Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Beef pleads its case in a changing world

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The incredible diversity of beef cattle farming around the world gives it relevance, strength and endurance, Global Roundtable (GRSB) executive director Ruaraidh Petre says.
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Ruaraidh Petre has run the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef remotely from New Zealand during the pandemic.

Scottish agriculturalist Ruaraidh Petre runs the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef from his home in Nelson, unable in the past two years to be able to travel beyond New Zealand to conferences or meetings. After farming here as a young man, he was keen to return, Hugh Stringleman found out.

The incredible diversity of beef cattle farming around the world gives it relevance, strength and endurance, Global Roundtable (GRSB) executive director Ruaraidh Petre says.

“Beef farming takes place from the Arctic Circle to the arid centre of Australia or Botswana in southern Africa, where I was working when I first heard about the Roundtable.”

GRSB has over 100 member companies and organisations, non-profits and individuals from 24 countries on five continents.

Six groups of members, called constituencies, come from producer organisations, processors, retailers, allied services, civil societies and the roundtables of 12 beef-producing countries.

The GRSB has an elected 19-member board of directors from all round the world, which includes a representative from Beef + Lamb New Zealand, and that board appoints an executive committee of six.

Executive director Petre, who has been a decade in the top role, has a small staff based mainly in Colorado Springs.

He works remotely from Nelson, where his wife holds a medical position, and he has worked in that way since 2008.

“When my wife’s employment opportunity came up I was very keen to return to NZ because I worked on farms here after graduation,” he said.

The Roundtable sits on a commitment to profitable beef farming in ways that are sustainable by sharing best practices.

Without profitable farmers there is no industry.

It also holds that all aspects of the global beef value chain can be economically viable, socially responsible and environmentally sound.

The New Zealand Roundtable, chaired by Richard Scholefield from Whangara Farms, joined as a GRSB member in 2019 and Beef & Lamb NZ preceded that. AgResearch is also a consulting member.

GRSB has just published a Beef Carbon Footprint Guideline to support consistency in emissions reporting around the world.

It followed the proclamation last year of an audacious goal to reduce the net global warming impact of beef by 30% by 2030, on a pathway to climate neutrality.

That diversity of cattle farming around the world contains countries and industries that know their life cycle assessments and carbon footprints and those that don’t yet, Petre said.

Hence the need for consistency and a guide for governments, researchers, policy makers, producer bodies and all interested parties.

“Summarising these many studies is difficult because of differences in system boundaries, allocation methodology and emissions factors,” GRSB climate science committee chair Brenna Grant said.

Perhaps real progress cannot be measured because of the noise or inconsistencies.

“That poses a danger of confusion and contradiction, which in turn could create a false impression that the industry is failing to actively engage with the issue of climate change,” Grant said.

Grant is the executive director of Canfax, the research arm of the Canadian cattle industry, highly experienced in carbon footprints and life cycle assessments.

Her science advisory panel collates research work and informs the GRSB membership.

The most-recent Beef Carbon Footprint Guideline took the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance (LEAP) guidelines and applied them more specifically to the beef industry.

The international Dairy Industry Platform went through the same LEAP application process in forming its pathway to net zero.

Referring to the audacious carbon reduction target, Petre said you can’t manage what you can’t measure, so hence the guidelines in common.

“Each of our member countries has a different set of challenges and a way of responding.

“We describe the situation in every country and come up with means of addressing that.”

The beef industry has been repeatedly called out as a heavy source of greenhouse gas emissions and the need for data on that issue is obvious.

After a decade of acting collaboratively and responsibly through the GRSB, is anything changing on the ground?

Petre said industry organisations had evolved from defensive positions to proactive responses in focus issues like climate change, biodiversity and animal health and welfare.

“In the early days we were met with suspicion and scepticism from some, and now those same organisations are leading the way, saying they have data and ways of making improvements.”

Opponents of the red meat industry argue that alternative, usually plant-based foods, are more sustainable for the planet but ignore the roles cattle have in converting un-cropable land into high quality nutrition.

“Crops and cattle interact and strengthen each other – without one you can’t do a good job of the other.”

A well-managed grazing system provides for insects, birds and a healthy ungulate population – wild herbivores.

“There are huge numbers of species that can co-exist in a well-managed and sustainable beef system.”

Petre and his team are gearing up to the first in-person GRSB conference in more than two years, to take place in Denver in November.

It will incorporate a communications summit for the beef industry to hear the concerns of critics and consumers and address them respectfully and meaningfully.

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