Not too long ago, I sat down for a visit with a friend who has been working in prairie conservation for most of his career. We talked about the need to help beef producers make decisions that are good both for the health of grassland and for their balance sheets. “It’s not easy,” he said, “people have been discussing these ideas for a long time, getting together with stakeholders and trying to find a way to make it work.”
He used a phrase that is well known in the grassland conservation world, “ecological goods and services.” A rancher who is looking after native grassland and its riparian areas in ways that conserve ecological values and provide habitat for species at risk is said to be providing “ecological goods and services” that we all benefit from as members of the wider community. Some have argued that such producers should be given annual or one-time payments to reward and encourage their sound management choices.
Finding a way to fund such payments is but one of many obstacles that have made ecological goods and services an idea that has never really gotten off the ground. Even if government money could be found, there are other forces that have stalled the process, including the conflicting agendas of stakeholders who are reluctant to budge from their entrenched positions to get a program started. As well, ranchers are notoriously suspicious of anything that may in any way restrict their liberty to do whatever they like with the land they lease or own. Their legendary independence and reluctance to change makes it difficult to get enough producers to commit to a new way of doing things—especially one introduced by a bunch of government biologists and policy-makers.
I wonder if we’ve been focusing too much on the producer: ‘how can we get producers to do this or do that?’ Cattlemen and women are slow to change and for good reason sometimes. They see someone try a new idea or invest in some alternative approach and then it fails and the other guys all watching it fail can feel justified in sticking with the old ways.
Maybe it’s time to switch attention to consumers. Once there are enough consumers demanding products that are healthier for themselves and the prairie, then the producers will be willing to move.
Some of the things I talk about in Grass Notes are almost entirely unknown to consumers--whether it is Omega threes in pasture-fed animals or the role wheat and the feedlot industry (or in the United States, corn and the feedlot industry) play in carbon production and the decline of grassland ecosystems. Given the right information and labelling, many consumers would like to choose food that is healthier for themselves and the environment--witness what is happening with organics and local food.
What I am getting at is, while we wait for policy makers to discover that grass is good for the Great Plains, we should also be working on another parallel path--which would be about setting standards of sustainable meat production and then labelling products accordingly. This could be done with a non-governmental organization and one good example is the Forestry Stewardship Council, which operates around the world now but started in Canada. The FSC certifies everything from huge pulp and paper companies to small woodlot owners, examining their practices from the forest to the retail store. When you see an FSC logo on printer paper or hardwood flooring or lumber or toilet paper you can determine exactly which sustainable forestry practices were used in its production.
What I am proposing then, is a Grassland Stewardship Council modeled after the FSC. Its mission would be to “promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of Canada’s grasslands.”
With a Grassland Stewardship Council, we could help consumers choose products that come from producers who apply sound grazing practices that sequester carbon and maintain habitat for birds and other grassland creatures. It would be especially important to provide consumers with the choice of grass-finished beef. Some products might be labeled to show that the animals were pastured on sustainably-grazed native grass, while others might indicate that the animals were pastured on non-native grass that is managed with ecological health and carbon sequestration as priorities.
Given a GSC and enough time, if consumers were choosing the right products, the shift away from corn and wheat production and toward more pastured beef and dairy would happen. And once the parade is underway, then it would be easier to get industry and governments interested in jumping in front of it with incentive programs and choices of their own.
In an ideal world, with a government that endorsed such a program, you could fund the whole thing with a tiny percentage added onto the supermarket price of all beef, regardless of how it is raised. The dollars gathered from this of course would cover the costs of the certification program and part of it would also go into the pockets of producers who were raising their livestock and grazing their land according to Grassland Stewardship Council standards. In effect it would be something like a carbon offsets program that would over time be an incentive for more producers to switch to the GSC standards. (And of course, part of the environmental benefit would be the carbon sequestration that is achieved in grass-finished beef and in converting cropland to permanent cover.)
Realistically, though, government and the cattle-slaughter and processing industry would not be willing to participate--at least not at first. Without such a way of funding the program and passing it onto certified producers, the initial approach might be much less ambitious. You could start with a certification process that you'd offer to those who are trying to present alternatives to every phase of the industry--from livestock producers to hay producers to small slaughterhouses and meat processors (if there are any left!). Work with organizations that might be interested to see what might work for producers and other elements of the industry to help get their product to consumers who support better stewardship of grassland. In this smaller-scale model, the certification program's costs would have to be passed onto the the consumer, ideally with a small premium that gets back to everyone in the chain that is certified by the GSC--cattlemen, hay producers, and probably other links I am not thinking of.
I am no economist and not much of a businessman either so I am out of my depth here. It would be good to have the assistance of someone who knows more about developing systems that bring the economy and ecology into a healthier interdependance.
You may be wondering why not simply go with the usual organic certification process. The truth is, a producer can be certified as organic and still plough up all of his native grassland, ruin a creekbed with his animals, destroy habitat for species at risk, and fatten his animals entirely on grain before slaughter--as long as no artificial fertilizers and pesticides are used. The point of a Grassland Stewardship Council would be to identify and certify producers who are the good stewards of native grassland and watersheds and give them a market advantage over the producers who are not.
Anyone interested in this discussion of possible solutions should look at the work of Doug Booth, who is using his blog to develop ideas for a new book on what he is calling "The Coming Good Boom," as opposed to the usual booms we get, which are not really good in the long run. Doug has a refreshing and optimistic voice, and as a retired professor of economics he brings some much needed analytical skill to the discussion.
Here is a recent posting on how changing the corn belt to grass-based agriculture would help us address a whole suite of environmental and social problems we face in the middle of this continent.
I believe we might be able to help producers choose practices that are good for the ecology of grassland and its native plants and animals by in turn giving consumers more choices. Easy to say; not so easy to do.
As things are, in most of Canada if you want to buy grass-finished beef or beef from cattle that graze on well-maintained native pasture or on tame grass managed with Holistic Management principles you pretty well have to buy it directly from the producer. There are good reasons to buy directly from the farm or ranch and I do it myself all the time, but if you talk to most of these men and women they will tell you that the majority of the animals they raise end up going into the system, which means they are sold to feedlots and corporate slaughter and processing facilities. All the good work they do in raising animals in an ecologically sound manner, in producing beef that is high in Omega-3 fatty acids, in sustaining grassland habitat, is in a sense lost within the system. The health benefits of a grass-fed animal are entirely lost after a few weeks in the feedlot eating grain, growth hormones and anti-biotics. And once the meat gets to the store as steak, roast, or hamburger, there is no way to distinguish it from beef raised by someone who has not made the effort to conserve habitat, and who in fact may be destroying riparian areas, following poor grazing practices, and ploughing native grass to seed it to crested wheatgrass.
Many beef producers are following excellent stewardship practices, but others are not. If there was a way for consumers to distinguish between the two, their choices at the supermarket would benefit those who are following best practices and provide others with an incentive to improve.
In my next posting, I will look at how the forestry industry in Canada has dealt with a similar situation.