Sustainable cattle production: why certification schemes outreach is so limited and where to look forward?

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The livestock sector is the single largest anthropogenic user of land, and within this sector, beef production emerges as the commodity that has received most attention for its environmental impact, due to the evident aggregated contribution that it makes to global issues such as climate change and land use: by 2013, the world had over 1.5 billion cattle (making it the dominant livestock species using the land) and beef supply chains were estimated to emit around 40% of all livestock emissions, with GHG emissions peaking where beef is produced in newly deforested land.

Cattle production has received attention and criticism for issues related to public health and food safety, pollution from intense production, animal welfare, and because production increases and expansion are considered a key driver of deforestation, particularly in some regions of Latin America. For example, in countries like Brazil, up to 75% of deforestation is associated with cattle ranching, a percentage that is quite concerning if we consider that the country has one of the highest deforestation rates worldwide.

To address all those concerns, a large number of interventions designed to enhance the sustainability of the beef supply chains have been developed, including voluntary certification schemes aiming especially to reduce deforestation. However, few of those interventions were wide enough to cover all sustainability issues related to cattle production, and after some early success with voluntary certification, progress towards sustainable cattle stalled.

Practically speaking, sustainable cattle production require significant changes in the current production systems, and this prove singularly challenging among cattle ranchers because it means that they have to change several deeply entrenched practices –many of which have a cultural background–, and because most cattle farms around the world are low-productivity systems with an inefficient use of land and resources, as a direct result from low-cost management systems.

 Certification has long been struggling between setting high standards aimed to more significant impacts and setting lower bars to try and get on board as many producers as possible. Considering this, the cost-benefit relationship associated with voluntary certification is sometimes hard to determine and, in some cases, the costs are even hard to bear for producers. On top of that, ranchers are not always receiving direct or indirect incentives to adopt certification and the change that it requires: the demand for certified beef is very specific for certain markets (many of which are already covered), and in most countries the majority of beef production is consumed domestically and local consumers –especially in developing countries– are very unlikely to pay any premium for certified products.

Also, and because the cattle supply chain is very unique and complex, the little flexibility of certification schemes makes it very difficult to accommodate to such complexity. Certification requires tracking of the animal origin and entire supply chain, but traceability is very complicated and sometimes is virtually impossible to determine exactly where cattle is coming from. Beef producers are very fragmented, few farms know exactly where are their animals coming from (particularly in those systems dedicated to fattening), and even fewer consumers can be assured of the exact origin and supply chain of the products they are getting, which means that cattle born from illegal or newly deforested lands can end up being sold as “certified” beef, for example.

Adopting a “one size-fits-all” solution for all cattle ranching worldwide, overlooks the critical fact that success of any mechanisms towards sustainable cattle depends not only on the design of such mechanism but also upon the political, social, and economical context in which it is being implemented.

In a global sphere where beef consumption is projected to gradually increase within the next decade, environmental and social awareness are raising, and significant changes in the beef production systems are needed to achieve higher levels of production in the face of the threat of climate change; sustainable cattle production represents a major opportunity to feed the world while at the same time preserving the natural resources that the planet depends upon.

However, progress towards sustainability in the beef production system calls for flexible schemes that are locally adapted and can answer both to the needs of cattle producers and the sustainability expectations of an increasingly demanding market. Sustainable cattle initiatives need to provide the possibility to interact with other efforts and sectors, and of accommodating to the wide diversity of interests, priorities and capabilities of each specific farm or group of farms, without losing sight of the common objectives set for sustainable development worldwide.

 On those terms, outcome based approaches can offer producers, supply chains and even consumers, the possibility to decide on further actions based on the particular production conditions, set priorities and goals, and allocate their resources accordingly and efficiently to address the specific challenges of each context.

Sustainability in our beef supply chains is no longer an option, but a necessity.