Increasing Demand for Credibly Regenerative (or More Sustainable) Beef: Key Barriers & Possible Solutions

Series Conclusion: What’s really “Sustainable” in the Confusing World of Beef? Part VII

Previously, I explored barriers to expanding the U.S. supply of credibly more sustainable beef. Retailers emphasize that successful sustainable beef supply chains require customers clamoring to buy it. Here, I highlight some key barriers to increasing demand for sustainable beef — and possible solutions to each — that I have heard stakeholders express and have experienced myself.

1. Lack of supply of credibly more sustainable beef: One of the main barriers to increasing demand for credibly more sustainable beef is lack of supply. It’s a challenging dilemma: we need a supply of credibly more sustainable beef in order to build demand for it, but it’s hard to develop that supply without clear demand for it.

Solutions: See part VI of this series for an overview of key barriers to building a supply of credibly more sustainable beef, and possible solutions to each.

2. Rampant greenwash makes it hard for buyers to recognize (and trust) credibly sustainable sources of beef: Coming full circle to Part I of this series, an award-winning sustainable butcher lamented to Grist, “there are growing problems with greenwashing and a softening of standards.” Why does this matter? Greenwash and weak sustainability standards (1) sell regenerative producers short by making it harder for them to differentiate their beef in the marketplace, and (2) cloud buyers’ ability to distinguish credibly more sustainable sources of beef.

Solutions: To avoid greenwash, Gil Friend’s, The Truth About Green Business, advises that, “a good, clear, green claim should be specific, truthful, verifiable, and meaningful.” And also LEGAL — greenwashing can land companies in hot water. Friend advises considering the benefits of having claims certified by an independent third-party program.

Understanding and Preventing Greenwash: A Business Guide recommends focusing on:

1) Impact — Make sure it’s authentic: When communicating environmental claims, they should be based on scientifically supported impacts and/or benefits. The best way to check the integrity of claims regarding impact is with a trustworthy independent third-party (certification) program.

2) Communication — Communicate impact accurately: Communicate verifiable impacts in an accurate, transparent manner. The world of regenerative agriculture is rife with magical claims of silver bullet solutions. To build trust in related solutions, keep it real.

3. Conservation groups working to remedy impacts of grazing operations are largely MIA from the U.S. sustainable beef conversation: Anti-feedlot activists have done good work promoting grass-fed/pasture-raised (feedlot-free) beef. Yet grass-fed still represents only 1–4% of the U.S. beef market, and stands little chance of becoming mainstream without significant efforts to restore America’s grazing lands (via improved management) and produce the forage base necessary to finish more animals without grain.

Additionally as noted throughout this series, grass-fed claims don’t reveal whether beef comes from well-managed or overgrazed ranches. This critical point is not yet common knowledge among sustainable food mavens.

One reason for this lack of awareness is that conservation NGOs (non-governmental organizations) addressing impacts of poorly managed grazing operations have been largely missing from the U.S. sustainable beef conversation (in contrast to the many beef-related NGO campaigns in the tropics, e.g., by Union of Concerned Scientists, GreenPeace and Mighty Earth). Some retail buyers acknowledge that the reason they’ve taken important steps like phasing out medically important antibiotics and inhumane treatment of animals is that groups combatting poor feedlot management have been much louder in the U.S. sustainable beef conversation than those working to remedy impacts of poorly managed ranching.

Solutions: The U.S. beef sustainability movement needs more conservation NGOs focused on ranching-related issues to get involved. This is an opportunity to positively influence how ranchers, farmers, and agencies manage hundreds of millions of acres of American lands. Strategies to influence purchasing behavior in other sectors (e.g., forest products, soy) and regions (e.g., in the tropics for beef) have included educational and buyer-facing campaigns.

Educational campaigns: Conservation groups should mount “sticky” campaigns that help stewardship leaders tell the story of the difference between regenerative ranching bright spots and poorly-managed operations. These campaigns should use emotive images and viral videos to differentiate the valuable triple bottom line benefits of good ranch management with the destructive impacts of poor grazing and land management (and make clear that poor management remains far too common). Increased consumer demand for beef from credibly more sustainable ranches will fuel retail buyer interest.

Buyer-facing campaigns: NGO coalitions can also build demand for more sustainable beef by mounting well-designed campaigns that compel major buyers (e.g., supermarket and restaurant chains, food service providers) to purchase beef from suppliers excelling in and improving toward sustainability.

Start by working collaboratively to secure buyer commitments to purchase an increasing percent of their beef from suppliers certified as meeting independent third party sustainability standards that are comprehensive (i.e., address all important issues of concern in one label). Then, direct your legions of members to reward those brands with more business.

For buyers who lag (or fail to respond to partnership invitations), some NGOs are particularly adept at shining an embarrassing light of transparency on impacts of their supply chains, pressuring them to join the business movement advancing beef sustainability.

4. Lack of institutional buyer attention to impacts of overgrazing in their beef supply chains: As one retail buyer admitted, “we never hear from groups focused on overgrazing or other impacts of poorly-managed ranching. If our customers demand beef from sustainably managed ranches, we’ll sell it.”

Solutions: Institutional buyers have an opportunity to boost brand reputation and sales and generate a suite of other business benefits by using an independent third-party sustainability certification to guide their beef purchasing choices. Studies show that sustainability standards can help to improve market access, profitability, and production for certified businesses (including ranches and farms) and enhance reputation while reducing risk for producers and retailers. They are particularly effective for protecting retail brands against the business risks of being exposed for greenwash.

One institutional buyer whose leadership can serve as an example for others is McDonald’s. Not only did their Canadian “Verified Sustainable Beef Pilot” develop and implement a sustainability standard that is far more comprehensive than the draft indicators and metrics produced by the U.S. Roundtable on Sustainable Beef, which has drawn criticism from dozens of NGOs. Their recent commitment to set an “approved science-based target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” (i.e., a target that was literally approved by the Science-Based Targets Initiative) is impressive for such a large restaurant chain.

Next for McDonald’s comes the important work of implementing these targets in its beef supply chain, where the cow-calf (grazing) phase is responsible for approximately 80% of GHG emissions from the entire production system. How can they do it? Thus far, the only sustainability standard that incorporates the full suite of climate-smart ranching solutions is that of the Grasslands Alliance.

5. Major gaps in the funding landscape for NGO initiatives advancing beef sustainability: Many foundations supporting regenerative ranching are currently not funding U.S.-based solutions that address barriers identified in this series.

Solution: There are valuable and exciting opportunities for philanthropists, foundations, and impact investors to support NGO-led initiatives needed to (a) more effectively incentivize sustainable ranching and beef production in America, and (b) build demand for “regenerative grazing beef”.

6. Need for more NGO collaboration: Many NGOs working on beef-related solutions (e.g., land and wildlife conservation, antibiotic stewardship, water/pesticide/fertilizer pollution, climate change mitigation strategies) do not have the bandwidth to support each other as much as they would like to (often due to the funding gaps noted above).

In some cases, there is competition between anti-feedlot activists who advocate for grass-fed beef (too often without concern for quality of grazing management) vs. conservation groups who insist that all beef (whether grass-fed or conventional) be produced on well-managed ranches that conserve healthy ecosystems and minimize climate-disrupting pollution.

Additionally, there is a debate between advocates for eating less meat (important given the way in which most beef is produced) vs. better meat (produced on credibly more sustainable ranches). This debate — too often framed as “less VERSUS better” instead of a more inclusive “less AND better” strategy, divides not only NGO camps, but different programs within NGOs.

Solution — United we stand, divided we fall: The solution is more collaboration — identifying shared goals across diverse NGOs (and other stakeholders) and working together to devise programs that achieve those goals. The NGO community is much stronger when we support each other, especially when working to drive change in such a powerful entrenched industry.

One approach to the “less vs. better” debate is to challenge the beef industry: the best way to quiet calls to eat “less” beef is to curtail the environmental, climate, public health, and other impacts of poorly-managed beef production.

7. Need for a widely-recognized “one-stop-shop” sustainability certification and label: As a veteran sustainable beef consultant recently wrote:

“Confusing the issue even more is the proliferating number of marketing efforts attempting to capitalize on the public’s increased focus on sustainability by claiming their beef is ‘sustainable’. Without a broadly accepted way to verify a marketing claim concerning sustainability, these unsubstantiated marketing claims that pit one segment of the industry against the rest will only increase and cause even greater confusion.”

Solution: Building demand for sustainable beef requires connecting buyers of credibly more sustainable beef with the producers who are using credibly more sustainable management practices. That’s where comprehensive independent third-party sustainability certification programs come in by efficiently addressing all critical impacts in one label.

NGO coalitions should get behind top programs by mounting campaigns that (1) partner with (and if need be, pressure) major buyers to purchase an increasing amount of certified beef, and (2) encourage their members to purchase beef certified as meeting credible sustainability standards, including by letting them know where to buy it (thus directing more business to retailers and restaurant chains that sell it).

Conclusion — In the Machinery of Change, Every “Cog” is Important: Why is each of the above barriers important to address? Envision how the machinery of change is composed of interconnected cogs. If even one cog becomes stuck, the whole machine grinds to a halt. In the sustainable beef landscape, several cogs are not functioning, as I’ve tried to highlight in this series. Those of us striving to advance beef sustainability should focus on activating our respective cog. The scope of our challenge is massive, and collaboration is essential to success. We can all win by working in a strategically complementary manner to achieve our shared goals of healthy people, resilient ranching communities, and thriving natural landscapes that provide valuable ecosystem services to society.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have related ideas.

Jonathan L. Gelbard, Ph.D. is Principal Conservation Scientist at Conservation Value Solutions. As a researcher, writer, speaker, and advisor, he digs deep to identify root causes of problems, and catalyzes transformative solutions. Dr. Gelbard was Senior Scientist at the Grasslands Alliance, a partnership between NGO’s, certifiers and ranchers that developed and piloted a comprehensive certification standard for U.S. and Canadian beef cattle and bison grazing operations. The Grasslands Alliance is currently inviting partners to collaborate on development of its certification and continuous improvement programs. Click here to learn more.

Please note: you can view the first six posts in this series by clicking here.

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