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Another Big Step for America’s Beef Sector and its Grasslands

  • Date: 22 May 2019
  • Author: Nancy Labbe, Manager, Sustainable Ranching Initiative, Ranching and Conservation

America’s beef sector has taken an important step toward greater sustainability. After years of intense collaboration among ranchers, retailers and every other link in the supply chain, the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef released its sustainability framework—the first time stakeholders across the entire supply chain from ranchers to retailers have agreed to a uniform set of metrics to improve their environmental, social and economic performance.

Representing thousands of ranchers and hundreds of companies, the U.S. Roundtable based its sustainability framework not only on their experience and knowledge but also on a variety of public comments from a diverse range of individuals and interests outside of the sector. The final product provides producers, processors, traders, retailers, restaurants and more with indicators and metrics that they can apply in their day-to-day business to improve air quality, protect waterways from runoff and waste, bolster healthy soils and grasslands, boost wildlife and reduce carbon emissions, among other things.

This is why World Wildlife Fund co-founded the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef in 2010 and its U.S. counterpart five years later. We envisioned an industry that thrives economically while promoting better social and environmental outcomes, one that provides nutrition without overdrawing the planet’s natural resources. This sustainability framework is one manifestation of this vision. Across the globe, there are more than 19 similar efforts working toward producing beef more sustainably.

What’s the industry’s next step? Implementation.

Sustainability in the U.S. looks different than it does in other parts of the world. Take Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, for instance. It suffers in part from deforestation to make room for cattle pastures. In the U.S., however, cattle can help save America’s great ecosystem—the Great Plains.

More and more, Great Plains ranchers are finding that what’s good for grass is good for cattle, and vice versa. It makes sense: Grasslands evolved with large herds of grazing animals. Bison historically filled this role and now some ranchers manage cows to mimic bison as they prune the grass, strengthen its roots, aerate the ground and fertilize the soil—all while turning that inedible grass into edible protein. (Chickens and pigs can’t do that.) This action allows the soil to harness carbon, nitrogen and other elements from the atmosphere and turn them into grass. When grasses grow, insect, bird and animal life grows with them. We’re even finding benefits for wildlife on ranches where cattle are grazed with grassland health in mind.

The Roundtable’s framework also provides guidance for auction houses, feedlots, processors, retailers and other supply chain stakeholders to improve in areas such as air quality, carbon emissions, water use, water quality and animal welfare.

It’s good to see industry leaders pushing this grassroots initiative forward; players that have been slow to adopt more sustainable practices are getting left behind. Consumers are demanding food they can feel good about eating and if they can’t buy it, they just simply won’t eat it. This sustainability framework lays the foundation for businesses to act and promote better beef for consumers with a smaller environmental footprint. As the industry now moves to put this framework into action, we’ll continue to work across the supply chain to save our grasslands and support the ranchers who sustain them.

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