Lacking real substance, marbled with loopholes, and in need of a crash course in regenerative agriculture is Corporate Knights’ assessment of the green burger promise being served up by the Calgary-based Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB).
Facing declining sales as the public grows more aware of the link between eating meat and the climate emergency—from Big Ag driving Amazon forest destruction, to cattle’s methane-heavy digestive process, to its own over-sized carbon footprint—Canada’s beef cattle industry is weighing in with a messaging blitz touting its own awareness of the need to be more sustainable.
The Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef was set up to promote and lobby for that message, Corporate Knights states. First launched by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, its members now include McDonald’s Canada, Costco, Loblaws, American beef supplier Cargill and the Brazilian equivalent JBS, and the World Wildlife Fund. Its stated mission is to “legitimize sustainable beef production in the public eye and underpin producers’ social licence to operate.”
But writer Wayne Roberts sees that goal as an uphill battle in an age of climate crisis, when “raising animals for meat is said to be responsible for some 14.5% of all human-caused global warming emissions, similar to the share of emissions that comes from cars.”
Corporate Knights credits the Roundtable with going “beyond hot air to grapple with issues of sustainability,” noting its publicly-stated recognition that true sustainability means addressing the “triple bottom line” of social responsibility, economic viability, and long-term, stable environmental health.
To this end, the Roundtable requires that “to be deemed sustainable, ranchers and processors must show progress on issues such as soil health, water conservation, biodiversity, animal welfare, and workers’ rights.”
In practice, though, the CRSB’s “basic requirements, as well as optional ratings for ‘excellence’, often appear vague and there are a few loopholes,” Roberts writes. “On all-important matters such as air quality and greenhouse gases, for example, the only requirement is that operators should be ‘aware of management practices that support carbon sequestration and minimize emissions’.” Similarly gauzy language is found in CRSB requirements for soil health, which state only that it should be “monitored and managed”.
As for animal welfare, “there are no requirements to minimize animal suffering beyond meeting Canada’s voluntary national farm animal code of practice,” he says. Nor does the CRSB mandate that meat products certified “sustainable” be free of antibiotics, hormones, and steroids.
Calling out similar gaping lapses in the American equivalent of the CRSB, a 50-member coalition of American environmental, public health, animal welfare, worker, and consumer groups declared that “weak performance measures set a low bar, open the doors to greenwashing, muddy the waters of ‘sustainable’ beef marketing claims, and undercut efforts to recognize and reward credibly more sustainable producers and brands,” Corporate Knights notes.
Another problem in Canada is that the Roundtable “doesn’t address systemic supply chain issues related to processors and retailers”—including the reality that two of its board members, the behemoth Cargill Foods and JBS, control 80% of beef processing in Canada, according to research by longtime food policy analyst Rod MacRae, professor of food studies at York University. MacRae also found that 72% of retail meat sales in Canada are captured by only four retailers.
“The concentration of corporate ownership makes it almost impossible for ranchers, farm workers, and processing workers to enjoy sustainable working and living conditions,” MacRae said.
The head of the Ontario Independent Meat Processors Association, Franco Naccarato, told Corporate Knights that small and local—from farm to abattoir to butcher shops—is the “pivotal” formula for making the meat industry sustainable. That’s partly because transportation emissions are so much smaller, but also because smaller operations bring communities back to a thriving “circular economy” where other businesses, like tanneries, can become established employers.
“You can’t design for sustainability without this balance in local economies,” Naccarato said.Corporate Knights suggests the CRSB should also educate itself about growing interest in regenerative agriculture, a practice whose central principles of pasture-centred animal husbandry and no-till farming mean healthier (and happier) cows, and fewer emissions.