Building a better burger? McDonald’s goes sustainable, at least in rhetoric |

Building a better burger? McDonald’s goes sustainable, at least in rhetoric

McDonald's has announced a commitment to sourcing only "sustainable" products for their fast food chain, and beef tops their priority list. Many U.S. cattle producers believe their beef production model is already sustainable and that McDonald's is using faulty science to support their claims. Photos by Amanda Radke/Sollenbargers.

When a customer orders a Big Mac at a McDonald’s, the question may be, “Do you want fries with that?”

But the bigger question McDonald’s is asking is, “Is that burger sustainable?” The global fast food chain recently announced its pledge to end deforestation by promising to no longer buy commodities such as beef, coffee, palm oil and poultry from suppliers that operate in areas that have been cleared of forest.

“McDonald’s last year released a global sustainability framework that outlines five priority areas, one of which is sourcing,” said Steve Mazeika, McDonald’s Corporation supervisor of global external communications. “This commitment to end deforestation across our entire supply chain is another meaningful step in our sustainability journey. As a good corporate citizen, we are committed to doing our part to protect the environment.”

This pledge is just one of many recent stances McDonald’s has made in its goal to offer menu items that are made from “sustainable” ingredients. In 2012, McDonald’s founded the Global Sustainability Framework, which is comprised of ranchers, retailers, NGOs, cattlemen’s associations and retailers. In 2014, the chain released it sustainable sourcing goals and announced its intention to begin purchasing verified sustainable beef by 2016.

“They do not use scientific data to verify there even is a deforestation problem, but are simply giving marketing rhetoric that will resonate with consumers.”Trent LooNebraska rancher and radio personality

The problem with McDonald’s pledge? The implication is that modern beef production isn’t sustainable. According to a comprehensive lifecycle assessment conducted by the Beef Checkoff which evaluated the environmental, social and economic aspects of beef industry sustainability, from 2005 to 2011, improvements included: 10 percent fewer emissions to water thanks to increased use of precision farming techniques, 7 percent less emissions to soil due to improvements in crop yields, 2 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions due to improved genetics, health and nutrition of cattle; 10 percent improvement in water quality, 7 percent reduction in landfill contributions, 3 percent reduction in water use, 2 percent reduction in energy use, and an overall improvement in environmental and social sustainability by 7 percent.

Trent Loos, a rancher and radio personality from Loup City, Neb., is worried about McDonald’s new demands, particularly in light of recent quotes by Bob Langert, McDonald’s Global Sustainability vice president, who said beef is “priority number one, two and three.”

“This sustainable movement must stop now or it will slowly kill the U.S. food system,” Loos said. “The premise is that McDonald’s is not purchasing sustainable beef today. We currently have the same number of beef breeding animals we had in 1951, yet we produce three times the amount of human consumable protein. What more do you need to know about how sustainable the U.S. cattleman is? Furthermore, while the food companies give lip service to sustainability, they are the first to reject technologies that could move us further down the trail of efficiency.”

McDonald’s is no stranger to serving up ethical and environmental guilt with their milk shakes and fries. The company took a stance against deforestation in 1989 when the company stopped sourcing beef from the Amazon rainforest, further perpetuating the association with beef and deforestation.

However, cattle grazing in areas where forests have been cleared is simply a by-product of the aftermath of the steel industry. For example, Brazil is the world’s largest consumer of wood charcoal. This wood charcoal is made from the charred remnants of the rainforest and is used to heat pig iron blast furnaces which provide the raw material for the steel mills and cast iron foundries.

According to National Geographic, South America contains one-fifth of the world’s iron ore reserves, which is a component of the steel industry. In fact, a new study called “Carbon emissions due to deforestation for the production of charcoal used in Brazil’s steel industry,” published in the Feb. 9 online edition of the journal Nature Climate Change, points out that efforts made to reduce CO2 emissions by transition from coal to carbon-neutral charcoal sourced from plantation forests have failed. What’s worse, use of native charcoal in steel production doubled the industry’s CO2 emissions from 91 million to 182 million metric tons of CO2 between 2000 and 2007.

Despite this information, the myth that rainforests are being cleared for cattle grazing continues to gain traction, even though any agriculturally derived benefits of clearing rainforests is done after the primary harvest. But McDonald’s is capitalizing on this misconception and continues to spread its rhetoric that sourcing more “sustainable” ingredients is a top priority for the chain and consumers should value their efforts when choosing where to dine out with their families.

The chain cites Global Canopy, stating on its website, “The production of agriculture commodities is the biggest driver of global deforestation. The cultivation of palm oil and soy, cattle ranching and forest conversion to pulpwood plantations for production of paper are acknowledged as being major contributors to global tropical deforestation.”

“For McDonald’s, sustainability means putting people, processes and practices into place to make better food, more sustainable sourcing, happier people, a stronger community and a healthier planet,” Mazeika said. “The area of sustainable beef is very new. As previously, there was no definition, and all stakeholders have a voice in moving the industry towards forward progress. McDonald’s has committed to purchasing a portion of our beef in 2016 from verified, sustainable sources, and most likely, this will begin in Canada, where pilot programs are currently in place.”

At home on the ranch, Loos said McDonald’s is using the popular buzz word of the moment — “sustainability” and going after an easy target that most consumers would rally behind — ending deforestation in the rainforests of South America.

“This is yet another marketing strategy much like talking about sustainable beef supplies,” Loos said. “They do not use scientific data to verify there even is a deforestation problem, but are simply giving marketing rhetoric that will resonate with consumers. In the United States, we have cleared ‘original’ trees and managed the resource to produce nearly five times more food per acre, and we still have the most trees in the history of our country. This is another classic case of ‘my burger is produced better than your burger,’ and I am still not buying it.”

While McDonald’s is currently putting cattle grazing in forested areas in Argentina and Brazil under a closer microscope, a little closer to home, ranchers have successfully managed forested land for generations.

For Justin and Holli Sollenbarger of Rand, Colo., grazing cattle in rough terrain is part of the job. The couple owns about 400 acres of land and leases 20,000 private acres and another 80,000 acres of public land, much of it in areas of timber.

“In our neck of the woods, logging and cattle are big industries,” Holli Sollenbarger said. “Over the years, loggers have been pushed out and only do maintenance of trees next to the roads and near campgrounds. As a result, dead timber hasn’t been cleared, allowing for new growth, and what remains is becoming a growing concern if a wildfire should strike the area.”

Sollenbarger said it’s a common misconception that logging and cattle grazing are bad for the environment, but they both have their place in helping to manage the land.

“The only way to make anything grow is to clear away the dead stuff,” she said. “It’s like clearing your flower bed; you have to take out the dead flowers to make room for the new ones to grow. This goes for the trees also. If you don’t manage things, Mother Nature will do it for you. In our area, the only green trees are in the clear cut that was done 30-40 years ago and on the private lands that have been managed when owners cleared the dead timber.”

The benefits of having cattle graze on land, whether it’s forested or the wide open plains are numerous. For example, cattle aerate the soil with their hooves, allowing the seed to be pushed into the ground for regrowth. They fertilize with manure as they graze, and they serve as a wildfire deterrent by clearing away brush they consume. Sollenbarger said she wishes consumers understood the many benefits when they see an area that is aesthetically beautiful.

“Chances are that beautiful area with native grasses and thriving forest has been managed by ranchers,” she said. “The most beautiful places are found in cattle country where the land has been grazed and managed. When people come in and want to change things, by slowing or halting grazing, it allows the weeds to grow up and choke out the grasses. People don’t always understand the consequences of the changes they demand.”

Sollenbarger explained that one of the challenges with their leases on the public ground is they are limited to just a small number of head per acre, resulting in an overgrowth of grass that could also pose a fire hazard.

“Grazing is limited, so the grass is overgrown,” she said. “We could easily double or even triple our numbers and still have enough grass. Plus, because logging has been slowed down substantially, we have more dead timber and lots of dead grass. If the area ever does catch fire, it could be really bad.”

In light of McDonald’s recent stance against deforestation and the assertion that somehow modern beef production isn’t sustainable and environmentally-friendly, Sollenbarger points out that it just doesn’t make sense for producers to not manage the land and their animals to the best of their abilities.

“It is our job as ranchers to treat our cattle with respect,” she said. “We are losing money if we don’t take care of our animals because we are paid by the pound. Mismanagement of either the land or our cattle actually hurts our bottom line. Consumers don’t always understand that when they read about the beef industry in the news.”

Dennis Salazar with Salazar Packaging commented on McDonald’s own “sustainability” in a 2011 online story.

“My problem with so many of these initiatives is that they tend to overlook the most obvious and ignore some of the most potentially beneficial basics,” he said, pointing out the large amount of packaging served up with every Happy Meal.

“While they are exemplary in their use of recycled materials, I have never seen anything resembling a recycling effort at any McDonald’s restaurant I have ever visited. I would hate to know how much McDonalds waste ends up in landfills on a yearly basis but I am quite sure it is enormous. I know the location near our office has daily pick up and the four very large dumpsters are all overflowing each and every day. I have to wonder why they don’t utilize a compactor to reduce the volume but better yet, why not at least make an effort to sort and recycle. Keep in mind the mountains of waste we see at a McDonald’s restaurant is created only by dine-in customers and probably a fraction of what is disposed of elsewhere.”

Salazar pointed out that one million McDonald’s Happy Meals produce approximately 100,000 pounds of waste, which could easily be cut to about 19,000 pounds if they were to package the kids’ meals in their smaller “one to three” items paper bags rather than the larger Happy Meal cardboard boxes.

As for Loos, he is calling to action his fellow producers, urging them to not sit back and allow food chains to dictate how cattlemen should raise beef in the future.

“It’s time we wake up and take a look at where we are being led,” Loos. said “Quit believing everything you are told by these ‘experts’ without thinking and researching it for yourself. Is your operation sustainable enough to pass on from one generation to the next? Take a hard look at how long it has been producing food and ask yourself if you need someone telling you how to raise food for the world.” ❖

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