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Where the sustainability conversation goes wrong

The outcome of the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef? More and more producers are looking to the U.S. CAFO model to keep up with the world’s rising demand for beef.

Think the sustainability conversation is being led largely by grass-roots organizations and small businesses passionate about the environment (who discuss the sustainable future over cups of fair-trade organic tea at yearly wilderness retreats)? Think again. This week, beef producers from all over the world met in Denver for the first-ever Global Conference on Sustainable Beef. The consensus? More beef producers outside the U.S. will adopt the CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) model to keep up with the world’s rising demand for beef. Yes, you heard that right: CAFOs are more sustainable.

Which may be true, if looked at simply from a land-use (or bottom line) perspective. I was shocked to learn that worldwide most cattle enjoy a largely grass-fed existence. Melanie Warner reports in  Why Greener Beef Will Mean Less Grass, More Feedlots: “Currently, most beef cattle — some 97% worldwide — spend their entire lives roaming on pasture and eating grass, resulting in the type of grass-fed operations U.S. foodies cherish.”

Of course the beef industry doesn't want to address their huge environmental footprint in simpler or saner terms: Everyone could eat less meat. Or worse: Everyone could eat less beef.  What’s more, no one is holding the beef industry accountable for MRSA and other superbugs created by the routine use of unnecessary antibiotics in cattle (as well as other livestock), and never mind the health costs of ingesting synthetic hormones. Shouldn't public health be integral to any sustainability conversation? Not if they can get away without it. The goal is to talk the talk, but sell more—and to pass it all off to consumers as sustainable, too.

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

on Nov 10, 2010

Ah, the ugly side of sustainability is that at the moment it is opportunistically defined in most uses. Few are comprehensively structuring a sustainability framework or index that takes into account all relevant dimensions. As a result, sustainability marketing is easy to poke full of holes. It's still an early part of the journey though, so I have hope.
One index worth noting, however, is the Eco Index ( developed by the Outdoor Industry. It's still in a beta form, so be gentle...but I'm very impressed.

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