Limited results in the quest for sustainable beef

Ground beef. beef sustainabilitySustainable beef may seem to some like an oxymoron.

About 40 years ago I bought a cookbook called Diet for a Small Planet. The introduction claimed that it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce a single pound of edible beef.

Poultry, pork, and dairy all require much less grain. It would seem in that case that beef is worse for the environment than other animal-based proteins.

I have seen that claim made and disputed many times since then. More of the public cares about sustainability in our food supply than 40 years ago. The beef industry has only recently begun to explore sustainable beef production. The first step is to figure out what that means.

What is sustainable beef?

Cows with ear tags. Sustainable beefNo one knows.

And we’ll probably never find a definition everyone can agree with. Just consider three of the organizations mentioned in the articles I read for this post:

  • American Grassfed Association
  • Plant Based Food Association
  • US Roundtable for Sustainable Beef

According to American Grassfed Association, beef can become sustainable. Farmers just have to stop feeding grain to cattle.

The Plant Based Food Association, on the other hand, insists on reduction of beef production and consumption. Otherwise, it says, claims of beef sustainability will only amount to industry greenwashing.

The US Roundtable for Sustainable Beef has a wide spectrum of beef producers in its membership. The categories conventional, grass-fed, and organic only begins to cover it. Even “conventional” producers represent a diverse set of practices.

The Roundtable believes that most of its membership already follow sustainable practices. Ranchers have long worked to improve efficiency, it says, and will continue to do so.

Sustainability, on this view, requires measurement of best practices. A farmer who gets a score of 3 on a 5-point scale will want to know how to earn a 5. The Roundtable seems to believe that its main problem is how to communicate its message to the public.

I will not hold my breath waiting for a definition of “sustainable beef” that all three of those organizations will accept. And it’s too soon to pick sides.

Some issues in sustainable beef production

Cows grazing. Sustainable beefHere is just a sample of issues involved in defining beef sustainability:

  • animal health
  • humane treatment of animals
  • soil health
  • water usage
  • air quality
  • chemical use and storage
  • worker safety
  • food safety
  • food waste
  • land use

Regarding land use, grass-fed and organic production both require more land than grain-fed cattle. Producing more and more food on less and less land is one of the great environmental achievements in agriculture over the past century. Which method is more sustainable? It’s a complicated question.

Even the issue of whether to use or abandon pharmaceuticals in meat production turns at least in part on land use. Efficiency and sustainability are closely related, but hardly synonymous.

The fast food industry has made much more progress in changing its practices regarding chicken and eggs. For one thing, it deals with a few large chicken processors and thousands of cattle ranchers. For another, chickens are ready for slaughter in weeks. Beef cattle must grow for two years.

Some smaller farms have adopted practices that appeal to restaurants and customers willing to pay more for sustainable beef. Whatever beef sustainability turns out to mean, scaling it up for fast food chains presents many complications.

McDonald’s and beef sustainability

McDonald's exterior. beef sustainabilityMcDonald’s built its business around beef.

Consumers are beginning to demand food that’s safe, humane, and sustainably produced. Beef is the largest component of McDonald’s environmental footprint.

So McDonald’s gives these as reasons for supporting sustainable beef production.

In 2011, McDonalds joined eleven other key players in the beef industry, including ranchers, feedlot operators, and processors. They launched the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB). It serves as an umbrella group for national roundtables. By 2014, the organization defined basic principles and criteria for a definition of sustainable beef.

These criteria involved environmentally responsible management of natural resources, respect for people in the community, the health and welfare of animals, food quality and safety, and efficiency and innovation.

McDonald’s Sustainable Beef Pilot Project, launched in 2014, had three major objectives:

  • Begin to purchase some beef from verifiably sustainable sources in 2016
  • Put the principles and criteria of the GRSB into action, using locally relevant outcomes based initiatives
  • Support and accelerate the beef industry’s framework for sustainability

Its goal was to base all aspects of production, processing, and consumption of beef on environmental soundness, social responsibility, and economic viability.

The pilot project worked with farmers and other players in the beef industry in Canada. The Canadian beef industry already had important programs and tools in place and expressed its desire to work with McDonalds.

The project developed 37 indicators to measure how well the various segments of the industry met the principles and criteria. It issued its final report in June 2016. McDonald’s plans a similar pilot project in the US beginning in 2017.

When can we see beef sustainability?

Hamburgers. Sustainable beefWhen McDonald’s announced its sustainability initiative, it promised “double green benefits around the world.”

A year and a half later its sustainability vice president, Bob Langert, frankly acknowledged the difficulty of defining sustainable beef.

Can we say we’re buying any sustainable beef today? No, we can’t. Could we be buying sustainable beef? We might be. What I mean by that is that there are no standards, measures, accountability and traceability to make those claims today.

More and more people these days care about where their food comes from and how it is produced. The food industry, from farmers to restaurant chains, has heard the message and taken it to heart. The opinion of ordinary people matters in corporate boardrooms.

The less good news is that no one even tried to define sustainable beef until recently. McDonald’s now has some preliminary tools for measuring what it’s doing. The US Roundtable hopes to start to develop its own in the coming year.

In effect, industry has dumped pieces of this jigsaw puzzle out of the box. Now it has to turn them all right side up, and then begin to assemble them.

Until then, bickering over sustainable beef takes place in a factual vacuum. The industry must come up with measurements even its critics will acknowledge. In the meantime, eat beef or not as you choose. If anyone expresses any level of certainty about beef sustainability, be skeptical.

Beef industry says it’s largely “sustainable” already / Venessa Wong. Buzzfeed. August 10, 2016
Beef sustainability: global definition is impossible, experts say / Rachael Tepper, Huffington Post. October 19, 2012.
Here’s the problem with sustainable beef (and pork) / Samantha Bomkamp, Chicago Tribune. September 23, 2016
McDonald’s sustainable beef pilot
Sustainable Beef Resource Center


Limited results in the quest for sustainable beef — 3 Comments

  1. None of the definitions you shared even really come close to covering the full spectrum of impacts by:
    1) Grazing operations (including both rangeland and pasture, irrigated pasture, cropland pasture and more)
    2) Feedlot operations (including those that manage manure as solid, liquids, etc) and associated feed crop operations (a different supply chain with its own set of hot spots and associated solutions
    3) Processors/meatpackers

    Grass-fed pretty much only verifies what the cows eat (and usually no use of hormones and non-therapeutic antibiotics). It says nothing about management quality on producing ranches – whether they are overgrazed, polluting streams, negatively impacting native fish and wildlife, etc), emitting more heat-trapping pollution than they could be (e.g., especially in the eastern U.S., well managed pasture can sequester quite a bit of carbon, but poorly managed grazing that causes erosion and diminishes grass productivity can lead to losses of soil carbon).

    Take a look at the comprehensive approaches of The Grasslands Alliance (, Food Alliance, and the Rainforest Alliance’s Sustainable Agriculture Network standard for definitions with far fewer gaps.

    The bottom line is the various players in the marketplace DO need to both incentivize and enable transitions to more sustainable practices. We just have a long long way to go to get effective programs both in place and generating broad results

  2. See also NRDC’s related synopses:
    1) Where’s the better beef –
    2) The Importance of Advancing Sustainability on Grazing Operations –
    3) The importance of Improving feedlots –
    4) The business case for more sustainable beef –

  3. Thanks, Jonathan. And for the links in a separate comment. I didn’t actually share any definitions of sustainable beef. I haven’t found any. I also didn’t attempt a comprehensive survey of all the unanswered questions. I’m glad you have addressed some of them I didn’t.

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