MCDONALD'S announcement that it will start seeking "verified sustainable beef" for its global operations in 2016 raises many questions, but few answers.
McDonald's says it took the decision in response to rising consumer interest in the origins of food, including issues like animal welfare and environmental sustainability.
The global chain isn't setting a time frame on how fast it moves to 100 per cent sustainable beef, only that it plans to start preferentially sourcing it in two years.
McDonald's isn't the only corporation looking to tell a better story about its food. The system it uses to define beef's sustainability, and to verify it, is likely to be a platform that other global companies will stand on.
At present, though, there is no clear definition of what sustainability - in all its forms - actually means; nor how to fairly translate those definitions to the world's multifarious beef production systems, or and how to verify "sustainability" to consumer satisfaction.
The initial task of defining sustainability for beef production has fallen to the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB), which has released draft definitions among its global membership for comment.
Once the definitions of sustainability have been established, the even more difficult part begins: developing ways of verifying sustainability across beef production systems from Tasmania to the Kimberley, from Brazil to India.
Guy Fitzhardinge, a beef producer at Cowra, NSW, and former chairman of the Beef CRC, says there is currently a large gap between the global aspirations of the GRSB and the nuts-and-bolts of developing low- or no-cost sustainability verification systems on the ground.
That task would have ideally fallen to the Australian Sustainable Beef Roundtable, Dr Fitzhardinge thinks, but that folded in mid-2013. Dr Fitzhardinge was chairman of the Australian Roundtable, which fed into the Global Roundtable.
"Apart from Cattle Council, there is no organisation in this country that's saying, we have these global aspirations, what does that mean to individual properties. What I may have to do on my property near Cowra may not be the same thing you have to do in the Burdekin," he said.
CCA chief executive Jed Matz hopes that the cattle industry as a whole will take ownership of the process, "and implement it in a way that is practical, and doesn't add cost to the supply chain".
On this, Mr Matz said he will be guided by the CCA committee.
Those who spoke to Fairfax about the concept agreed it presented some challenges, and potential pitfalls. But there was also agreement that if "verified sustainable beef" develops in the right way, some benefits could accrue to the Australian beef industry.
Those benefits are unlikely to be in the form of a per-kilo premium: McDonald's has said it won't be paying more for sustainable beef.
But Dr Fitzhardinge said that if the Australian industry excels at meeting whatever criteria emerge, a global push for more sustainable beef may help local beef gain preferential access with global companies, and drive greater beef consumption among consumers.
"If we are just going to compete on price alone, it's a race to the bottom," he said.
"We have to compete on quality, and one of the areas where we can gain some extra quality over our competitors is in sustainability."
Producers may justifiably fear that new criteria to meet will mean extra cost, but Dr Fitzhardinge said that with intelligent system design and management, that might not be the case.
"The level of compromise between being productive and being sustainable is probably not as great as many think it is."
An exhaustive look by GreenBiz.com at the global corporate desire for beef sustainability systems focused on two elements of unsustainability: rainforest destruction and the energy-intensive grain-fed beef production systems of North America.
Ian McConnel, WWF Australia's Sustainable Beef project co-ordinator, observes that these are not major issues for Australia.
Mr McConnel said that with a grass-based beef production system, a highly efficient lot-feeding sector, and a livestock traceability system, Australia should have a competitive advantage in a global market placing more emphasis on sustainability.
Beef sustainability challenges
But Australia is not without its beef sustainability challenges, as Paul Birch, chief executive of the Fitzroy Basin Association in Queensland, well knows.
The Fitzroy Basin turns off more beef than any other area of Australia, but all of its 142,665 square kilometres drain into one river, the Fitzroy, which empties into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon.
As Australians might look to Amazon deforestation as an environmental disaster, Mr Birch said, other nations also regard damage to the Reef from sediment runoff as an issue that needs addressing.
But Mr Birch, who represents the Association on the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, is optimistic that even this contested region can meet sustainability criteria.
The Association has been rolling out a Grazing Management Best Practice program, aimed at helping graziers simultaneously meet environmental and production objective.
By October 2013, grazier adoption of the program had already exceeded the uptake the Association had hoped to achieve by June 2014.
"Everything is an opportunity," Mr Birch said, "and the drive for sustainability is an opportunity to learn and get better at what we do."