Sustainable beef goes global | TSLN.com

Sustainable beef goes global

“What is more sustainable in regard to beef than a generational ranching operation that keeps getting better every day? We don’t need a powerful monoply who claim their goal is creating sustainable beef, but who have also announced their intentions of creating a top-down control system over every sector of the beef supply chain.” – Wyoming rancher Tracy Hunt. Photo by Heather Hamilton-Maude

A top-down, corporate fascist regime controlling every entity in the beef supply chain, including and specifically targeting the cow-calf producer is how Newcastle, Wyo. rancher and former attorney Tracy Hunt explained the goal of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB).

"The GRSB is the result of the 2010 Global Conference on Sustainable Beef, at which time members of that discussion decided they want to create what they call sustainable beef. Who are these people: Packers, restaurants, processors, retailers, associations, banks and environmental groups. Wal-Mart, McDonalds, JBS, Cargill, Allflex, Merck, Elanco, the Rainforest Alliance and the World Wildlife Fund. No producers, and the only producer representation is the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), who are thus far in full support of the GRSB," said Hunt during a presentation at the 123rd South Dakota Stockgrower's Association's annual convention in September.

NCBA Spokesperson John Robinson paints a distinctively different picture of the GRSB and its intent, stating organization stakeholders, which include producers, are committed to determining what sustainable beef production is and developing their own set of principles and criteria after looking at regional indicators that would help in defining sustainable beef production.

"There are producer members of the GRSB, as well as producer organizations and individual companies. We all make our living from the beef industry and are not going to allow an organization to step in and create definitions of sustainable beef that are contrary to our interests. One of the most successful things about the GRSB is the willingness of all stakeholders to sit at a table and listen to concerns of the constituent groups, then find solutions that allow us to work toward a common goal of defining sustainable beef and what that goal might entail," said Robinson.

Hunt believes the group intends to implement a Tyson-style business model in the beef industry by imposing full chain traceability and third party verification upon producers.

"The Tyson model seeks to extract all inefficacies out of the supply chain. This happened in the poultry world when Tyson took full control of the entire production chain, except the growing of the chickens. They arranged financing with individual people for that aspect, then tracked those farmers between the delivery of the chick and when they picked up the chicken, and subjected them to a price tournament," said Hunt.

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The growers competed against each other on parameters and a basis they weren't made privy to and were paid based on performance reports they also did not see.

"Even if you did everything right, with chicken and feed all supplied by Tyson, you might get 4.5 cents per pound instead of 6 cents per pound. Tyson keeps fantastic data on those chickens, but they regard it as proprietary information and won't share it with the farmers, so they do not know what they did right or wrong. The result, according to Tyson, is that their chicken business is good for the consumer because they can always get affordable poultry. But, that top-down planning impacted the farmer grower in every phase of his operation, including how he obtains profit. That is now the plan for the beef industry," said Hunt.

Robinson replied that there is no way a "one size fits all" approach could be taken with the beef industry. Not only would producers not allow it, but the uniqueness of each operation would prevent it.

"Our producers won't accept a mandate from any organization on how they should go about the business of producing their product. We also know that sustainability looks different from operation to operation, as do our members," he said.

The point, according to Hunt, is not whether producers will accept such a mandate, but whether they will be forced into compliance when companies including Wal-Mart, Costco, McDonalds and others monopolize and agree to only purchase cattle from suppliers that meet specific standards collaborated on by the GRSB.

Should that happen, Hunt said the implications for producers will be enormous. "What this means for you is full chain traceability with full radio frequency ear tags being put in at birth, which record both individual animal, and premise identification. Before marketing, producers will be required to hire third party verifiers who will report back to GRSB members as to whether or the beef produced on that premise engaged in production practices according to the standards set by GRSB or its members.

"They then believe that they hold a big enough share of the market that they can compel you to do whatever else they want or they will deny you market access with your cattle. This is because once full system traceability is in place they literally have the keys to your chicken house."

Hunt continued, stating the organization set to provide third party verification guidance is the World Wildlife Fund and additional like-minded environmental groups, thus enabling the GRSB to exert additional marketing power and position over producers.

"As part of the GRSB definition process, one of the things that has been very clear is the organization will not be a verification body – there are plenty of third party auditors out there, both in the U.S. and worldwide," Robinson said.

Hunt said that limiting marketing access and selling options wouldn't be a stretch, considering it is already happening in the feeder sector of the industry.

"We already see this to an extent. We've all heard the stories of the buyer passing on a lot of fats, sometimes for greener cattle in the same lot. Or the one of there being three fat cattle buyers in an area, but only one will bid on cattle in each lot so the price becomes a take it or leave option versus a bidding scenario.

"Those actions by the packing industry have caused more and more people to forward contract cattle, creating a thinner and thinner live market. If full-chain traceability and third-party verification go into place, they will create additional incentives to forward contract. Then, when the live market is practically non-existent, all of those premiums associated with being traceable and third-party verified will disappear on the parameters that there is no longer a live market to use as comparison. At that point the situation becomes that of the chicken grower – there is no longer a live market, and the producer must create cattle to fit an exact model in order to receive whatever price is available on a given day," said Hunt.

Robinson said that in no way is the GRSB looking to control the beef industry, in part or whole, and that the end goal of the GRSB is to create principles that could help define ways that could make beef production practices more sustainable.

"It is only in existence to provide suggestions on how producers can become more sustainable in their practices. U.S beef producers are among the most progressive in the world, and are more efficient than just about anyplace else. But, we still need to have these conversations on what sustainable beef may look like in our country and worldwide to meet a growing demand for beef. There are areas we have made improvements and areas where there is still a lot of work left to do," said Robinson.

He further said that NCBA leadership and membership has been supportive the organization's involvement with the GRSB.

"We haven't heard much response from our membership. And, although we have heard the occasional criticisms that this is a United Nations-driven organization with a top-down approach to sustainability, the GRSB's principles negate that idea. Plus, at NCBA, the foundation of our work is finding ways to engage in conversations about sustainability and find ways that our beef producers and members can elevate their own operations. At the end of the day, sustainability equals efficiency, and as we become more efficient we increase profitability," said Robinson.

For Hunt, preventing a mandatory ear tag, or insisting on full disclosure if an ear tag is ever made mandatory, are among his suggestions for people going forward.

"We also have to get together and start talking about these issues to ensure we are aware of what is going on, in addition to talking to those who are at the GRSB's table. McDonalds has committed to purchasing only "sustainable beef" by 2020. As additional GRSB member's state the same, this organization's guidelines will become requirements enforced by the same members who created them. Should that happen, unlike a government imposed regulation, there will be no measure of appeal or ability to negotiate. They will be the monopoly, and won't buy anything that doesn't meet their requirements, on the pretext of improving the environment and the production of sustainable food," he said. F

For more information on the GRSB, please visit http://www.grsbeef.org