This Spring, I participated in the Pasture to Plate summit, an exploration of the market potential for U.S. grassfed beef, held at the Stone Barns Center in New York. It was a fascinating gathering of farmers, chefs, suppliers, and others interested in both eating well, and in a way that is actually sustainable for the planet. This was also my first business trip away from my newborn son, and my wife’s first solo night with him since we left the hospital. Seeing the next generation right in front of me has had think about the future in much more concrete terms lately.
Ecological, economic, and other trends are no longer abstractions, but material realities that will shape my son’s life. And if certain trends continue in agriculture and global demographics, babies born in the early 21st century simply won’t enjoy the same access to meat and seafood we now take for granted. This summer, as I reconnected with friends and family over burgers at backyard barbeques, I wondered; “Will my son get to enjoy this too?”
This summit helped me see a way to answer that question in the affirmative. Over the course of the day, I saw that this small but growing segment of the beef market has the potential to lead our entire food system towards the practices we’ll need for an agricultural future that can sustain itself for the coming generation, and those that follow.
The Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, just north of New York City, is a non-profit whose mission is to create a healthy and sustainable food system, focusing on farming practices that are both regionally-appropriate, and that take into account the entire ecosystem. The property is anchored by literal stone barns, beautiful structures that were once part of a dairy farm, now converted to a visitor and conference center. They are nestled in a bucolic Hudson Valley setting of hills, pastures, and woodlands. Spring had recently arrived there, with trees beginning to bud, and some really cute lambs running across the field outside the conference room.
Currently, the overwhelming majority of the beef market consists of conventionally-raised beef, using industrial-type farming methods. In this approach, an animal is raised outside of anything resembling a natural ecosystem, allowing seemingly greater control of the various inputs and outputs, much like a factory. Confinement, antibiotics, and grain-fed cattle are solutions to problems that didn’t exist before the rise of this style of farming. The unintended consequences extend even further however, to soil degradation, water pollution, and emissions of methane , a potent greenhouse gas. This is the system currently meeting the needs of a rising global middle class, a group whose demand for more meat in their diets is exacerbating the forms of agricultural pollution mentioned above, straining global fisheries, and ultimately setting us up for a future in which meat and seafood is a luxury for the wealthy, while everyone else is left to clean up the damage wrought by industrial agriculture. That’s certainly not a future I want for my son, or for anyone’s children.
Those gathered at the Pasture to Plate summit were committed to a different future. We heard from Bill Niman, a pioneer in sustainable ranching, who shared some of the challenges and opportunities different bio-regions present to ranchers around the world. Paul McMahon of SLM partners also presented an in-depth report on the current state and future potential of the industry called Back to Grass: the Market Potential for U.S. Grassfed Beef. I learned that grassfed beef is a small segment of the market, but one that has grown explosively in recent years. As consumers grow more discerning, this growth is likely to continue, but challenges to increasing the scale of the market still exist. It was fascinating to see individuals from all segments of the supply chain, from ranchers to butchers, sharing their experiences and ideas on how to overcome barriers in a way that would grow their businesses, and also restore past environmental damage. It was a day of smart, committed people working to integrate their various perspectives, in order to create a different future.
I was encouraged to see examples of both buyers and sellers taking into account their personal values, as well as dollar value, when making decisions that affect the people and world around them. As the effects of climate change and environmental damage become more apparent, industries will need to make sure they are also educating consumers as to why their products are a responsible choice for people and the planet. I came away from the summit convinced that these problems are solvable for this industry, and will be instructive for the wider food system. There will continue to be challenges to overcome and balances to be struck, but people and business are increasingly realizing that it is no longer optional to take into account both the social and environmental impact of their economic activity.
The Pasture to Plate summit was a unique view into an industry that is fully engaged in creating a different, better future, and I’ll be keeping an eye on it over the coming months and years to see how they begin to do that. My experience at the summit also opened a wider perspective into other efforts to create an agricultural future that is not just sustainable, but regenerative. Grassfed beef is just one facet of this growing movement, which factors in soil, crops, livestock, and the surrounding environment in which they interact. The ultimate goal is reversing damage to land and water systems, up to and including mitigation of climate change. As part of my role at The Taylor Group, I’ll be keeping an eye on the regenerative agriculture space, and its implications for a better food future. This summit was a welcome bit of optimism, demonstrating that when people engage creatively and from a commitment, we have the capacity to leave the world better than we found it for the next generation. Maybe my son will get to enjoy that burger after all.