In the sustainability world, the conversation around beef mostly involves reducing the environmental impacts of its production (deforestation, methane emissions, etc). But Cassidy Johnston can offer a perspective we don’t often get to hear in the Sustainable Brands conversation — a New Mexico-based cattle rancher and newly appointed Sustainability Officer for the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), Johnston is eager to share ranchers’ side of the story with the public and help dispel what she says are common misconceptions behind beef and its role in a sustainable food future.
In an interview with Sustainable Brands last year, then-CEO Randy Krotz said one of the USFRA’s goals is to bridge the communication gap between food companies and farmers. To that end, earlier this month the organization launched the Sustainability Officers Council — how did you come to be part of the Council?
Cassidy Johnston: I was nominated by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), as a representative of the Beef Checkoff. I jumped at the opportunity because sustainability and connecting with consumers and food companies about their food are two of my greatest passions. I’m so grateful for this opportunity, and beyond excited to be part of the Council.
What are some of consumers’ and food companies’ biggest misconceptions about cattle ranching?
CJ: Oh, my gosh — there are so many. There are a few, though, that I hear more often:
- We don’t care about our animals or the environment, we’re only concerned with making money. While it’s certainly true that we need to make a living, the way to make a living in this business is not by treating your animals or the environment poorly. From our cows to our land, we do our very best. We are stewards of the land and caretakers to the animals, not just people raising cattle for beef.
- “Oh, you’re one of the good ones. You care about [the environment, your animals, the water, etc].” While it’s true, I do care, I’m not “one of the good ones.” I am not unusual. I’m just like the majority of people in our industry — doing my best to raise a family, raise cattle, and keep everyone and everything as happy and healthy as possible, while always looking to new ways to make things better.
- We’re trying to hide something. We are absolutely not. We are so happy and proud to share what we do, but it can be hard because preconceived notions from content online or in documentaries can cloud people’s ability to engage with an open mind and visit with us. We so badly want to share our story, and we want to hear about what consumers and food companies are concerned about — we likely even share some of the same concerns!
- This is easy/romantic/a vacation. Ranching is not an easy lifestyle. It’s not like a dude ranch, or most TV Westerns. We work six or seven days a week, are “on call” every minute, and the cattle always come first. We do it because we love it and because it’s what’s in our hearts to do — not because we make a lot of money doing it, or because it’s convenient. Simply, it’s our whole life.
There’s been a recent surge in efforts to mitigate the environmental impacts of beef production (ex: dozens of global companies working to halt deforestation related to it, a new nutritional feed supplement that claims to reduce methane emissions from livestock by 30 percent) – how are you working to increase/achieve sustainability on your own ranch?
CJ: If you aren’t paying close attention and managing your land and cattle well, your ranch will not survive long-term. However, we know that longevity is not the only component of sustainability. At our ranch, we also focus on maximizing efficiency, reducing our impact upon the environment, and always finding new and innovative ways to improve, while keeping animal welfare at the forefront.
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We ranch in the Southwest, where water conservation and animal nutrition are our main concerns. We have very little live water, so we use wells that distribute water through a pipe to a tank, usually on a hill. From that point, gravity can disperse the water, providing water for numerous cattle over thousands of acres. The wells are primarily powered by solar panels or windmills (we are converting windmills to solar panels, since solars are more efficient and break down less often). We’re also replacing older storage tanks with covered tanks, and adding in new tools that will prevent the overflow of water. Water is a precious resource and we don’t want to waste it.
Nutrition-wise, we use cattle that are suited to the dry and hot environment — they are moderate-framed, easy-keeping, with low inputs. We don’t feed them a lot of hay, but we do feed specially formulated supplemental feed (called a range cake) that provides energy, nutrition and vitamins to the cattle. We also make sure to keep out plenty of minerals and salt, so our cattle can thrive on the grass we do have. We are very careful not to raise more cattle than the land and natural resources can support — drought is a major concern here, and we know that overgrazing can be calamitous when drought hits.
At SB’18 Vancouver, you’ll be part of a panel discussing the interconnectivity of sourcing decisions, food label claims, misinformation, and U.S. farmers and ranchers – have food marketing claims/labeling affected your business? If so, how?
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at SB'18 VancouverCJ: Food marketing claims and labels affect every rancher’s and farmer’s business. Consumers have the power to ask us to raise the kind of beef they want to eat, but it can be frustrating to decide what kind of beef to raise when consumers are confused by food labels and marketing claims. A lot of “official” practices for raising beef require expensive and time-consuming third-party verifications. So, do you take a bit of a gamble and pay a third party to verify your beef is raised a certain way (NHTC, NeverEver 3, GAP-Certified, etc)? There is a chance your operation might not see a return on that investment. Do you segment your cowherd into an all-natural or organic herd and a conventional herd? Do you raise and finish some cattle entirely on grass, then butcher and market the beef yourself rather than going through a processor? Do you use artificial insemination in your breeding program to produce a certain kind of cattle? These are all questions we are constantly asking ourselves when making business decisions.
Food marketing claims and labeling also make it harder for us to talk to consumers and food companies about beef. If a consumer heard something online, from a documentary, or a poorly researched news article, they might be misinformed at best or terrified at worst about their food choices. Coming from those emotional places can make it difficult for meaningful dialogue to occur.
What are your thoughts on the growing interest in beef alternatives such as “clean meat” (lab-grown meat) and insect protein, and their potential role in helping to sustainably feed 9 billion people by 2050?
CJ: All food choices have a role in feeding a growing population. The more access consumers have to high-quality, affordable, and nutritious food, the better! If consumers want a product, generally someone will find a way to provide it, and that’s how it should be. Having a bevy of great choices is something to be proud of! What’s hard for me, though, is when marketers provide incomplete information about beef to sell their products. Consumers deserve to have correct, complete information so that they can make their own informed choices.
There is a major part of beef’s truth that often gets left out when the brands behind “clean meat” and insect protein tell their stories. A lot of the marketing for these products omits or inaccurately describes some of the huge benefits of cattle. Cattle are ruminants — they take things humans can’t eat and turn them into things we can. That’s why the land footprint of cattle is so big — 86 percent of the rangeland that cattle graze is not suitable for crop farming. As ruminants, cattle are “up-cyclers;” they convert these inedible grasses and grains into a high-quality source of proteins, vitamins and minerals. They also eat the 1.9 billion metric tons of waste created by food, fiber and fuel production, such as wheat stalks, distiller’s grains and cottonseeds. Dr. Sara Place from the NCBA recently published an article about this topic that I encourage everyone to read!
Rangeland environments evolved to be grazed. Well-managed grazing programs contribute to healthy ecosystems — prime examples of this are the Flint Hills Tall Grasslands in Oklahoma and programs such as Ranching for Wildlife. It’s also important to remember that US beef’s carbon footprint has decreased — an estimated 9-16 percent from the 1970s to present day — and it’s still decreasing. Our carbon footprint can be 10-50 times lower than other parts of the world because we’re producing the same amount of beef as we did in 1975, but with 1/3 fewer animals. So, continuing to work towards a more sustainable global beef production system is worthwhile when we’re talking about meeting the protein needs of a growing population more sustainably. And we hope to achieve that together across the industry, without opposing voices denigrating certain production practices. Consumers should have access and choice to all forms of protein, but through transparent and respectful food marketing.