Panel discusses lab-produced protein, sustainablity and the importance of telling the story of US beef
The Future of the Beef Industry panel discussion at Colorado State University was sponsored by the CSU Collegiate Farm Bureau and Alpha Gamma Rho. The discussion, moderated by Colorado Farm Bureau’s Director of Public Policy, National Affairs, Zach Riley, included Jennifer Martin, Assistant Professor of Animal Science, CSU; Lee Leachman, CEO and owner of Leachman Cattle of Colorado; Jordan Levi, program manager and founder, Arcadia Asset Management; and Emily Ibach, director of public policy, state affairs, Colorado Farm Bureau.
The first question posed to the panel was about the market for lab-produced protein. Levy, who oversaw the sale of JBS Five Rivers feedyard to Pinnacle Asset Management, L.P., said there could be a place for lab-produced protein if the cost were ever low enough to replace beef in the diets of people unable to afford beef.
Martin said the lab-produced protein issue is certainly driving conversations those in the industry weren’t having 10 or 15 years ago. She said it may become a segment of the larger protein industry, but appeals to a much different clientele than what most beef producers are currently marketing toward.
“That said, one portion of the protein industry that is really interested in cell-cultured or lab-grown meats is pet food,” she said. “When we think about competition for animal proteins, that’s a huge competition for the proteins we consumed this evening and will continue to grow. So while we may not produce beef to satisfy the pet food industry, lab or cell-cultured meat could.”
Martin said the companies developing the technologies to produce cell-cultured meats are open to conversations with the beef industry about labeling, challenging the beef industry to think about the ways beef is produced and the benefit to the overall industry.
Ibach cited Colorado Rep. Rod Pelton’s legislation urging the USDA and FDA to establish standards in terms of labeling, a move she said Colorado Farm Bureau was supportive of.
The second question spoke to marketing beef in a time when consumers have preconceived notions regarding the industry’s environmental impact. Leachman said the key is likely the documentation of where the industry is currently and its movement through the years to decrease its carbon footprint.
“If they think we’re being willy nilly and disregarding the entire thought process, that’s not going to bode well for us as an industry,” he said. “We’re going to have to be responsive to that, we’re going to have to argue for how we are doing, but also show fairly significant rate of improvement.”
Ibach, who grew up on a cow calf operation in Nebraska, said it is more important than ever for producers to tell their stories and connect with consumers, most of whom are less connected to production agriculture than a few years ago. She said consumers are interested in connecting with their food and those who produce it and doing so can offer producers another avenue to distinguish products and add value. She also encouraged producers to take advantage of the marketing done through the Beef Checkoff, a program supported by beef producers.
Levy said as the investment manager working through the sale of JBS Five Rivers, he had to testify to European banks, some of the largest agriculture investors in the world, that what was being done in the cattle feeding operation was socially responsible.
SOCIAL MEDIA PRESENCE
Levy said he did not grow up in the cattle industry and most of his friends on the coasts frequently email him articles about how the cattle industry is ruining the planet. He has gathered links to articles written by reputable sources and said it is his responsibility, and the responsibility of all in the industry, to tell the true story of sustainability. To that end, Five Rivers has recently created a social media presence.
“Most of the guys in the office are my age or significantly older and they didn’t understand the reason we had to do that,” he said. “We don’t have a brand, we produce a commodity and we sell most of our commodities to a company that barely has a brand. So why do we need to be on social media to tell our story? The reason is one, to energize our employees, and two, most importantly, is as the largest producer of beef in the world, we have a responsibility to tell the truth and let consumers know that what they’re eating isn’t impacting the environment and what they’re eating is wholesome and good and that we’re doing the right thing not only for the community, but for the world.”
The story of beef production in the U.S., Martin said, isn’t a hard one to tell or sell and is one that has sustainability at its core.
“We appreciate as a country the impact recycling has on our environment and cattle do that daily,” she said. “We take products that would go wasted in a landfill, feed them to cattle and they convert it into protein we will buy. That story is one that is our bread and butter as an industry and the more people we reach with the story of cattle production. We don’t have to change what we do, we have a great story to tell, we just need to do a better job of telling it.”
Ibach said the small percentage of legislators representing rural areas, seven of the 100 in the state, only three of which are active farmers or ranchers, is a challenge facing the industry. Speaking to and connecting with these legislators and the public is vital, especially when issues facing the industry are divisive even among producers. Leachman counts water and Colorado’s growing population among the significant issues facing the industry.
“We’re judged by the weakest links in our chain,” he said. “They’re not going to come to the best feedlot in the world or the best managed, environmental stewardship award winner in the state of Colorado, they’re going to go to the weak link and I think what we have to do as an industry is we have to put peer pressure on the weak links. It’s not something we like to do, it’s kind of against our grain and it ruffles everybody’s feathers but at the end of the day, we are going to get judged by those weak links and we have to do a good job, we have to be beyond reproach as much as we can on all those issues.”
Martin added viewing those outside of the industry as an opportunity rather than a challenge is key as she said people will make a decision about the industry whether they are educated or not. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 392-4410.