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Can beef ever be sustainable? Cattle and climate change Q&A with Chris Wille

At our most recent conference on how business can prevent deforestation, in Washington, D.C, last month, I caught up with Chris Wille.

If you don’t know about Chris’s work, you should. He is a true pioneer in sustainable business, who has created models used today all over the world, during a 40 year career, 24 of which at Rainforest Alliance as chief of sustainable agriculture.

My last Q&A with him was the most popular post on this blog ever, garnering thousands of page views.

In this Q&A we talk about his work with the Grasslands Alliance. In particular, beef, cattle, forests, land, climate change and conservation.


McDonald’s leading the way on sustainable beef research

1) Meat gets a very bad press in sustainability research. Is beef a bad thing?

For many people that is a question between them and their gods, their BBQs, and maybe their doctors. There are ethical, environmental and health considerations.

But, like any other farm crop, beef is not inherently a bad thing. Beef, like palm oil, bananas or paper pulp, can be produced in ways that range from atrocious to nearly sustainable.

Certainly beef is an environmentally expensive protein. About 25% of the world’s land surface is grazed by livestock, and much more land is used to grow feed for the beasts.

Cattle need grass, and most pastures are not in native grasslands; they are created by deforesting, draining, damming and otherwise damaging existing ecosystems, from rainforests and wetlands to riverine riparian zones.

Cattle are thirsty, drinking 5,000 gallons (18,927 liters) each per year in the US. They are a leading cause of soil erosion. Feedlots are major sources of pollution. Cattle are gross contributors of methane and other greenhouse gases.

Cattle, compared to other animals grown for meat, are famously inefficient converters of grain to meat, an argument much used by vegetarians.

By the way, it’s interesting to note that beef, not dairy cows get most of the negative attention from environmentalists. Even if we’re vegetarians, we like our cheese, yogurt and lattes.

In any case, cattle are here to stay. From Kenya to Australia to Arizona, ranching is a way of life. Beef is big business. The top exporters are Australia, India, Brazil, U.S., New Zealand, EU-28, Canada, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Mexico. Last year, the US exported $6.3 bio worth of beef and consumed more than that.

Joint OECD-FAO studies project rising levels of meat consumption, especially in emerging economies, fueling continued growth in exports.

Even in India, where cattle are sacred, they are also a booming business; India is a top beef exporter. Albeit Indian beef is from water buffalo, but the environmental impacts are the same as those of a Texas longhorn.


Infographics from:

2) What’s the situation with cattle and ecosystem destruction in North America?

This is a critical question. The brands making zero deforestation and sustainable sourcing commitments should note that some of the most environmentally impactful farm products are grown in the US and Europe.

We can’t, for example, insist that Indonesians make palm oil production sustainable while ignoring an equally problematic industry in the US.

The US National Cattlemen’s Beef Association estimates that there were 92 million head of their favorite animals at the beginning of this year. In the arid parts of the west – where cattle drives are a tradition and scenic ranches are a Hollywood staple – grass is scarce and stocking rates are thin. A vast area is required to feed 92 million four-compartment ruminant stomachs.

All the grazed areas combined is equal to half the land surface of the USA sans Alaska. About 60% of the grazed area is public lands, and more than half of that is degraded or poorly managed. Ranchers are eternally at war with predators, including wolves, bears, coyotes and eagles as well as ground-dwelling “varmints” such as prairie dogs. But it’s the habitat loss that makes ranching the number one threat to endangered species in the west and the fourth most important factor nationally.

Poor grazing management contributes to 33% of endangered plant species and 14% of the endangered animal species. To make pasture, forests and sage lands are cleared, wetlands drained, and native prairie overturned. Cattle poop in trout streams, trample delicate meadows and accelerate soil erosion.

Cattle hog more than their fair share of water, an increasingly precious and contested resource.   In drought-stricken California, irrigated pasture and hayfields consume more water than any other crop.

Of course there are some well-managed ranches, and many burgers are raised on small farms. (Nationally, the average herd size is 40 animals.) The sustainability spotlight, which has recently scorched palm oil, soy and paper pulp, is now swinging toward the beef industry, and cattle wranglers know it.

Consumers and markets are beginning to demand “sustainable” beef. Like most farming, cattle ranching is difficult and risky. Ranchers have hard-earned experience and accumulated wisdom under their Stetsons.

There is also a rich library of science and extensive experiments on eco-friendly, productive and humane livestock production. But, until recently, there was no generally agreed definition of what sustainability should look like on the range and no consensus on the best practices to achieve it.

3) What’s the potential for sustainable or at least responsible ranching?

In order to get ranchers and farmers pointed toward sustainability, we first have to agree on what that means. What are the desired environmental, economic, social, climate and animal welfare outcomes we all want to see?

What are the Best Management Practices to get us there? Sound familiar? Yes, these are the questions that were asked in one sector after another. The best known way to respond is to bring all stakeholders together and work through the process of developing a standard.

By agreeing on the goals, principles, criteria and practices leading to a shared definition of “sustainable,” stakeholders draw a roadmap and metrics. Auditing and certification make it possible to incentivize producers, engage brands, and awaken consumers.

The Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef and its American affiliate have created general principles and criteria, supporting NGOs or companies that want to develop certification standards. McDonald’s, as is so often the case, leads among companies, developing a beef standard in Canada.

The Sustainable Agriculture Network standard, which underwrites Rainforest Alliance Certified, covers cattle ranching in the tropics. Ranches in a few tropical countries have been certified, and some certified beef is already on the market. In the US, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Rainforest Alliance and the Food Alliance have formed the Grasslands Alliance.

The coalition has been working for more than three years to develop a standard for responsible or sustainable ranching in the US and Canada. The NGOs listened to ranchers, scientists and other conservation organizations.

The resulting standard has been pilot tested on ranches totaling a million acres and will soon be posted on a website for public comments. (Watch this space.)

Now the Grasslands Alliance is working on guidance and other tools to help beef producers implement the standard, talking to market leaders about the potential of certified sustainable beef, scoping out pilot projects and fundraising.

So far, the reaction from the ranching community has varied from typically taciturn caution to relief.

Many ranchers are striving sunup to sundown to do it right and glad to finally have a comprehensive, NGO-supported, science-based standard that they can use as a guide and to prove that they are on the trail toward sustainability.

4) How is cattle grazing used by conservation groups to maintain some grasslands ecosystems? 

Grazing by large ruminants is entirely natural in the Great Plains and some other U.S. ecosystems, where bison herds, numbering in the millions, roamed as recently as the 19th Century.

These grasslands, with their spectacular biodiversity, were shaped by grazing and fire. As everyone knows, the bison and prairies were wiped out and gradually replaced with settlements, farming, fences and cattle.

Attempts to recreate this once self-sustaining dynamic require large areas. NGOs are working to connect ranches, parks and other public lands so that buffalo can once again roam.

Some large landowners, most notably the environmentalist and philanthropist Ted Turner, dedicate ranches to the restoration of the buffalo, native grasses and wildlife.

Meanwhile, NGOs such as The Nature Conservancy and collaborating ranchers in some states use cattle to mimic the effect of roving buffalo. By carefully regulating cattle grazing intensity, controlling invasive species, and using some judicious prescribed burning, conservationists and landowners can maintain or restore native prairie and similar ecosystems.

Environmentalists have sued ranchers and public lands management agencies under the Endangered Species Act and other laws. In a bold attempt at collaboration rather than litigation, the Sage Grouse Initiative was formed.

Ranchers, government agencies and conservationists agreed to try to work together to protect this iconic bird so that the federal government will refrain from listing it as endangered. There are similar alliances around other species, natural areas and parks.

Conservationists would rather see (sustainably managed) cows on the land than fracking, housing developments or even agriculture.

grsb_infographics-03-25) “Carbon Cowboys”: is there potential to store carbon in well-managed grazing lands, or is that over-hyped? 

Yes to both parts of the question. Grasslands have the potential to store carbon, but that potential is too often overstated by so called Carbon Cowboys. As with any conservation challenge, hype hurts.

By some estimates, agriculture contributes up to one-third of total Greenhouse Gases, and livestock are a big part of it.   Emissions from both ends of cows, in polite company known as enteric fermentation, are the second largest (22%) anthropogenic source of methane in the US. There are a few techniques to address this problem and lots of research under way.

Implementing good management practices, such as those outlined in the Grasslands Alliance standard, will maximize the land’s ability to serve as a carbon sink. These practices include optimizing grazing, herd, land, and nutrient management to reduce and minimize net emissions of greenhouse gases.

Jonathan Gelbard, a grassland scientist at NRDC, says that implementing best management practices on grazing operations could reduce emissions by at least 20%. Studies suggest that, overall, soil carbon sequestration has the potential to reduce an amount of GHG emissions (in CO2eq) equal to about 4-5% of total fossil fuel emissions.

That’s clearly significant. Maximizing the soil bank for carbon is an important part of the strategy to meet the climate targets set in Paris, but not a panacea.

More about Chris Wille can be found here.

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1 Comment

  1. Prae

    Really informative blog