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Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef undermines decades of investment in sustainability by Australian Cattle Producers

The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is a brilliant, far-sighted exercise in public relations by JBS, Cargill and Elanco, not to mention Woolworths, McDonald’sand Walmart, to convince consumers that beef from their factory farms is equivalent to clean-green beef, produced off pastures and rangelands.

These multinational corporations are the lead players in the establishment and management of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

The sheer gullibility of the unrepresentative Cattle Council of Australia is breathtaking. By supporting the GRSB, CCA is supporting an organisation determined to ensure clean- green Australian beef is no better, no more sustainable, nor more deserving of an environmental premium than beef from factory farms.

What is the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef? Why is the Cattle Council of Australia championing the establishment of the GRSB?

In GRSB’s own words:

Vision: “We envision a world in which all aspects of the beef value chain are environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable.”

Mission: “…to advance continuous improvement in global beef value chain sustainability, through leadership, science and multi-stakeholder engagement and collaboration.”

Why would profit driven, politically powerful, factory farming global corporations and their associates want to impose these values on themselves?

Why don’t JBS and Cargill just clean up their own factory farms and “…advance continuous improvement in sustainability…” by spending on improvements to their yards, feed, water and waste management systems to make them sustainable?

Why do they want endorsement by the likes of the Cattle Council of Australia and, by implication, the endorsement of Australian grass fed cattle producers?

Why do they want a Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef?

Fundamentally, factory farms take a unit of food suitable for human consumption – such as corn, barley or wheat – and turn it into meat. But in real terms, it’s about a fifth as much food and the process creates waste and pollution.

At its very core, in the eyes of many, factory farming is by definition “unsustainable”. But it is profitable, thanks in part to the US corn subsidy. But factory farming faces some challenges.

Factory farms are attracting criticism from a growing number of middle class citizens, not just Greenies and rabid Animal Rights advocates. Consumers are asking questions about the environmental impact, animal welfare and ultimately the wholesomeness of the food itself.

Factory farmers are also aware that middle and upper class consumers are prepared to pay a premium for beef with verifiable claims that affirm environmental and animal welfare production values.

The premiums paid for these products are attractive and factory farm CEOs are under pressure to find ways to get a share of the action. They recognise they need to reposition their beef businesses as wholesome, animal friendly and sustainable if they are to secure premium prices and not lose market share.

Factory farming has a two-fold problem when it comes to sustainability.  A production problem (feedlots themselves) and a marketing problem (public perception).

The cost of making their huge investments in feedlots “clean and green” is prohibitive, if not technically and practically impossible.

Factory farms are also used to produce chicken and pork. In the eyes of the public, feedlots, chicken and pig farms are all factory farms. “Sustainable” feedlots for cattle, if such things could even be created, would always struggle to gain public credibility.

But they need to do something. And it would seem it is cheaper and less bother to change the public’s perception – that is, make the public think factory farmed beef is clean and green.

A logical strategy is to blur and minimise the differences. If they can’t be genuinely clean and green themselves, the very least they can to do is undermine the perceived differences.

One way to make factory farms look clean and green is to pretend all in the cattle and beef industry are one big happy family, sharing clean green values, along with responsible and ethical environmental and animal welfare practices.

This would make great advertising material.

Imagine romantic scenes of the cattle peacefully grazing in the Aussie outback or the Argentine pampas, a smiling farmer, and a happy family munching a hamburger made with beef trim from cattle from the local factory farm. (Just like on the GRSB brochures and website). Then the words: Made with beef sustainably produced by foreign and local ranchers – all caring members of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

This is where the Cattle Council of Australia is betraying Australian cattle producers.

The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is not about raising environmental standards.  It’s about lowering the standards to include factory farms.

It’s about making all beef “equal” – that is “clean and green” – irrespective of its country of origin or method of production.

It’s about making grass fed cattle that have had a Pinkeye treatment and 5in1 vaccination, equivalent, in health terms, to cattle that have had rumen modifiers and beta agonist for a significant part of their lives.

It’s about making beef from cattle from the pristine rangelands of Queensland equivalent to beef from cattle finished on an industrial scale manure heap.

Cattle Council of Australia CEO, Jed Matz has got it right when he says: “… we can demonstrate that we are over and above the definitions that will be included in the Global Roundtable without having to do anything extra on farm or without having to have any extra on-farm systems.”

However, he does not say or realise that the clean green provenance of Australian beef raised on rangelands, and decades of diligent environmental and animal health management by farmers and government, will count for absolutely nothing when CCA signs off on the GRSB agreement.

Does CCA really believe McDonald’s are going to reject beef from JBS and Cargill owned feedlots because it’s “not sustainable”?  Does he really believe McDonald’s will start paying a premium for Australian beef because it is sustainable?

Supporting the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and signing any agreement will simply confirm that, in environmental and animal welfare terms, all Australian beef is no different or better than beef from factory farms or recently destroyed rain forests.

The GRSB is little more than a publicity stunt to protect the investments of a handful of major multinational corporations. These companies can see the consumer tide moving against their financial interests. They recognise that a technical, real world solution is costly and have deliberately chosen to massage public perceptions through a process of industry politics and public relations.

They have chosen to use their immense collective political and advertising power as the tools to solve this problem. The fate of the genuine, environmentally sustainable, cattle producer matters little to them.

The GRSB is designed to make all beef equal, but at the lowest possible environmental and animal ethical standard. Its owners and backers, multinational food corporations and their associates, want something for nothing.

The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is an attempt to smash an important point of difference along with the reputation, community respect and hard-won market share of Australian cattle farmers who genuinely produce sustainable beef.

The Cattle Council of Australia must resign from the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.  It must not support this cynical exercise in market power designed to mislead consumers and undermine genuine cattle producers.

Who are the movers and shakers on the board of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef? 

The President is Cameron Bruett, a JBS executive based in the USA. Bruett previously worked for a US Senator and has a proven record as a political operator.

The Vice President and Treasurer is Roger Cady, an executive from Elanco, and another Vice President is Gary Johnson from McDonald’s.

Under the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef’s constitution, the President, two Vice Presidents, and the Treasurer will be the Executive Committee that runs the organisation.

At this stage, the Executive Committee includes the representative of JBS, Elanco and McDonald’s.
The Corporations

JBS: possibly the biggest factory farmer in the world with cattle feedlots with a one time capacity of about one million head in North America, and about 150,000 head in Australia. In addition, JBS process 100,000 head of cattle per day, 70,000 pigs a day, and 12 million chickens a day.

You might say JBS is an outstanding example of a successful business – a champion of the competitive free enterprise systems. If only that was 100% true. JBS is 30% owned by the Development Bank of Brazil following a recent debt for equity swap (read bailed-out or subsidised by the Brazilian government). JBS is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the US corn subsidy (provided by US tax payers) that underwrites factory-farmed cattle, pigs and chicken in the USA.

Cargill is a multi-national, privately owned, agri-food corporation with global sales in excess of US$100 billion pa. It’s a significant factory farmer with a one-time cattle feedlot capacity of 340,000 head. The company processes 8 million cattle pa. It also processes 8 million pigs raised by “contract producers” – who are required to have a minimum capacity of 1,200 pigs. Cargill has recently commissioned a A$300m chicken farm in China.

Multinational Elanco, (a subsidiary of Eli Lilly that recently purchased Novartis) lives off factory farmers (JBS and Cargill are probably its biggest customers). Elanco provide the spectrum of drugs needed to keep factory-farmed animals alive and productive. This includes rumen modifiers for cattle, a wide range of antimicrobials for cattle, pigs and chickens, hormone growth promotants used in cattle, and more exotic beta adrenergic agonists growth promotants used in cattle, pigs and chickens.

McDonald’s a major JBS and Cargill customer and one of the world’s biggest sellers of factory farmed meats. Worldwide the company has 34,000 outlets and employs 1.7million people. In the US, 14,000 outlets sell 350,000 tonnes of beef per year, an average of 25 tonnes per outlet. A clean green claim for their burgers would provide a significant marketing angle.

When it comes to commitment to the Australian cattle industry you can’t look pastWoolworths. Beef represents less than 2% of Woolworths’ sales. Its biggest single business is poker machines (biggest operator of poker machines in Australia) followed by the sale of alcohol. The board of Woolworths is well qualified to lecture Australians on ethics.

Is Woolworths subsidised?  Legally no, but in reality, yes.  Woolworths, along with its twin Coles, are outstanding global examples of monopolies.

Together they control 80% of the grocery market in Australia and more than 50% of the retail beef sales.  This level of market share is known to be anticompetitive and not permitted in the UK, USA and Europe. In these countries they would be required to sell off stores to restore competition, innovation and productivity in wholesale and retail markets.

In reality, Woolworths and Coles are protected by government legislation that allows them to operate as monopolies and exercise their buying and selling powers – to the detriment of their suppliers and retail customers.

It’s not the first time CCA has got it wrong

It’s not unlike the US strategy on BSE, when in 2010 the US tried to con the Australian government into allowing US beef into Australia.

The US reasoning being: if Australia, which has never had a case of BSE, accepts US beef, then Japan and South Korea have no basis for rejecting BSE tainted US beef.

At the time CCA supported the US proposal. Fortunately, the Australian Government rejected the US proposal and defended the interests of Australian cattle producers.

Author: Athol Economou
Athol Economou, ABA Director
P O Box 415
Richmond Vic 3121
T: 03 9421 2855

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