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Food Giants Want 'Sustainable' Beef. But What Does That Mean?

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McDonald's made a big green splash a few months ago by announcing that it will start buying "verified sustainable" beef in 2016.

A chorus of voices responded, "What's 'verified sustainable' beef?"

McDonald's, it turns out, is part of a group that's trying to come up with an answer. It's called the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, and its members include some of the biggest names in the beef industry as well as some environmental groups.

Last week, the roundtable released a draft of principles and criteria for what might constitute sustainable beef. The document lays out general goals for a sustainable production system, such as minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and damage to ecosystems.

But it doesn't say exactly how much "minimizing" it actually takes to qualify as "sustainable."

"Those metrics have to be developed nationally," says Alex Bjork, manager of agriculture supply chains at the World Wildlife Fund, a member of the Sustainable Beef Roundtable. Beef production raises different concerns in different countries.

In Brazil, "we'd like to see deforestation eliminated," says Bjork. In Australia, environmentalists want to stop sediment washing from grazing areas into the ocean, damaging the Great Barrier Reef. In the U.S., the goal may be to "keep ranchers ranching" in a way that preserves healthy grasslands.   
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