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Verified sustainability is coming

This is more than a buzzword today

Three people sitting at a table for a conference.

Sustainability is one of the 10 most used business words today, elevating it to buzzword status of “green” and “eco-friendly.” It has also reached the point where cattle producers can no longer ignore it, even if they still don’t know what it means.

In February at the Manitoba Beef Producers annual meeting McDonald’s Canada’s manager of sustainability, Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stilwell outlined how the company’s plan to purchase verified sustainable beef by 2016 might unfold.

“McDonald’s made a global announcement that by (December 31) 2016 we are committing to purchase some amount of verified sustainable beef from somewhere,” he said. “I want to add a lot of caution on that. At this point, we don’t know what verified sustainable means. We don’t know what sustainable means. We have a lot of ideas about where it will likely lead us and obviously, the verification piece is key to us. There’s a lot of learning ahead.”

Fitzpatrick-Stilwell wouldn’t be surprised if the global company decides to start in Canada because they have been impressed by the initiatives already underway in Canada.

This isn’t a new venture for the company. McDonald’s joined with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2008 to make a commitment to sustainable land management. WWF did a “deep dive” through McDonald’s global value chain and identified beef, poultry, coffee, palm oil, fibre (packaging) and fish as priority areas where McDonald’s has the biggest sustainability impact.

“We won’t be starting at zero,” says Fitzpatrick-Stilwell. “I believe today we are purchasing lots and lots and lots of sustainable beef. Once we define sustainable beef and have the key performance indicators in place and start using programs that are already collecting data, I am really confident that in Canada the vast majority of beef we are purchasing is sustainable beef. You guys know what you are doing. You have multi-generational operations, so clearly, it’s sustainable. We just need from our end a way to verify it.”

Defining sustainability for a global industry as diverse and broad as beef is a challenge when it gets down to the sustainability triple bottom line — environment, economic and social.

The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) likely needs another six months to reach a consensus definition. Established in 2012 by WWF, McDonald’s, Cargill, JBS, Elanco, Merck, Walmart and Solidaridad the roundtable has since taken in other organizations such as the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) and spurred the creation of a Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB). Groups like the CRSB help ensure any best management practices identified by the global roundtable are workable in the Canadian environment.

Fitzpatrick-Stilwell says McDonald’s Canada remains committed to 100 per cent Canadian beef without fillers and additives in its patties. In 2013 it purchased a record amount, close to 70 million pounds from Cargill, its national supplier.

McDonald’s feeds 2.5 million Canadians and 64 million people worldwide every day. So the company has plenty of opportunities to engage with consumers, something other sectors in the value chain don’t enjoy. Clearly, sustainability of the beef industry is critical to the company’s own sustainability.

“Consumers, governments and NGOs (non-government organizations), are very clear on what they want us to do and what they want us to take action on, but we aren’t the experts. We need producers to tell us how best management practices work, what makes sense in one part of the country and not the other and why some practices that seem counterintuitive to someone sitting in an office in the city do work,” Fitzpatrick-Stilwell says.

From the Country Guide website: Consumers play major role in sustainable agriculture

When asked if McDonald’s intends to go down the hormone- or antibiotic-free route, he says he always goes back to this being producer led. “Even if 100 per cent of our customers want us to do something, but we learn it’s not the right thing to do, I am confident as a global system and certainly McDonald’s as a Canadian system is not going to go down any route that producers tell us is not the right way. We will do what science tells us is the right thing to do. Even before it got to that stage of 100 per cent, we’d be using our connection with them to help them understand that’s not the way.”

He urged beef producers to use McDonald’s and the fact that the company sees 2.5 million Canadians every day. “If there is a message we should be delivering, use us because we are willing to use our platform to tell the truth.”


Kevin Ellison, a grasslands ecologist with the WWF’s Northern Great Plains (NGP) Program based in Bozeman, Montana, acknowledged there will be trade-offs in finding a balance between efficiencies necessary to feed a growing world population and the need to conserve wildlife habitat.

The NGP program’s main focus is “keeping grasslands green side up.” Vast areas of deeded and public grasslands spanning 180 million acres across five states into southern Alberta and Saskatchewan are managed by individuals and that’s why the program works with ranchers to develop programs that will sustain ranching and sustain wildlife.

“We can do a lot better job working together, realizing that both of us have a lot of knowledge to share toward what we both want — keeping the green side up,” Ellison says.

“It will take a lot of thinking about it, a lot of modelling, a lot of different tools to look at different solutions to the problems,” he says. “Public perception is going to trump anything that an individual knows or feels strongly about. Regardless of how good you think your strategy is, if what you are doing doesn’t match the public perception of what you are doing, you’re going to have real problems.”

While communication and transparency can go a long way in managing people’s perceptions and solving some of the problems with the public, ultimately, it will take objective science to iron out issues enough for the public to accept it.


On the heels of accepting the position of chair for the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, Cherie Copithorne-Barnes’ inaugural speech focused on why social acceptance is important to the sustainability of her fourth-generation ranch.

Located just west of Calgary, CL Ranch is a seedstock and commercial cow-calf operation with a backgrounding lot and grain farm encompassing 28,000 acres, largely leased from the Crown, First Nations and family members. The farm is now outnumbered 30 to one by first-generation residents in the area who work and socialize in the city.

“They’ve paid to live there and to have a pristine landscape. They feel every right to lead and they go to politicians and bureaucrats to explain. Ranchers don’t and the fact is, by not going to our county and to our communities to explain our situation and to communicate what we do and how, we are doing ourselves a disfavour,” Copithorne-Barnes says.

She told several stories of how quickly land-use and property rights issues at the county and provincial levels have come to bear on the social sustainability and ultimately the economic sustainability of her ranch. Some have worked out in her favour because she showed up to be heard.

She took another lesson from companies such as A&W and Sobeys, that toured the ranch to learn how cattle are managed. Though both companies’ promotions took surprising twists, she realizes that all they were really doing was listening to their customers.

“They know what customers want well ahead of what we see coming down the pipeline. We need to become more current on how we communicate our individual situations,” Copithorn-Barnes says. “You might think the public won’t come knocking at your door, but the reality is our supply chain is starting to feel that pressure. Ultimately, we are going to see what it’s going to be like to produce verified beef.”

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