What’s Really “Sustainable” in the Confusing World of Beef, Part VI:

Key Barriers to Increasing the U.S. Supply of Credibly More Sustainable Beef

Previously, I examined key impacts of poorly managed beef cattle grazing operations and feedlots and triple bottom line benefits of better management practices (BMPs). I then explored certification programs that producers, brands and retailers can use to distinguish well-managed operations and substantiate green marketing claims.

Here I reveal barriers to expanding the U.S. supply of sustainable beef that I have heard most frequently expressed during two decades of collaborations with diverse stakeholders. In addition, I share ideas of solutions to each barrier that stakeholders have proposed.

1. Real and perceived costs vs. benefits of investments in better management practices, and the need to more effectively incentivize sustainability: Ranchers and farmers (and their corporate customers) tend to be wary of the costs and time requirements to transition to more sustainable management. In related discussions, they often use “the costs” as an excuse to maintain the status quo.

Focusing only on “the costs” neglects to determine whether the benefits of improving management (e.g., enhanced soil fertility and reduced fertilizer costs, enhanced soil water holding capacity and resilience to drought, greater grass productivity and lower supplemental feed and weed control costs, and more productive livestock) exceed the costs. As this 2011 synthesis of the conservation benefits of rangeland practices noted, a better economic metric to use is benefit-to-cost ratio.

There is an urgent need to better incentivize transitions to more sustainable practices. Most producers aren’t aware of the full portfolio of federal, state, and other incentives available to them, reflecting a need to improve marketing of these programs. Some ranchers say that the application and record keeping processes for Farm Bill Conservation Programs are too time-consuming. Still, many of these (under-funded) programs receive far more applications than they can approve.

Solutions: To educate stakeholders in benefits vs. costs of more sustainable beef production, we need additional region-specific and operation type-specific business case studies demonstrating how proactive managers are improving both ecosystem health and grass and livestock production (and conserving fish and wildlife, which can provide tourism revenues). Ranchers, NGOs, scientists, stewardship leaders, and certifiers should document triple bottom line benefits of improving management and establish regional hubs that share “bright spot” success stories.

There is also a vital need to expand availability of cost share programs, grants, low interest loans, and other “payments for ecosystem services” that producers can use to invest in management improvements. These programs help tip the scale of investments so that benefits of improvements exceed costs that producers cover themselves. The growing menu of incentives includes: Farm Bill Conservation Programs, conservation easements, certification and labeling, habitat exchanges, and trading of mitigation banking, carbon, water quality, and water quantity credits.

Even insurers can incentivize sustainable ranching. For example, they should offer (a) lower livestock loss and crop insurance premiums to producers who implement practices that improve soil health and resilience to drought, and (b) lower livestock loss premiums to producers who implement non-lethal coexistence practices that reduce risk of conflicts with predators.

2. Lack of technical assistance providers. Many producers also need technical assistance implementing BMPs. However, there has been an alarming decline in numbers of extension specialists with local expertise. I’ve heard many producers express frustration that there are long wait lists (sometimes over a year) before they can secure technical assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) or University Extension. NRCS officials have emphasized that they need more funding for “feet on the ground” advising producers.

Solutions: Stakeholders should encourage Congressional representatives to increase funding for technical assistance providers in the next Farm Bill. Another solution is for retailers, restaurant chains, and brands advancing sustainability to pool funding and create new technical and financial assistance resources for producers in their beef supply chains. Certifiers, in turn, should facilitate access to the technical and financial support that their ranching partners need to improve management. For example, the Rainforest Alliance offers its partners online training materials for implementing best practices.

3. Challenge of finding slaughtering facilities willing to segregate sustainable beef. Many “regenerative” producers with branded beef marketing programs run into another barrier: USDA approved slaughtering facilities need a critical mass of animals to operate, making it difficult to separate sustainably raised cattle. Regenerative ranchers often need to haul their animals long distances to find a USDA approved facility that is able to maintain traceability, which cuts into profits.

Solutions: Solutions start with a need to enhance regional availability of USDA-approved slaughtering facilities. Producers, impact investors, buyers and other stakeholders should collaborate (including in the policy arena) to support local, environmentally friendly and humane slaughterhouses with the ability to segregate sustainable beef. Another solution is for producers to join (or establish) a sustainable beef producer collaborative (that partners with independent third-party certifiers to substantiate its green marketing claims), which helps cut processing costs for individual members.

4. Concentration in the meatpacking sector and lack of competitive prices offered to producers: The above barrier is symptomatic of the consolidated structure of the U.S. beef marketplace, in which four giant meatpackers control over 80% of processing. This is far worse than the “The Big Five” meatpackers’ control of 45% of the domestic cattle market when Upton Sinclair penned his classic 1906 novel, The Jungle, which decried the monopolistic power of the “Beef Trust”.

A 2016 High Country News article detailed how concentration in the meatpacking sector results in a lack of competition, which depresses prices that commodity beef producers receive for their animals. As a coalition of fifty NGO’s recently underscored, this harms efforts to advance sustainability, which require producers to invest in better management practices. In today’s consolidated marketplace, ranchers have fewer and fewer buyers bidding on their animals, and thus no guarantee of fair pricing that reflects their investments in sustainability.

Solutions: Impact investors should collaborate with regenerative producers and brands to create sustainable beef supply chains that offer fair pricing mechanisms, concrete purchasing preferences, and price premiums to verifiably well-managed operations (i.e., ranches and farms that are independent third-party certified).

5. Adherence to traditional practices handed down for generations (family and community pressure to NOT change): Producers need to be willing to change management, but often face resistance to doing so. As one ranching family member admitted when discussing the challenge of sharing (let alone implementing) what she learned during agricultural Ph.D. work, “you have to go home to Mom and Dad and tell them they’re doing it wrong. How well do you think that goes over?”

Solutions: Behavior change strategies that promote sharing of information leverage the powerful mechanism that scientist, Robert Cialdini, calls “social proof”. When ranchers see that their neighbor’s grasses are tall and cattle fat even during drought, or that they’re driving a shiny new pickup truck, they become interested in how they can realize those benefits too (and thus more open to change).

Programs that incentivize sustainable beef production should therefore make participation fun by holding social events that promote sharing of “bright spot” success stories of ranchers who reaped valuable benefits by transitioning to more sustainable practices.

6. Land tenure and management flexibility issues with leased land: Ranchers who graze on private and public leased lands often can’t convince the landowner to invest in or allow transitions to more sustainable management.

A subset of this problem is poorly managed livestock grazing on federal public lands. Improving grazing management on these lands has long been challenging for various (often complex, political) reasons. While these lands support a small proportion of U.S. beef production (around 2–4%), poor management degrades ecosystem health, water quality, and biodiversity on millions of acres held in public trust. These impacts pose serious reputational risks to brands whose beef could be exposed as coming from operations damaging America’s precious natural heritage.

Solutions: One solution to land tenure challenges is to document how management practices that improve natural resource conditions also benefit landowners, such as by enhancing ranch real estate value. The goal should be to find ways to share benefits of more sustainable management with landowners, thus motivating them to support improvements.

The issue of poor grazing management on federal public lands is an area ripe for collaborative, incentive-based solutions. Fortunately, some bright spots are emerging in which long-degraded lands and their wildlife are being restored through better management (e.g., changes to the timing, intensity and duration of grazing and rest periods; managing to coexist with predators) with benefits to ecosystem health, sensitive species such as sage grouse, and livestock production. These and other examples provide a promising foundation to build upon, including by identifying ways to drive more business to producers who generate positive results.

7. The need for comprehensive sustainability certification programs: I’ve heard multiple ranchers lament various versions of, “how many labels do I need to address all of my customers’ concerns? Organic, grass-fed, animal welfare — every label is an application I need to fill out, an inspection I need to spend time on, and a fee I need to pay.”

Solutions: The solution to this barrier is a comprehensive sustainability certification program that addresses all key issues of concern in one application, inspection, and label. Such a program should support producer transitions to better management by facilitating access to the technical and financial assistance needed to realize the benefits of sustainability. Independent, third party certification programs are essential for helping consumers navigate the confusing array of sustainable beef marketing claims, and for helping producers and retailers build trust in their brands, boost sales of credibly more sustainable beef, and avoid greenwash-related risks.

Conclusion: In this post, I’ve highlighted some key barriers to advancing sustainability in America’s beef supply chains. Of course, advancing beef sustainability requires both (a) a supply of credibly more sustainable beef, and (b) consumer demand for sustainable beef.

Why aren’t more consumers asking for beef produced on sustainably managed ranches? Why isn’t the message getting through about (1) the benefits of purchasing more sustainable beef, and (2) the impacts that it empowers beef buyers to “vote” against via their purchasing choices?

I’ll address these questions next.

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 five posts in this series by clicking here.