Practical and Productive Sustainable Sourcing Solutions Require Collaborative, Science-Based Strategies

December 03, 2021

By Jenny McColloch, Chief Sustainability Officer    

We must act with urgency to help protect the planet for generations to come. For the food sector, innovating ways to collectively reduce emissions while feeding a growing global population is paramount in helping our communities mitigate the impacts of climate change and adapt for the future. Protein has been at the center of these conversations, as both animal and plant-based options are inherently resource intensive in their own ways. It can be tempting to argue that retail food brands could simply flip a switch to move faster or invest more, or in the case of our sector, to stop selling animal-based proteins entirely.  

Theoretical or overly simplistic arguments like this don’t inspire progress. They ignore the complexities of greenhouse gas emissions tracking, global development trends, and demographic shifts in protein consumption. They marginalize the very producers we all depend on to unlock the bounty and innovation in our farmlands.   

The fact is that beef and animal protein consumption are a part of people’s lives and livelihoods all over the world and will continue to be for decades to come. In fact, demand for all proteins – animal and plant-based – is growing globally.    

When it comes to sustainable sourcing, the most practical and productive paths forward are acting on our science-based strategies and partnering with farmers to protect nature and livelihoods.   

We may be one of the world’s largest restaurant chains, but the food industry - and beef sector - is much bigger than any one company or brand. We believe one of our greatest opportunities to address climate change is to use our brand reach and scale as a catalyzing force to help drive more sustainable practices and innovation. Beyond executing initiatives on the ground, McDonald’s advocates for comprehensive climate policies that can help provide incentives and a regulatory framework for the industry to operate within. We must and do embrace accountability for demonstrating progress, reporting regularly as in our latest climate risk and resiliency summary, and working with partners who understand that this is not only good for all of us, but imperative for the planet at-large.    

When I joined McDonald’s nearly a decade ago, I was struck immediately by the company’s eagerness to tackle bold challenges – even if that meant creating an entirely new playbook in some cases. While many companies have targets to manage their footprint and reduce emissions from their own operations, McDonald’s has worked for many years to account for and manage sustainability impacts across our supply chain.     

In 2014, we prioritized and set six sustainable sourcing goals for products that we buy in large quantities, like beef and coffee. We needed to create new and scalable solutions to make these happen by pioneering new practices and working with farmers and producers. By 2020, we’d substantially achieved these goals with 99.6% of our beef, soy sourced for chicken feed, palm oil, coffee and fiber used in guest packaging volumes supporting deforestation-free supply chains.   

Meanwhile in 2018, we increased our focus on climate action, establishing Science Based Targets to reduce scopes 1, 2, and 3 greenhouse gas emissions in partnership with our franchisees and suppliers. Efforts underway since then have already resulted in an 8.5% reduction in the absolute emissions of restaurant and offices and a 5.9% decrease in supply chain emissions intensity against a 2015 baseline. Recently we expanded these commitments to pursue net zero emissions across our value chain by 2050. We’re contributing insights to the Science Based Targets initiative’s important ongoing work to develop 1.5°C emissions reduction and credible measurement pathways for forestry, land and agriculture; and we expect that forthcoming science-based framework to guide the future evolution of McDonald’s net zero emissions roadmap, and the elevation of our existing approach to initiatives and measurement.     

What’s been clear since those early years is that when it comes to building more sustainable, resilient supply chains, there's no easy fix. There’s always more to do, and there are always more partners to engage. That can be overwhelming, but what’s encouraging for me is that momentum is building every day around our food systems, and there are new scientific insights and agricultural technology innovations emerging constantly.   

When McDonald’s sets ambitious targets and standards for how we’ll source, our expectations cascade throughout the food supply chain. In fact, we ask more than 130 global suppliers representing nearly 80% of our $40B food and packaging spend to report their actions on climate and forest where relevant to create widespread accountability.  

For more than a decade, we’ve been investing in scientific research, partnering with climate and conservation NGOs, and working with ranchers and farmers on the ground to pioneer new techniques for more sustainable production of beef and the other foods our customers love.     

Where systems didn’t exist, we worked to set them up. In 2011, McDonald’s co-founded the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB), bringing together key players across the beef value chain to accelerate and improve sustainability. These efforts helped establish the first global and regional criteria for beef sustainability. Since initiating the GRSB, McDonald’s has collaborated with farmers, suppliers, industry groups, academia and civil society to establish sustainability coalitions in our top ten sourcing countries, which represent approximately 85% of our global beef volumes. And the momentum continues.  

The GRSB has also set a global climate goal to reduce by 30% the net global warming impact of each unit of beef by 2030, on a pathway to climate neutrality.     

There is no one size fits all approach that will work for every farm in every geography and every ecosystem, so side by side with our suppliers, we are supporting the great work of farmers, ranchers and beef producers to elevate and amplify many different solutions across the beef value chain.    

For example, what began as the CAP’2ER project within our supply chain in France, an environmental footprint calculator that evaluates the environmental impacts within beef farming, is now being implemented across the French beef industry to help farmers build farm-specific carbon action plans to reduce their GHG emissions.    

Programs in the US and UK are establishing a pathway to regenerative grazing systems to improve soil health, land resiliency and biodiversity. In the US, more than $4.5M of investments are driving research on how adaptive grazing systems can sequester carbon. McDonald’s US also became a founding member of AgMissionTM (a global collaboration to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture), by committing $5M to unlock collaborative partnerships with other leading brands and institutions to assist farmers and ranchers in adopting climate smart growing practices at scale. We’ve already started implementing such programs through our support of the Ranch Systems and Viability Planning network in the Northern Great Plains and Nebraska Soil Carbon Project. We appreciate the galvanizing power of public funding channels to support agricultural producers, for example our partnership the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), which are helping to incentivize and scale investments in supporting agriculture’s ability to act as a climate solution.  

Sustainable Food Sources For The Future

The real tipping point will be when our scientific understanding and measurement to reflect the intricacies in our lands and livestock systems catch up to our ambitions to preserve our agricultural communities and support their transformation towards the future, and it’s going to take the following:

  • We need governments to collaborate across borders to provide frameworks for businesses to grow responsibly, level the playing field and incentivize action. 
  • We need organizations involved in greenhouse gas accounting to define credible pathways and practical guidance for businesses in line with a 1.5C future. 
  • We need continued innovation to advance our ability to reduce emissions and to improve our ability to capture and store carbon at scale.
  • And we need a shared commitment to reduce emissions and reach net zero from all corners of business and society. 

COVID-19 has taught the global community many lessons, including reinforcing that we’re all connected, and we can drive incredible discoveries when we work together with urgency and scientific insight.   

At McDonald’s, this is a challenge we welcome – and we’re confident that, once again, we will help unlock the solutions that this moment demands. We’re optimistic about the commitments coming out of COP26 – such as from the investment community– that will enable these transitions. 

Rest assured, we’ll keep leaning in here. Real impact has and will come from continued action on science-based targets and continued partnership across all branches of the food sector. When businesses and policymakers are focused on innovative solutions, and consumers continue to learn and focus on where their food comes from, a steady cycle of action and accountability will prevail, and at the scale we need. 


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