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“What ranchers are doing for the land and the ecosystems is important for our climate,” said Townsend Bailey, McDonald’s director of sustainability. (Amanda Radke/Special to Agweek)

McDonald's 'Scale for Good' platform looks at beef sustainability and more

In the United States, McDonald's sells 1 billion pounds of beef to its customers each year. That equates to 5.5 million head of cattle.

As the nation's largest purchaser of beef, the iconic burger joint is listening to consumer concerns about the environment and creating benchmarks in sustainability for U.S. beef producers to achieve.

"McDonald's wants to play a role in leaving the planet a better place," said Townsend Bailey, McDonald's director of sustainability. "We are on a journey for continuous improvement, but what does 'sustainability' really mean to McDonald's?"

Speaking to cattlemen and women at the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association 70th Annual Convention & Trade Show held in Huron, S.D., on Nov. 27-29, Bailey outlined how McDonald's is using its scale for good and how beef producers can be part of long-term solutions toward greater environmental sustainability.

"Sustainability is a flawed term because it means something different to everybody, and it's also not very aspirational because we don't necessarily want to just 'sustain,'" he said. "So what do we want from producers, and why does it always seem like the burden is on just producers?"

Bailey said McDonald's is engaging with its entire supply chain to improve packaging, reduce waste and help the company's customers feel good about McDonald's food.

"Customers need to feel good about our food, our company and our effect on the world," he said. "We need to produce food in a way that's consistent with their values. To that end, there's a lot of misinformation out there. We are proud of our food, so how can we connect with our customers' curiosity? The public's expectations of our company have never been greater. So many people feel like being a big company makes us inherently bad, but we think we can use our scale for good."

McDonald's has created a Scale For Good platform that focuses on beef sustainability, commitment to families, packaging and recycling, climate action and youth opportunities.

"Our two prioritizing principles are — what's important for our business and what do our consumers care most about when hit comes to sustainability?" explained Townsend. "We are looking at ways to work with our beef supply chain to make sure they provide a product that our customers can continue to feel good about. We have five different goals we are working on within the industry to train and develop producers, support research and protect our forests and native landscapes."

For example, these projects include a pilot with the Noble Institute looking at adapted multi-paddock grazing. "We've invested $4.5 million in matching funds to support this research," said Bailey. "There is a lot of talk about carbon stored in soil and the role that cattle grazing plays in increasing that carbon. How can we validate and use that science to help people understand the important role of having cattle on grass plays in the environment? What ranchers are doing for the land and the ecosystems is important for our climate."

By 2020, McDonald's has pledged to source 85 percent of its beef purchases from 10 "sustainable" beef sourcing markets. According to Forbes, the burger giant is using four key drivers to accomplish their goals including, "working with farmers to scale best practices in farm management; rebuilding soils though practices such as progressive grazing techniques that help strengthen soil's ability to hold carbon; ensuring no deforestation occurs in our beef supply chain; and, looking for opportunities to reduce emissions throughout the rest of our supply chain like food waste and energy use."

Yet, despite this focus on improved sustainability, U.S. ranchers already do an amazing job of managing natural resources to produce nutritious beef.

"Beef cattle allow us to produce food on land unsuitable for cultivation of crops, and they often enhance ecosystems," said Sara Place, National Cattlemen's Beef Association senior director of sustainable beef production research. "Pasture and range land together is about 40 percent of the United States land space. This land cannot support human food consumption any other way. Only 2 percent of cropland acres goes towards feeding cattle."

In a recent editorial, James Palmer, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association director writes, "U.S. ranchers are the bedrock of a sustainable industry. Science supports our sustainability. We have good stories to share with our consumers and supporters and with our detractors, many of whom simply do not understand our work processes or management ethic. U.S. ranchers do more with less. We produce 18% of the world's beef with only 8% of the world's cattle."

Like it or not, societal demands and retailers will be shaping the way food is produced in the upcoming years. Cattle producers will need to be part of these discussions in order to make meaningful but realistic changes that best reflect the management practices already done well by today's cattlemen and women.