Author:| Published: June 7, 2017
The days of having to find and trek to a craft butcher shop and pay a steep premium for a grassfed steak may be numbered. This spring, leaders from all sectors of the grassfed beef industry gathered at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York for the release of a groundbreaking report titled “Back to Grass: The Market Potential for U.S. Grassfed Beef.”
Produced by sustainability-minded investment firms Bonterra Partners and SLM Partners in collaboration with Stone Barns, the report is the first deep dive into consumer demand for grassfed beef and the economics of its production. And the news is good: according to “Back to Grass,” despite major obstacles, there is serious potential to grow grassfed systems to a size that could compete with the grain-fed feedlot system that currently produces the vast majority of U.S. beef.
While the production of meat under the feedlot system causes major environmental issues, including methane emissions, intensive resource use, and soil and water pollution, regenerative grassfed systems have been shown to restore soil health and sequester carbon, while prioritizing animal welfare and producing meat that’s better for human health.
But big questions remain: Can production challenges be met while maintaining the integrity of the regenerative approach and of the term grassfed? Can the industry effectively educate consumers on what labels really mean? And can grassfed proponents convince people that grassfed beef is not overwhelmingly lean and dry, as commonly believed, when produced properly?
Skyrocketing Demand Amidst Misinformation
In some ways, consumers are actually leading the charge, according to the report, as overall demand has shifted toward natural and organic foods produced with greater concern for health, animal welfare, and sustainability.
On a panel on consumer trends, Maple Hill Creamery owner Tim Joseph said research his company conducted showed that consumers often thought their organic meat came from cows grazing only on grass, and once they learned that organically raised cows can still eat a diet of corn and soy, they were often driven to buy grassfed instead. “The grassfed system lines up with the customers’ aspirational vision of what they thought was happening on farms,” Joseph said.
While consumption of beef in the U.S. fell 2.3 percent each year from 2006 to 2015 overall, retail sales of fresh grassfed beef nearly doubled each year between 2012 and 2016, rising from just $17 million in 2012 to $272 million in 2016. (Still, the overall labeled grassfed market—including fresh retail, packaged foods, and food service—only accounts for an estimated $1 billion, which is less than 1 percent of the overall $105 billion total US beef market.)
“I think we’re at a tipping point,” said Urvashi Rangan, a sustainable food systems consultant who’s been working with leaders in the industry to develop a consensus around grassfed labeling. Rangan compared the current status of grassfed to where organic was 20 years ago, when the market had not yet developed to begin to meet consumer demand for healthier foods.
And she pointed out that interest in grassfed beef has grown despite the widespread belief that it does not taste as good as conventional beef, plus confusion as to what grassfed really means and which labels can be trusted.
Since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) doesn’t regulate the term in the same way that it verifies organic certification, many efforts to create a standardized definition and seal are coming from within the industry. (Unfortunately, there is already a lot of cheating, with “grassfed feedlot” systems feeding grass pellets to confined cattle or cattle’s grass diets being supplemented with various kinds of other feed.)
“Consumers are interested in purchasing sustainable meat, and they’re interested in the grassfed market, but they really don’t know how their meat has been produced,” said Stone Barns CEO Jill Isenbarger.
“It illuminated for me the need for a more consistent certification standard and simpler, clearer communication that’s truly transparent to consumers,” she added.