Supply Chain
McDonald's Beginning Journey to 100% 'Verified Sustainable Beef' — But Is That an Oxymoron?

McDonald’s announced this week that, by 2016, it will begin sourcing “verified sustainable beef.” The pledge is an effort to reduce the environmental impact of the fast-food chain’s meat production, as well as to be kinder to the animals on which its livelihood rests. Though there is, of course, plenty of debate over just what “sustainable beef” is, or whether it is achievable.

In its pledge, McDonald’s vows, rather vaguely, “to improve environmental practices in the way beef is produced, support positive workplaces in the beef industry, and drive continuous improvement in animal health and welfare.”

To achieve truly “sustainable beef,” McDonald’s will have to tackle the ingredient from every angle, from raising it — using land and water more efficiently to eliminating bovine growth hormone (BGH) and other antibiotics, to using more nutritional feed or even switching to grass — through to production: The burger giant admitted on its site that roughly 70 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions come from its supply chain, and of those, about 40 percent are related to beef.

McDonald’s is a founding member of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB), along with Walmart, Merck Animal Health, Rainforest Alliance, The Nature Conservancy and numerous others, formed in 2011. McDonald’s Europe is also a member of the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform’s Beef Working Group, which in November announced the development of its Principles for Sustainable Beef Farming, what it is calling the most complete guidelines developed for beef production to date.

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On announcing the completion of the Principles, the Group said its next step would be to develop a set of Sustainable Beef Farming Practices to help farmers meet the Principles in a practical way and widely promote and support their adoption, as well as aligning their work with that of the GRSB. How that process is unfolding remains to be seen, as well as whether the Principles established for McDonald’s European arm are being applied to the rest of its supply chain.

A group of savvy entrepreneurs may have found a way to mitigate the impacts that the beef industry inflicts on the environment and animals by cultivating insect protein as a sustainable substitute to beef: It takes 100 gallons of water to create 6 grams of cow protein; that same 100 gallons of water can create 238 grams of cricket protein. Crickets also produce 80 times less methane than cattle and overall are 20 times more efficient as a source of protein — they contain all of the essential amino acids and high levels of vitamin B and provide almost as much calcium as milk and even more iron than beef. Think a McCricket burger would sell?

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