Sustainable beef group seeking public comment | TSLN.com

Sustainable beef group seeking public comment

The U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef released a draft "sustainability framework" and hopes ranchers will take the time to comment on it.

According to USRSB secretary/treasurer, White City, Kansas, rancher Debbie Lyons-Blythe, the framework, which is a draft outline of what will become a questionnaire, is a work in progress. The questionnaire will be housed on their website and will provide a method for ranchers, feeders, processors, retailers and anyone else involved in beef production to assess the sustainability of their own operations.

The group has worked together on this list of questions for a couple of years and is now ready to take public comment. They hope to use the suggestions to help them finalize their product.

Commenting

“Sustainability is a buzzword that has been going around for a long time, but it’s not a word that we as farmers and ranchers use.” Debbie Lyons-Blythe, USRSB secretary and treasurer

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Anyone with an interest in the USRSB's project should go to http://www.usrsb.org and click on "submit comments," register on the website and then log in. The login information can be used again and again.

The questions and their responses are intended to help show the world that the U.S. beef industry is, indeed, sustainable, said Lyons-Blythe. The questionnaire will be voluntary and answers will not be saved, she said.

"The ultimate goal is to prove that the U.S. beef industry is sustainable as a whole, and that we're getting better. We aren't going to certify that one (operator) is and one isn't," she said. Lyons-Blythe said that consumer terminology and producer terminology doesn't always mesh, and her group is hoping to find some common ground. "Sustainability is a buzzword that has been going around for a long time, but it's not a word that we as farmers and ranchers use." Producers talk about conservation, heritage, multi-generational operations, she said. "We talk about things that are truly important to sustainability, but we don't usually use that word. 'Sustainability' is a consumer word."

Today's consumers, particularly millennials, are curious about the origin and history of their food, she said. "If we don't answer their questions, somebody will and that somebody may or may not know what we really do."

Within the USRSB, one sector isn't forcing its ideas on another sector, said Lyons-Blythe.

Each sector of the industry developed its own list of questions, which was then reviewed by the other sectors, she said.

The USRSB is not planning to save submitted responses to the questionnaire or to quantify topics like how many ranchers or what percent of producers have grazing plans, Lyons-Blythe said. The purpose is not to figure out how many ranchers or processors do this or that, but rather, to help make each individual aware of what he or she is or is not doing, and what could be done, if the individual desires, she said.

The mission of the USRSB, according to its website is: To advance, support and communicate continuous improvement in the sustainability of U.S. beef production by educating and engaging the beef value-chain through a collaborative multi-stakeholder effort.

The website also says, "The USRSB explores the challenges and opportunities for continuous improvement across all aspects of the beef value chain but will not mandate standards nor verify individual stakeholder performance."

"Driving improvements" is one stated goal on the USRSB website, but it doesn't clarify any particular changes it hopes to push. "Sustainability outcomes are the characteristics of a system we are trying to improve and are the result of the cumulative activities and decisions made by people in the beef supply chain. Driving continuous improvement in outcomes requires making more sustainable decisions about processes and practices over time," says the site.

Concerns over divulging information

Mike Schultz, a Brewster, Kansas cattle producer, worries that sometimes producers are asked to share too much information.

"I know consumers want information, but if we promote a U.S. product using country of origin labeling, we don't need the roundtable for sustainable beef," he said.

Schultz worries that the information gathered could be inadvertently used against producers. "My biggest concern is that speculators could use the information against guys like me. I get concerned. People think they need more information. I think if the packers didn't know how many cattle are out there, and they have to bid competitively, its good for us."

What USRSB does and what its supporting groups believe

But allowing someone else, like anti-ag groups, to define sustainability in the beef and cattle industries was not in her best interests, Lyons-Blythe believes, so she has been involved with the USRSB from its creation in 2015.

The USRSB has identified 6 key areas that help define sustainability for the industry, she said.

Those measures are:

Animal Health and Well-Being

Efficiency and Yield

Water Resources

Land Resources

Air and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Employee Safety and Well-Being.

Questions on the framework will center around those subjects. For example, the USRSB believes that if a rancher utilizes a grazing management plan, then he or she is managing water properly.

"The question for water resource is, 'do you have a grazing management plan?' If you say 'yes,' it goes to the next question. If you say 'no,' it will ask if you want more information. If you do, it will take you to a page with contact information for colleges, universities, the Noble Institute. It gives you information to help you develop one."

Lyons-Blythe said that the individual rancher can choose to pursue a grazing management plan, or not, at his discretion, and that the questions won't be saved from year to year to compare.

But Schultz fears that some members of the USRSB have intentions to enforce mandatory animal identification or third party verification, and could use the responses against the rancher. "My concern all along has been the funding sources, and some of the members. The World Wildlife Fund was the filing agency for the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef," he said.

He's concerned that eventually the companies involved in the USRSB will require producers to comply with their production specifications. "If you don't comply with the protocol of what they deem is a proper way to do their sustainable beef plan, you could be retaliated against," he said. The group includes such companies as McDonalds, Costco, Walmart, Culvers, Taco Bell and more. If they chose to collaborate they could put significant pressure on the market, and in a situation where certification becomes a requirement in order to market livestock, the opportunity for premiums is lost, said Schultz.

The Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef has launched a pilot project that certifies certain producers who meet "sustainability" standards, join a "beef information exchange system," and upload their individual cattle information, among other requirements.

This seems to jive with the World Wildlife Fund's goals. The group's website says it hopes to effect change at the production level. It also goes into great detail about the negative environmental impacts of beef production.

"We believe the most significant gains can be made by driving efficiencies and minimizing impact along the beef supply chain, with a focus at the farm level…WWF is committed to working with the global beef industry to address a broader range of production issues in ways that are socially responsible, environmentally sustainable and economically viable," says the website.

The WWF also says it can rely on its "market transformation expertise" to help demonstrate the economic importance of sustainability. Jason Clay, senior vice president of the WWF said on the site that one of the organization's goals is to push for 25 percent of U.S. beef to eventually be verified by a third party as sustainable.

Another page on the group's website lists their interpretation of all of the environmental impacts of beef, for example,"Soil degradation:

Livestock farming is one of the main contributors to soil erosion around the world. Turning forests into pasture and overgrazing, or using marginal lands to grow feed, can lead to extreme loss of topsoil and organic matter that may take decades or centuries to replace."

It is because of WWF's unfriendly attitude toward beef producers that Schultz worried about their participation in the USRSB. The WWF actually initiated the creation of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, a parent organization to the USRSB and the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

The global organization or GRSB, created in 2010 is made up of 75 companies, producers and groups including the World Worldlife Fund, the Rainforest Alliance, McDonalds, A&W, NCBA, the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, Cargill, Bayer, Merck, Rabobank, Marfrig, JBS, and national "roundtables" that it helped create, including the USRSB, the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and others.

The GRSB says on its site that it envisions a world in which all aspects of the beef value chain are environmentally sound, socially responsible, and economically viable.

Joining USRSB

In order to become a member of the USRSB, an applicant must fill out a form and be approved by the current leadership, said Lyons-Blythe. Members are divided into 5 groups, listed below along with the number of members each group lists:

Producers -56

Allied industry- 14

Packers/processors – 10

Retail – 8

Civil Society – 21

A little over a third of the producer members are state or national cattle groups like the Livestock Marketing Association, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Kentucky Cattlemen's Association and more. Of the remainder, about 13 appear to be feedlots or feeding enterprises including Cactus Feeders, Inc., Five Rivers Cattle Feeding, LLC and more.

The civil society sector of members includes such diversity in its list as the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and Texas A&M AgriLife Research.

Each member gets a vote, said Lyons-Blythe. "My ranch, Blythe Family Farms, LLC is a member. We have one vote, so does McDonalds."

Dues for a producer member are $500, but producer organizations' dues depend on their annual income. For those whose income is less than $2 million per year, dues are $1,000, for groups with income of $2 million to $10 million, dues are $2,500, and groups with higher income must pay $5,000 in annual dues.

The other segments have similar setups, with $15,000 being the highest dues paid, by processors, allied industry, or retailers with annual incomes higher than $100 million. The website does not divulge the dollar amount each individual member pays. The organization is wholly funded by membership dues, she said.

Lyons-Blythe said she, her husband and oldest son operate a 300 head cattle and farming operation that also includes soybeans, corn and cover crops. Her husband is also employed full time with a bank. They also breed and develop about 250 heifers each year. Their other four grown children are all shareholders in the enterprise. She believed that getting involved in the USRSB would be a way to keep producers like herself in the "drivers seat" when it comes to conversations about sustainability in the beef industry.

Schultz and his family operate a 150 head cattle operation near Brewster, Kansas.