As part of Concordia’s Campaign Conversations for Public Private Partnerships (C3s for P3s) for the Campaign for a Sustainable Global Food Supply, Concordia hosted a virtual conference on April 24th entitled Back to Grass: The Market Potential for US Grassfed Beef. The virtual panel discussion brought together over 40 participants across sectors to explore challenges and solutions related to grassfed beef production in the United States. Renee Cheung, Managing Partner at Bonterra Partners LLC, Paul McMahon, Managing Partner at SLM Partners, and Jill Isenbarger, CEO of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, summarized findings from their recently released report before participants weighed in on supply-chain specific challenges and partnership solutions, as witnessed through their particular role in the U.S. food system. The following are key takeaways and initiatives discussed in the panel.
The report centered on the core challenge of market accessibility; is grassfed beef destined to remain a niche product for the affluent consumer, or can it become a mainstream food that displaces conventional beef? Ms. Cheung argued that variable quality, confused consumers, inefficient supply chains, and high production costs present the major challenges to mainstreaming this product. Suggestions to overcome these challenges included focusing on producing high-quality, well-finished beef year round; developing stronger standards accompanied by national campaign to educate consumers; pursuing scale and aggregation to unlock supply-chain efficiencies; and, establishing well-managed, scaled-up finishing systems to lower production costs.
These are not solutions that can be driven by just one sector or entity. Mr. McMahon encouraged the formation of partnerships to bring more land under grassfed production, increase stocking density on existing pastureland, and unlock access to capital, skills, and knowledge transfer. Incentivizing more farmers to adopt grassfed operations remains difficult because most investment capital still flows to conventional production. Owner of Oak Stone Farms, Phil Hodgins, echoed the significance of this obstacle and noted the opportunity for private equity to become involved in supporting grassfed operations, particularly in the Northeast where infrastructure and market lag behind resources and potential.
Regional participants must also be taken into consideration, according to the report’s findings. Discrepancies related to weather, supply chain infrastructure, and aggregation capabilities certainly affect each region differently, according to Ms. Cheung. The Midwest is perhaps most successful in the grassfed industry, and while there are conditions in place that can be linked to this outcome, there are geographical limits to how to transfer their successes to either coast.
In addition to grassfed beef’s benefits related to human health, animal welfare, and taste, Ms. Isenbarger emphasized the importance of its environmental footprint. As a form of regenerative agriculture, grassfed beef can actually mitigate climate change and provide important environmental protection that is unattainable in conventional systems. The multiplicity of benefits stemming from grassfed open new doors for partnerships. Sam Garwin from Fleishers said one way they work to unlock supply-chain efficiencies is by partnering with entities that share the same values around environmentalism. Achieving scale can come in other forms too, such as standardizing management and labeling processes. Inclusive labeling that debunks “grassfed” labels and encourages consumers to buy more sustainable products is still missing.
Increased consumer attention to their food footprint, coupled with growing demand for grassfed beef, suggest an opening for an industry shift. However, until a major provider makes the initial commitment to grassfed beef, thus moving the market, conventional beef will continue to be the default option for farmers and consumers alike. The recent BN Ranch/Blue Apron merger could lead the change. The question is, will it be enough to make American produced grassfed beef an affordable, reliable option?
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