It didn’t take long for a young cattle rancher from Saskatchewan to capture the audience’s attention at the Canada 2020 National Forum on Agri-Food in Ottawa earlier this month.
“For me, the word ‘sustainability’ is synonymous with McDonald’s,” said Adrienne Ivey, who is part of a family corporation managing 3,000 beef cattle on a 10,000-acre spread near Ituna, Sask.
That one statement captured the essence of an undercurrent rippling through the discourse during the two-day event focused on how Canadian food and agriculture products can compete in a rapidly changing global marketplace.
Somehow, amidst the debates over declining public trust in modern agriculture, rising concerns over climate change and increasingly disruptive global trade issues, food industry players have changed their views of the somewhat elusive concept of sustainability.
Instead of balking at the quest for more sustainable food systems because it might add costs and liabilities, they are embracing it as an opportunity to differentiate their brands and add value, either through higher returns or capturing more customers.
Ivey acknowledges associating a fast-food chain with sustainable food systems might seem a little odd to people outside the beef business, just as she doesn’t fit the image most would have of what a rancher should look like.
But as the founding partner of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, McDonald’s successfully navigated uncharted territory in the food business.
“It as an organization did something that is unheard of in agriculture,” she said, describing the process that began in 2011.
“They wanted sustainable beef. But instead of going to the industry and making demands and putting arbitrary conditions on an industry that they didn’t really understand, they came to us and said, this is what we would like — is it even possible?” Ivey said.
“And how can we work together to figure out how to make it happen? Oh, and by the way, we want this for everyone in the food industry, not just ourselves.”
“They pulled in the beef industry and they put together the producers, the packers processors, the restaurants and the retails to have a unified voice and a reasoned, science-based consensus on what sustainable means.”
And guess what? It doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone and it doesn’t have to, because the emerging definition reflects a continuum rather than a check-off-the-boxes-and-you’re-done assessment.
Far more important than the status of any operation today on that continuum is the plan for ongoing improvement and the measures in place to quantify those improvements in traceable and transparent ways. That makes it an attainable goal for any ranch, regardless of its scope, scale or management plan.
“The reality is, that in any industry, sustainability is complicated,” Ivey said. “It needs to be all encompassing across all production methods whether it is organic, conventional, regenerative or like my own ranch, a mixture of the three.”
For its part, McDonald’s is unabashedly supportive of the beef industry, despite the continued debates over its impact on the environment, climate change and the rising popularity of plant-based burgers.
“We support beef production that’s environmentally sound, protects animal health and welfare, and improves farmer and community livelihoods,” it says on its website. “We believe that well-managed beef production has an important role to play in a thriving ecosystem.”
The beef initiative is part of a much bigger sustainability play that includes sourcing coffee, palm oil, and fish that is verified as supporting sustainable production methods, increasing its use of fibre-based packaging from recycled or certified sources, increasing recycling in its restaurants, and increasing energy efficiency by 20 per cent.
Critics are often skeptical of such efforts, and it’s not uncommon to hear them associated with the term “greenwashing.”
The truth of the matter is, these are marketplace initiatives that will sink or sail by virtue of consumer support, rather than policies blindly financed by taxpayers. As well, they are being applied across the entire value chain in ways that can be tracked.
This gives consumers more opportunities than they’ve ever had before to hold these value chains accountable for their promises and to push for greater change.