What is Sustainable Beef?

What is Sustainable Beef?

“What is sustainable beef?” asks Jena Clarke M.E.M. ’15. “Is it a product, a process, an ethic? Is it a niche in the market? Or does it have to be the whole market?”

This semester, Clarke and Heather West M.F. ‘15 M.B.A. ’15 organized a speaker series that has brought agricultural experts to F&ES to address these fundamental questions about the future of cattle grazing. Drawing on decades of professional experience, the speakers have explored the concept of sustainable beef and discussed practical solutions to agriculture’s environmental impacts.

The Sustainable Beef talks conclude on April 16 at 4:00 pm in Bowers Auditorium with a panel of three New England beef producers and regional industry professionals, adding valuable local perspectives to the series.  After the panel, students, panelists, and community members will continue the discussion in the Knob in Kroon Hall over a feast of local, grass-fed beef and Thimble island beer.

The series kicked off in February when author and journalist Todd Wilkinson told a crowded Burke auditorium how Ted Turner, the U.S.’s largest single landholder, has used philanthropy as a focus of environmental activism. The media mogul and philanthropist oversees the nation’s largest bison herd on his Flying D ranch in southwest Montana. Turner pioneered an unusual type of philanthropy, with a motto of “Save Everything” and efforts to “re-wild” tracts of the American West.

On March 26, Nathan Sayre, a UC Berkeley professor and agriculture policy expert, gave an enthralling lecture on the history of rangeland science and management in America. One-third to one-half of planet Earth’s ice-free land is rangeland. These arid, marginal regions, Sayre noted, comprise more land cover than forests. He discussed the progression in western land-use beginning with the removal of Native Americans and their pastoral systems. A 1908 study, the so-called “Coyote-Proof Pasture Experiment,” demonstrated how livestock would put on more weight if removed from natural predators and the stressors of a wild environment. This one experiment led to a large-scale shift from extensive grazing operations to intensive fenced-in systems.

Sayre described the U.S. Forest Service’s numerous missteps and destructive policies that have led to desertification and disastrous erosion in the rangelands of the American West. The presence of livestock, Sayre argues, is not the main cause of grassland loss—poor management of grazing operations and scant rainfall are more to blame. There is no timeless normative baseline for America’s rangelands, he said; these are landscapes that have been shaped by man and climatic variations for millennia. Grazers are in fact necessary for sustaining healthy grassland ecosystems. Sayre reminded his audience that to achieve optimal economic returns is not the same as to create an optimal ecological state. If we want to enact sustainable systems, we will have to forego immediate financial benefits. This is an important point regarding rangeland management, and it is pertinent to all other human enterprises as well.

Earlier this month, Avery Anderson Sponholtz M.E.M. ‘08, executive director of the New Mexico-based Quivira Coalition, discussed her work building coalitions among western ranchers. The word “quivira” — which comes from old Spanish maps of North America — has no direct translation but connotes unchartered territory with the promise of great opportunity—a perfect analogy for the space in which the Coalition operates. Quivira explores new ground by bringing together diverse ranchland stakeholders to find common interests and implement solutions to pressing grassland problems.

The Coalition avoids politics and focuses on spreading an ethic of “Agrarianism”: finding a sustainable role for people in the natural world. Pointing to the need for a young generation of land stewards, Sponholtz highlighted the importance of Quivira’s New Agrarian apprenticeship program, which trains young ranchland managers in maintaining resilient agricultural enterprises. Food systems must change in the Anthropocene era, Sponholtz asserted, placing her efforts in a broader context. By engaging all participants, building partnerships, and enacting on-the-land solutions, the Quivira Coalition’s model defies conventions and exemplifies the changes that grassland management must undergo.

Jena Clarke, a Connecticut native who has spent a decade studying cattle husbandry and working in the beef industry, and Heather West, a California native who majored in history as an undergraduate at Stanford, view the speaker series as a way to address a subject dear to their hearts and our health, and to inform the Yale community about a host of issues—grassland ecology, rangeland management, and animal agriculture supply chains—that the F&ES curriculum does not cover in one comprehensive class.

In addition to securing funding from the Class of 1980 Fund and the Student Affairs Committee (SAC), they worked with numerous groups to bring the sustainable beef discussion to F&ES, including: the Westies student interest group, the Coalition on Agriculture, Food, and the Environment (CAFE) and Yale Sustainable Food Project; Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP) and Center for Business and the Environment at Yale (CBEY).

PHOTO: Author and journalist Todd Wilkinson in Kroon Hall. (Photo by Danielle Lehle)