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Rising to the challenge of sustainable beef

March 31, 2022
Beef Cattle grazing under a tree canopy in Brazil

GRSB is powering progress in sustainable beef by setting ambitious goals around reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving land use and animal welfare.

The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) has ambitious goals for the global beef industry. Ruaraidh Petre, executive director of the GRSB, joins Ag Future to discuss their mission to advance, support and communicate continuous improvements in the sustainability of the global beef value chain through leadership, science, and multi-stakeholder engagement and collaboration.

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Ruaraidh Petre hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.


Tom Martin:             I’m Tom Martin.

                                 Alltech recently became a member of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which is leading the global conversation on beef sustainability.

                                 And joining us for this episode of AgFuture is its executive director, Ruaraidh Petre.

Welcome, Ruaraidh.

Ruaraidh Petre:       Thank you. Pleasant to be here.

Tom Martin:             And, for context, first, if you could, give us a bit of information about your background.

Ruaraidh Petre:        My background? I grew up in Scotland in a farming community. And from a young age, I aimed to get involved in agriculture, mostly livestock agriculture, in that part of Scotland.

                                 I used to work on farms as a schoolkid and later went on to study agriculture at a university; did a master’s degree as well and took up farm management. And my only career was in farming, both in Scotland but also further afield, in New Zealand, where I now live, and in Australia.

                                 And following that, I really went on a step past, more toward agricultural development in lower- and middle-income countries. I spent a lot of time in Asia, Central Asia — so India, Pakistan, Afghanistan — and subsequently in Africa. So, I spent several years in Southern Africa as well. And all of that gave me quite a sort of broad view of, particularly, livestock systems, because that’s what I was always working on and (had) a real desire to try and improve and contribute to, particularly to produce livelihoods and to ensure that they were getting the best out of what they could do.

Tom Martin:             And so, how did you become involved with the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, the GRSB?

Ruaraidh Petre:        I was living in Botswana at the time and there was an announcement, there was going to be a meeting — his was in 2010 — and in Denver, Colorado, to discuss the sustainability of the beef industry. And that was close to my heart. Botswana is a beef producer and exporting country, a very arid country with its own sustainability challenges.

                                 And so, I attended that meeting and was really impressed by the number of organizations who are committing to this and getting involved. So, I got involved as well as one of the founding members; the organization I was working for at that time became one of the founding members of GRSB, and it really moved on from there.

                                So, when I left Botswana and I was back in Europe, I was only back in Europe for a couple of months when GRSB contacted me and asked me if I would like to join as the executive director, which I’ve been doing since 2012 now.

Tom Martin:            Well, since that initial gathering in Denver, how many members or companies have joined up with the GRSB globally?

Ruaraidh Petre:       We’ve got very good global coverage. We’re now over 100 companies and organizations. So, some of them are producer organizations, for example, which represent a very large number of people, and some are just individual companies. So, yeah, over 100 and still growing.

Tom Martin:            The mission and the vision of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef are concentrated in three areas: climate, nature-positive production, and animal health and welfare.

                                 Let’s look at each of these issues. First, climate.

Ruaraidh Petre:       We set three goals last year. Our members have all committed to following these goals. And the one on climate is to reduce the net global warming impact of beef by 30% by 2030 on a pathway to climate neutrality.

                                And that’s quite an ambitious goal, particularly for the global beef industry. Many of our member countries have already got a goal. And so, for example, Australia and New Zealand have already got the goals, and for example, the NCBA in the United States also has a climate goal.

                                 So, we wanted to take all of those and show the commitment of the global industry. It’s a big challenge, because there are some countries where the emissions are still growing, so we need to reverse that trend, and we need to really start getting the whole industry on a pathway toward neutrality.

Tom Martin:             Well, (with) 2030 just under eight years away, what do you think — can that goal be met?

Ruaraidh Petre:        I think it can be met. It is ambitious, and I think goals are only worth setting when they’re ambitious, because you have to have something to measure yourself against and really demonstrate you’re — you’re seeing change.

                                There are a number of reasons why I think it can be met. There are increasing numbers of technologies available to help reduce the climate impact of beef production, but there are also — there’s increasing recognition of the role of things just like good grazing management and sequestering carbon in the soil.

And that has been almost discounted from the discussion on the climate impact of beef up to now. So, people recognize that it’s a possibility, but beef livestock assessments really don’t take carbon sequestration into account. And that has to change, because we have to be able to show the full system impacts of beef production and the fact that there are some very positive impacts of doing things well.

So, I’m not saying it’s an automatic thing, but when people improve their grassland and grazing management, they really can turn around from being an emitter of carbon to being a sequester-er of carbon.

Tom Martin:            I mentioned that there are three pillars of the GRSB vision and mission. We just talked about climate. Another is nature-positive production. What is meant by that?

Ruaraidh Petre:       So, nature-positive production — and this really relates, again, back to climate — but it’s also really focused on biodiversity. And it won’t have escaped any producer’s attention that the beef industry has been in the spotlight very frequently — particularly in Latin America, but also in some other parts of the world — for being responsible for deforestation, land conversion and generally having an impact on biodiversity.

                                So, we would like to see that trend being reversed. Ever since we set our principles and criteria back in 2014, we said we want to enhance biodiversity and restore ecosystems. So, this is a commitment to doing that, again, by 2030.

                                So, becoming nature-positive really means that the production system is enhancing soil health and enhancing biodiversity, and it’s contributing to good ecosystem function.

Tom Martin:            How is the roundtable looking out for animal health and welfare?

Ruaraidh Petre:       The animal health and welfare is, obviously, a critical one, in social terms. It’s also critical, really, to the performance for producers. Good health and welfare will contribute to a productive and efficient system.

                                And producers, you know — this is no secret to anybody who’s been involved in it — they really respect their animals, and they want to look after them. They want to give them a good life.

                                Of course, there are sometimes bad examples that we see, and they tend to get a lot of exposure when there are bad examples. So, it’s not that we thought that was something systemically wrong, but we do need to make sure that we can demonstrate (that) we’re improving animal health and animal welfare.

                                 And there are particular things, you know, in some parts of the world where there’s still excess mortality for various reasons — and, sometimes, not even well-understood reasons.

So, this particular goal will involve research and working with producers in different regions to work at what the issues are and to help resolve those issues.

And with all of our — with all of our goals, and with all of our principles and criteria, we have to recognize that production systems are really varied (around) the world. And you have numerous different ways of solving problems, and you have a different set of problems in each place.

Tom Martin:            Sustainability is a really hot topic rig ht now, and the definition can feel very broad (and) very elusive, actually. How does the GRSB define sustainability?

Ruaraidh Petre:       Well, it’s interesting you should ask that because, as I’ve said, we defined this really quite some years ago — in 2014 was when we put out our definition, and it’s not short. Our definition of sustainable production, sustainable beef, is actually 12 pages long. So, it’s not something that trips off the tongue exactly.

Sustainability is defined as socially responsible, economically viable and environmentally sound. Those are the three starting pillars for sustainability. And then, GRSB defines five core principles on which we’re built. So, they are: natural resources, which I’ve already talked about in terms of nature-positive and climate impact.

And we have people in the community; that one really focuses on how people are treated within the system. So, employees need to be employed with a fair wage and reasonable conditions. We need to make sure that local communities are not negatively impacted by the beef industry, etc. So, there’s a number of social criteria in there.

                                Then, we have animal health and well-being, as you’d expect. And I’ve already talked a little bit about that.

We, then, have a principle on food, which is really about food. Of course, naturally, food safety, that’s a prerequisite for any food system, but also transparency along the food chain, so that people have access to information about: Where is their food coming from? And how is it produced?

                                           And then, the fifth of our principle of — for sustainable beef is efficiency and innovation. And this may sound like something of an outlier, but we feel it’s important to recognize that there are going to be opportunities in the future for improving things that we don’t yet have available (that) are going to become available. And data sharing is one of those innovations around, for example, feed additives that can improve performance for cattle or can reduce emissions, for example. These are all going to be important things in the future.

 So, we wanted to recognize that there’s a role for technology and efficiency and innovation and not prescribe something that comes from the past. We also need to look at the future.

Tom Martin:             Has the GRSB set sustainability goals? And if it has, could you tell us about them?

Ruaraidh Petre:       So, the three goals that we set last year are focused on climate, on nature-positive production, and on animal welfare, the ones I already talked about. And they — they’re all goals that have a date of 2030, so to keep us time-bound, and they’re all quite ambitious.

                                 Again, it’s important that we, we really keep ourselves on our toes. It’s also important that we measure what we do. It’s no good just having a set of, say, guidelines, for example, which are optional. We really need to hold ourselves to the level of ambition to demonstrate that we’re actually making a difference.

So, that is why we set those goals. And we were fortunate that our members voted overwhelmingly in favor of those three goals, and it’s possible that we’ll add more goals in the future on the basis of our principles and criteria.

Tom Martin:            Ruaraidh, how can sustainable beef production have a positive impact on nature itself?

Ruaraidh Petre:       Well, beef production — particularly going back to what I was talking about grazing management, grazing systems, they encompass very large areas of the planet — often, areas where there is still quite a large abundance of wildlife. Even starting at the soil, the soil is usually bio-diverse, and healthy soils are more bio-diverse than unhealthy soil.

                                And then, going right up through all the species of plants that grow on that soil and that are available in well-managed grazing system — if you are doing things right, you’ll have a healthy insect population, you’ll have a healthy bird population, you’ll have a healthy ungulate population or wild herbivores. There are huge numbers of species that can co-exist in a well-managed and sustainable beef system.

                                So, when we talk about being nature-positive, we’re talking about all of those kinds of things: incorporating, for example, areas of trees. They could just be shade trees, or they could be preserved areas of forests and farms that protect biodiversity.

                                Having a mosaic of grazing system, trees, etc., on a property can really contribute a lot to nature and to biodiversity.

Tom Martin:            We talked earlier about animal health and welfare, but how can sustainable beef production specifically have a positive impact on animal health and welfare?

Ruaraidh Petre:        I think, without good animal health and welfare, you can’t have sustainable beef production. That will be the way I would put it. You know, we must respect the animals that we manage all the way through their life. We must ensure that we’re giving them the best lives we can.

                                So, one of the things that we specifically call out in our goal for animal health and welfare is pain mitigation and the adoption of that. Now, that’s complicated in some countries, because these are pharmaceutical drugs which are not always approved for use in different countries.

                                So, then, we must look for a method to allow the registration of those for use or we must look for alternative. And there’s a good example of an alternative through genetics and breeding. You know, one of the most painful procedures which is often used on cattle is dehorning. And there is, of course, (the) polled gene: we can breed cattle without horns, and that avoids the need for dehorning.

                                So, where we can introduce the polled gene into a cattle breed, that is a welfare improvement that contributes to sustainability and to animal welfare.

Tom Martin:            Interesting.

                                What kind of outreach are you doing now? You, of course, responded to a call twelve years ago, and so, conversely, what’s going on now?

Ruaraidh Petre:       So, we continue to build our networks of companies. We bring in producers, we bring in processing companies. We’re really built on a whole-chain approach.

                                So, we have six constituencies; that starts with the producer, and that’s really fundamental for what we do. If we don’t have the buy-in and the collaboration with producers, I don’t think we can achieve much. So, the producers are really fundamental to us.

                                The next one along the chain is the processors — so, the people, the meat packers, who are buying cattle off those producers. And then, we have a constituency which we call commerce, which is really a bag full of input providers, including financial services.

                                So, you’ve got pharmaceutical companies, you’ve got banks, etc. And they’re an important adjunct to the industry; they can really help with sustainability. Banks, for example, can finance sustainability initiatives, but also, the input providers, technology providers, have a role to play.

                                Further up the chain, we have the retailers. So, that would be the restaurant chains but also the supermarket chains who are buying beef. They’ve got a direct link to the consumer, of course, and they know what the consumer is asking in terms of sustainability, so they’re important to have around the table to translate what we can do and what we can deliver into language that consumers can understand — and vice versa, so they can tell us what consumers are asking.

                                We also have civil society, which means non-government organizations — people like World Wildlife Fund, but also academics. And we have a number of university departments that are involved, and they can give advice on what’s feasible and has a science that can back up things that we want to do.

                                 And then, the final two, actually — we have national roundtables (and) 24 countries represented in our, in our global roundtable. There are 12 national or regional roundtables, some of them covering more than one country, and that’s how we got up to a total of 24.

                                And then, finally, we have allied industries — people like the leather industry and dairy and so on. So, (they) can definitely support what we’re doing; they can take information from the beef industry into their own industry. Leather, of course, is also something that — the fashion industry is often challenged on the sustainability of what they’re doing, and they have an important role to play as well.

                                So, with that whole-chain approach, we can, we can really reach a lot of people and drive change (and) create demand for and recognition of sustainable goods.

Tom Martin:            Ruaraidh, what do you enjoy most about this work?

Ruaraidh Petre:       I enjoy the interaction with people all over the world. And I guess my career over 25, nearly 30 years now has been quite international. I really still enjoy that interaction with people from different places and learning about the different ways people do things. For the past couple of years, that has been quite tricky. It meant a lot of new goals, of course.

But the world is starting to open up again, and I’m looking forward to being able to visit more people. We’ve got an innovation field tour for our Latin American members in Paraguay later this year. We’re going to have our global conference in November in Denver, and there are many other opportunities for me to visit different countries and to learn more about what’s happening in each part of the world. So, that’s what I really enjoy about it.

Tom Martin:            All right. That’s Ruaraidh Petre speaking to us from New Zealand, where he is executive director of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

                                Thank you, Ruaraidh.

Ruaraidh Petre:       Thank you.

Tom Martin:            And for Ag Future, I’m Tom Martin.