What does sustainability mean really? It depends on who you ask.
A beef producer might define sustainability as being able to make a living and support his family. He might also view it from the perspective of the land and the steps he makes toward caring for that land, which will ultimately become his legacy to pass on to future generations.
A consumer might place different values on sustainability depending on his priorities. The hipster on the coast might think of sustainability as reverting back to the romantic farms of yesteryear. Another might think of animal welfare when they think of the word sustainability. And another might think about the feed given to the animals, the antibiotics used and the way the beef was raised to get to her dinner table.
Sustainability and the meaning of that hotly-debated word all depend on the values of who you talk to; however, are we getting closer to a true definition?
Retailers are a business, just like ranchers, and so sustainability means listening to their customers and meeting their demands. McDonald’s is one of those retailers that has heard the buzzword “sustainability” and has taken actionable measures to define it and serve their customer base.
In 2014, the burger giant promised to serve sustainable beef in its stores by 2016. Two years have passed, and we are seeing McDonald’s vow turn into reality, at least in Canada.
According to Krissa Welshans for Feedstuffs, “McDonald’s recently announced that it successfully achieved a commitment it made in 2014 to source a portion of its beef from verified sustainable sources by 2016, marking a major milestone in its collaborative partnership with the Canadian beef industry to advance more sustainable beef practices and support the global company’s broader aspirational goal to source all of its food and packaging sustainably.
“As one of the country’s largest purchasers of Canadian beef, McDonald’s Canada, through the pilot, tracked the journey of nearly 9,000 head of Canadian cattle, or the equivalent of 2.4 million patties. The cattle spent their entire lives — from "birth to burger" — raised on or handled by verified sustainable operations. Over the duration of the project, 121 cow/calf operations, 34 backgrounders, 24 feedlots, two packers and one patty plant achieved verified status.”
So what do we know about McDonald’s definition of sustainable beef? McDonald’s is the first pilot project to follow the Global Sustainable Beef principles to fruition, and the criteria outlined address “environmental responsibility, animal health, food safety, worker safety, community responsibility and innovation,” according to Welshans.
Despite the fact that the U.S. has the most environmentally friendly livestock industry in the world, the consumer is demanding more. And although McDonald’s asked for producer help in defining exactly what sustainability means, I fear that modern agriculture is losing ground in defining and explaining the ways we are already sustainably raising beef to provide to the world.
It’s not too late for us to join in on the conversation; however, times are changing whether we like it or not. We better brace ourselves for a new world where the consumer drives production methods to unchartered territories. Like it or not, consumers determine our success or failure; we can either choose to be a part of the conversation, or we can be left in the dust.
By the way, have you entered this week's BEEF Daily contest? Check it out here for your chance to win a copy of "Ranch School 101."
The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Penton Agriculture.
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