef project for some months now. Hadarits says the CRSB has drawn on the knowledge and sources coming out of that project in developing its national indicators and verification protocols, which McDonald’s will adopt when the pilot ends.

Participation in the national verified sustainable beef program is totally voluntary.

Beyond creating a verifiable mechanism for the industry to use, Copithorne-Barnes says the roundtable’s goal is to teach and inform. Toward that end, all of the indicators and verification protocols will be readily available so that producers can jump right in to become verified, ease into it, or adopt all or part of it for self-assessment and continuous improvement. As producers become familiar with the program they will come to understand why they are using it because of the inherent economic incentive of doing a good job.

Benchmarking sustainability

Clearly, Canadian beef producers aren’t starting from square one when it comes to responsibly managing resources considering the significant decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and resource requirements from 1981 to 2011 reported in the study by researchers at the University of Manitoba, Agriculture Canada Lethbridge, and Environment Canada, and funded by the Beef Science Research Cluster. It will provide historical information and background for the CRSB’s environmental life cycle assessment, which is part of the overall national beef sustainability assessment.

The project will characterize 2013 as the starting point against which ongoing environmental, social and economic improvements throughout the entire beef value chain can be measured. The steering committee will establish a set of key performance indicators that identify what needs to be measured and the method for benchmarking progress on a national scale.

The CRSB commissioned Deloitte Canada to complete the environmental and social life cycle assessments in collaboration with stakeholders. Canfax Research Services completed the economic assessment.

The economic assessment has already been reviewed and approved by a third-party panel and the others are expected to be reviewed by panels of Canadian and international experts and go to the CRSB members for comment in March or April.

In due course, the scientific reports will be released to the public and Hadarits will be working on interpreting key findings in a manner that can be easily understood by each sector of the industry and consumers.

The project also includes a SWOT (strength-weakness-opportunities-threats) analysis to help guide research, communications, policy, beneficial management practices, and other industry initiatives.

Finally, the action plan will set targets, review beneficial management practices, and recommend strategic actions on the environmental and social sides.

The broad scope of the nation-wide assessment makes it a first for Canada and some aspects make it globally groundbreaking work.

“To get the big-picture perspective we are including things that have never been included before,” Copithorne-Barnes explains. “Life cycle assessments put a lot of focus on emissions, but what about beef’s contribution to biodiversity and carbon sequestration?”

Copithorne-Barnes can truly say that Canada is a global leader in designing a framework to verify the sustainability of its beef industry. While several countries have been considering formal roundtables for sustainable beef, Brazil and the U.S. are the only others that have done so.

The U.S. and Canadian roundtables are sharing information and experiences to make sure sustainability doesn’t become a competitive issue.

All the crop commodity groups have joined forces to create a Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops, which Copithorne-Barnes says is well on its way to establishing indicators and is establishing a life cycle analysis. The beef and crop roundtables are working closely to ensure their programs are homogenous so producers won’t have to enrol in multiple programs.

The stage has been set for 2016 to be a landmark year for verifying the sustainability of Canadian beef production.

“Last year was a huge year of gathering information to make sure the details are valid and accurate when talking with consumers and producers. Now, industry and producers will have a scientific basis and good starting point so that we won’t have to be on the defensive all the time. This will help alleviate the pressure we feel, but we have to do our part to demonstrate what we do every day,” concludes Copithorne-Barnes.

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