McDonalds to begin buying "sustainable beef" in 2016

Cows on grass photo
CC BY 2.0 Maciej Lewandowski

While experts may argue over the exact amounts, there's little doubt that the meat and dairy industry is responsible for staggering greenhouse gas emissions.

So what are we to make of a recent announcement, documented over at Business Green, that McDonalds will begin purchasing "verified sustainable beef" from 2016 onwards, with an ultimate goal of sourcing all of its beef from "sustainable" sources?

On the one hand, it's a huge point of leverage. Whether it is rejecting Amazon deforestation for soy beans or switching to Rainforest Alliance certified coffee; winning activist accolades for its paper purchasing policies or building LEED-certified restaurants, the sheer size and cultural significance of McDonalds means it can make decisions which help transform supply chains.

Encouragingly, McDonalds is not in the business of defining "sustainable beef" for itself, but rather bringing together a broad coalition of stakeholders to help identify useful standards. Instead, it has teamed up with several other retailers, suppliers and environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund to form the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef (GRSB). Here's how Business Green describes the effort:

The group developed six draft principles that the membership is considering, along with multiple criteria within each principle. The principles cover people (human rights, safe and healthy work environment), community (culture, heritage, employment, land rights, health), animal health and welfare, food safety and quality, natural resources (ecosystem health) and efficiency and innovation (reducing waste, optimizing production, economic vitality).

So far, so good. In the same way that FSC and LEED have helped shape supply chains, GRSB has the potential to greatly reduce the impacts of one of the most destructive industries on the planet. But reducing impacts is not the same as being sustainable. And given the inherent inefficiencies of large scale beef production, there are legitimate questions to be asked about whether the world can eat beef in the quantities it currently does, let alone in the amounts projected as populations rise and economies develop.

In general, I consider myself a pragmatist. I'd much rather that destructive industries seek to reduce their impact while others are working to develop alternatives. But here's where initiatives like the GRSB, or McDonalds own policies make me nervous—they can easily be used to overlook the simple fact that projections of growth are not self-fulfilling prophecies. Take this quote, also from the Business Green article, as an example:

"Beef production has an enormous impact on the ecology of our planet," Suzanne Apple, vice president for business and industry at WWF, told me. "But people are going to eat beef, particularly as the population grows to 9 billion, developing countries become more developed and incomes rise. Our approach is that if we can create a plan for sustainable beef production, we are at least giving people a choice and reducing the impacts of how beef is produced.

Sure, beef consumption is not going away anytime soon, but let's not kid ourselves by suggesting that tackling supply-side impacts is enough by itself. While the industry may battle against Meatless Mondays , a realistic approach to sustainable beef must at least include demand reduction alongside evolution of production.

But here's a troubling fact: McDonalds has identified beef as one of the areas of its business that it would like to grow.

McDonalds to begin buying "sustainable beef" in 2016
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