Ruaraidh Petre, GRSB: the importance of beef on the environment

Ruaraidh Petre is the Executive Director of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, since 2012. He has an agricultural background, he used to be a beef and cheese producer himself, he worked in a number of different countries around the world, so he has pretty wide exposure to animal productions around the world. We have spoken with him about the GRSB and its purpose.

The Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef (GRSB) is an association made of -six different constituencies – says Ruaraidh Petre: we have producers, processes and input suppliers of beef industries, including financiers, we have retailers like supermarkets chains, restaurants chains, civil societies and NGO’s academia. And we have allied initiatives, for example, the leather industry has got a sustainable initiative so they are part of it as well. We also have national roundtables, so the GRSB is a global umbrella organisation. We have now 24 different countries participating and many of those have got national roundtable or are a member of a regional one like the European roundtable.

Why and how did you start all that?

We started with a conference in 2010. At that time there was a lot of concern and a lot of publicity about the role of beef on the environment, the negative environmental impact, and at that time deforestation being one of them. So, we had a conference in Denver and with five hundred people coming there from around the world. The discussion was all about on how can the meat industry be more sustainable? How to combat those negative problems there were at that time? Not just in Latin America where obviously there were the most of headlights at that time but we knew that was to become a wider issue, so stakeholders from around the world came together and they agreed that they should have a group that brought the major players from the beef industry itself but also the civil societies and the NGOs, for example, who have been critical, also wanted to be part of the solution.

What are the principles of the GRSB?

We have five principles and a number of criteria: one is Natural Resources, such as land, soil, water, air quality; than we have People and The Community, which is about the rights of people working in the industry, but also the rights of indigenous people, land tenure issues, labour rights and more social principles; then we have Animal Health and Welfare, which is a key one for us, the need to keep cattle and the herd healthy because it is better for the welfare, for the producer, it is better for the environment, you don’t need so many cattle, but the ones you are producing are more productive. Because without welfare, ethically it is a problem, also in terms of productivity and quality, so welfare is of increasing interest; Food, in particular food safety, and with food chain you need to talk about the chain of custody, traceability and the sharing of information, that needs to be done in such a way so as not to infringe on people’s private information but we do need to have a good sharing of information along the value chain. So that people know what it is they are buying and how it gets to where it is; the 5 is Efficiency and Innovation, and the reason we put that in there is that Efficiency and Innovation are both key driver of sustainability, and we are not opposed to the technological development, so you will see with a lot of the general public’s perceptions about agriculture especially the negative perceptions often relates to technology. We are technology neutral and we are science-based so if there is a solution to a problem which is new technology but it can make us better at what we do then we are willing to look at that and make sure that we can use it in as positive a way as possible.

Is really beef production the main source of greenhouse gases in the world, as far as you can see from your perspective?

Beef production and livestock as a whole, the whole sector does have relatively high greenhouse gas emissions, but it also produces a lot of food; you will see it in compared with for example the transport sector by FAO. You will be very familiar with the figures, of course eventually retracted, what they had first published in “Livestock’s long shadow” and revised the figures downwards. That is not to say that livestock and cattle don’t produce greenhouse gases, we know they do, but we also know there are ways to improve the balance. The other thing that is not covered in the analysis is that grazing systems sequester a lot of carbon in the soil, and well-managed grazing systems can actually increase the carbon in the soil, and therefore come out much more positive than they are being portrayed. Just look at methane, that can look to be a very high figure but when you look at the overall balance of the system, it can actually be much closer to neutrality that you might think. If you manage grazing well, grazing is good for soil and for ecosystems. Grazing animals, whether they are cattle or wild animals created those grassland ecosystems and you can’t have a grassland ecosystem without animals. One of the big issues is the role of healthy soils in holding moisture and it’s an absolutely massive increase in water retention capacity if you increase the carbon just by 1%. Just by increasing the carbon in soil, and you can do that by grazing, you increase the ability of whole water and also increase the ability to soak up water, to prevent flooding when the big rains come. If you look at the Australia in recent times, where is a terrible fire: many soils are really low in carbon. If the grazing management would be turned around, it can hold much more water, and vegetation would stay greener.

Is livestock really competing with human beings for food?

That’s a good question. Because livestock is providing us with food. And they are also cycling nutrients. They are actually upcycling nutrients. We cannot eat grass, monogastric species ourselves, pigs, chicken etc. are not good at digesting cellulose, where that’s exactly what ruminants are designed to do. People often assume that if you didn’t grow grass, you can just grow crops there and feed them directly to the humans, but the world is not like that. Most of the world is not capable of producing human-edible crops. So, at the moment around about 65% of the land we use to produce any kind of food is actually just producing grass, and it’s not because we choose to do that, just because we like meat, but because it is not good, and not suitable for producing human-edible crops directly. Another thing is that a lot of the crops we grow, probably 30% of some crops, and maize is the big one is fed the cattle, why are we not just feeding that directly to humans? But the point is we can feed the whole plant to ruminants. And they buffer the market. So, you can divert human food quality grains into the human food market. But if you have a problem with a harvest year that is very wet or something where the quality is poor you need to be able to use that in other ways so that’s why it tends to get fed to livestock. So, they play a big role in buffering the markets and a big role in upcycling nutrients. Of course, they also play a huge role in providing manure and organic matter to go back into the cropping system because without organic matter in the soil you can’t grow crops successfully. And you need more chemical fertiliser without it. If you use chemical fertilizer and you don’t use any organic matter, your soil will dry out and you will have increasing problems getting that soil to support plants. And if you are constantly recycling nutrients and cycling through ruminant livestock, you can just maintain that productivity much longer. I once visited three producers, I was invited to organize a field trip at the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Annual General Meeting in Chicago in June 2019 and the three producers were all crops producers, they were producing corn and soybean and all three of them going back into having cattle. The only reason for doing that was cycling nutrients so their crops perform better and all three have said they will never go back having no livestock because livestock was paying a huge amount of money in just in terms of the cycling of nutrients.

Usually, every second year, the GRSB organizes a global conference on sustainable beef. What is that about?

We bring all the members together, every two years, we talk about the progress that has been made on a different aspect of our mission. We have many different national roundtables, so one of the things about the global conference is that we use a platform to tell the world about the progress they are making in their country, because of course is great to compare and to make progress in your own country but also to share experiences from different places. We all started at the same time and we move to different places, they came a lot from each other, that’s one of the things that we do.

What about the GRSB now, with the Covid-19?

Covid impacted us as an organisation and on our members around the world. We had to adapt to a world in which travel was much less feasible, and so we took our activities online. This has actually worked out well for us in many ways. We were very sorry to miss co-hosting our 2020 conference with the Paraguayan Roundtable in Asuncion, and will now be holding an online conference in April 2021. We hope to be able to return to a physical conference in the future.

We used 2020 to make a lot of progress in setting numerical goals for GRSB, in the areas of Climate impact, land conversion and animal welfare, which will be launched at the April conference. We also spent a lot of time developing a communication strategy going forward, which will aim to profile the progress being made around the world on sustainable beef and highlight the importance of sustainable beef in a thriving food system.

Journalist specialized in sustainability, climate change and environmental issues, he writes for various newspapers, magazines and websites. He worked in 2007 at the Center on Sustainable Consumption and Production, born from the collaboration between UNEP and Wuppertal Institut. Graduated in sociology, for years he has been focusing his work on the impacts of food production, starting from those related to animal husbandry and animal production. At the end of 2018 he has published the book “In difesa della carne” (“In defense of meat"), published by Lindau.