The issue of global warming/climate change has long been a contentious one. There are experts who insist man is causing the Earth’s temperature to rise while other experts call such charges total nonsense – adding Earth has experienced cyclical weather changes since being formed 4.54 billion years ago.

Regardless of which side of the fence you fall on regarding this ongoing debate, an increasing number of meat and poultry companies are taking steps to be better stewards of the environment. On June 4, São Paulo, Brazil-based Marfrig Group proclaimed it has become the first animal-protein producer in the world to launch a process to map the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in its supply chain.

What makes this move significant is this business is a leading global food company processing beef, pork, poultry and fish products. Its operations consist of production, commercial and distribution units located in 22 countries and five continents. Employing approximately 90,000 employees, Marfrig Group is also the largest producer of sheep products in South America, the largest meat company in Argentina, the largest poultry producer in the UK and the largest private company in Uruguay and Northern Ireland. Widely known as one of the more global and diversified Brazilian food companies, its products are consumed in more than 160 countries.When a company the size of Marfrig takes a pioneering step, industry takes notice.

A press release explained a group of Marfrig’s suppliers were invited to answer a CDP Supply Chain program of the Carbon Disclosure Project questionaire; Marfrig claims its program is the largest platform for reporting climate change information. The company said it plans to convert more of its industrial, commercial and service activities to a low-carbon economy through its pioneering initiative, which is in line with its Strategic Plan for Climate Change and Natural Resources.

This marks the first time Marfrig has received information from its suppliers through the CDP Supply Chain methodology. Since approximately 95 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the company’s production chain comes from its supply chain and only 5 percent comes from its direct operations, the initiative will play an important role in the group’s strategy.

“We plan to engage these suppliers in a debate and jointly come up with how to develop processes and products that have smaller carbon footprints,” explained Cléver Pirola Ávila, director of sustainability at the Marfrig Group, in a press release. For those who may still be in the dark about what a carbon footprint is, three experts recently wrote in the journal Carbon Management that historically, it has been defined as "the total set of GHG emissions caused by an organization, event, product or person."
According to the CO2 list, greenhouse gases can be emitted through transport, land clearance and the production and consumption of food, fuels, manufactured goods, materials, wood, roads, buildings and services. For simplicity’s sake, it is often expressed in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide, or its equivalent of other GHGs, emitted.

Marfrig relayed its data will be used to more accurately complete its carbon inventory, with measurements that more closely reflect reality. It has already completed its second carbon inventory, which should be published within the next several months. The first inventory, which was published in 2011, mapped the Group’s 152 production facilities in 22 countries. The document revealed that the production operations in Brazil, which is the Group’s largest production base, accounted for 41 percent of its total greenhouse gas emissions, while the other countries with operations made lower contributions, such as the United States (16 percent), Uruguay (10 percent), United Kingdom (9 percent) and Argentina (5 percent).

“Through CDP Supply Chain, our partners provide information on the level of their GHG emissions for the specific volumes supplied to Marfrig, or develop actions that will enable them to provide such data,” Ávila said.

Fifty-three suppliers representing the company’s supply chain in Brazil, which include rural producers and suppliers of energy, packaging, cereals and logistics services, are expected to submit reports with complete or partial information on their operations by the end of 2012.

Marfrig plans to initially send the CDP Supply Chain questionnaires to suppliers each year until 2014, so it can track the evolution of their business partners in terms of the perception they have of climate change as well as their proactive scheduling of actions to control and mitigate the associated impacts and risks.

Results will be used to develop initiatives to improve sustainable practices in the supply chain and to create business opportunities that lead to reductions in the carbon footprints of products. Today, global investors can decide where to allocate their funds based on the level of environmental impact of a company’s operations.

Marfrig plans to expand this effort to its operations in other countries over the next few years. “This will help ensure continued progress on the implementation of our global corporate strategy for climate change,” Ávila said.

“Greenhouse gas emissions are having more and more impact on the operations of large companies and reporting this information has become common practice among major global corporations,” said Fernando Figueiredo, director of CDP Brazil and Latin America. “As a company that places a high priority on sustainability in its business and that is aware of its role in relation to its suppliers, Marfrig is in a position to promote a broader debate on this issue in the agriculture industry.”

A topic that may have been scoffed at by many in the industry just 20 years ago is being taken very seriously today. Last year, the American Meat Institute addressed the myth that larger, modern cattle operations today have a greater negative environmental impact than small, local operations through its Meat Mythbusters. AMI explained that recent research from the Univ. of California Davis underscored how modern practices can help the environment. Researchers studied two groups of cattle in a feedlot setting. One group used modern technology while the other did not. The first group generated 31 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than those without implants or additives.

Washington State research also reveals that pound-for-pound, beef produced with grain produces significantly less greenhouse gas emissions than grass-fed beef. A grain diet is more easily digestible than the cellulose fibers of grass, producing less methane.

According to the research, it takes 226 more days for grass-finished cattle to reach market weight than grain-finished cattle, meaning that each pound of grain-finished beef requires: 45 percent less land, 76 percent less water, 49 percent less feed, while generating 51 percent less manureand 42 percent fewer carbon emissions.

In addressing the myth that livestock have a greater negative environmental impact than cars, Mythbusters relayed last year US Environmental Protection Agency data show that all of agriculture contributes 7 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions while livestock production accounts for 3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. By contrast, transportation accounts for 26 percent.

AMI explained that research at Washington State Univ., Cornell and other universities show that beef production has evolved and, over time, has required fewer natural resources to raise the same wholesome products that help the US industry continue to feed a growing global population.

Although I feel if there is a global warming trend it is within normal climatic variations that have routinely occurred throughout Earth’s history, I also feel it’s possible a growing global population can contribute to increased global average air temperature. Regardless of what side you take in the global warming controversy, all companies in the industry should strive to continually improve their entire operation on a daily basis. Anything within reason that can be done along the way to help improve the environment should be applauded. Congratulations to Marfrig Group for helping to lead the way.