The first meeting that led to the foundation of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef was held in 2010. I think it is fair to say that at that time, top of mind for many of our founding members was the impact of the beef industry on tropical forests.
Deforestation was in the headlines then, as it still is today. There was less awareness of climate change as a global issue, and it was certainly less connected to food production than it is today.
The quandary facing us now is that we know the beef industry does not have to have a negative impact on climate or biodiversity, but that it often does.
We also know that climate and biodiversity are inextricably linked when it comes to the conversion of forests or native grasslands for pasture or feed production.
Our Hot Topic Discussion in March focused on the use of the term regenerative and its relation to Nature Positive Production. We heard several examples of how a range of practices can contribute to improved performance, biodiversity and reduced climate impact.
We know that livestock production systems in many parts of the globe are reservoirs of biodiversity, providing valuable mixed use habitat for wildlife alongside food production.
In Canada for example, cattle production is approximately 33% of Canada’s total agricultural land, YET it provides two-thirds (68%) of the wildlife habitat capacity. Those same ranches store a phenomenal amount of carbon in the soil and contribute to a healthy ecosystem. They are part of a climate and biodiversity positive food system.
We must be careful however, not to imply that all cattle production systems are climate and biodiversity positive. Management is critical to both outcomes, and it seems that often management that benefits biodiversity also benefits climate, as demonstrated in the film series “Roots So Deep” and the associated published research.
Adoption of systems that benefit climate and biodiversity is therefore one of the tools that we can encourage in order to help us meet our global climate and nature positive goals. The direct relationship between national roundtables and the cattle sectors in their countries is the mechanism that can deliver context relevant change.
In the calls for a reduction of global livestock numbers, we frequently see land take and the associated emissions cited as the reason for requiring a change. Encouraging systems that increase biodiversity, such as silvopastoral systems, where appropriate, is one strategy to meet our goal.
We should also take baseline emissions scenarios into account as compared to livestock grazing or mixed livestock and wildlife. This recent paper shows that emissions from wildlife can be equivalent to those from livestock, and that the loss in food production by removing livestock would not automatically yield any climate benefits.
Since livestock grazing systems also provide more wildlife habitat than croplands, it seems fair to conclude that in biodiversity, food security and climate terms, livestock production provides a useful compromise in many geographies when managed well.
There are a variety of actors that can lever change. While there is a lot of talk about carbon or biodiversity offsets that could earn producers extra money, I personally believe that we should be focusing more on insets. I cannot see the logic of selling the credit for your own good work to an organisation that continues to pollute with impunity, and thus losing the ability to make a claim about your own sustainability.
To make insets work, we need the whole value chain, including the financiers, to be involved in a system that rewards producers for the gains they make. Since many large corporations have made commitments that require reporting on scope 3 emissions, insetting is a rational choice. They will have to understand the emissions in their supply chain, anyway, and developing positive relationships with suppliers makes good business sense.
Furthermore, this leads to positive change that can make the supply chain itself more resilient, rather than outsourcing a solution to external parties.
Ruaraidh Petre, GRSB Executive Director