World-traveling meat: The unintended consequences of sustainability

World-traveling meat: The unintended consequences of sustainability

A mounted jackalope head hung over the meat counter at the back of my town’s butcher shop when I was a kid. (For the uninitiated, that’s a mythical taxidermy creation that crowns a jackrabbit with deer antlers.) The beef this fierce creature guarded came from local cows that had lived primarily on grass and hay. For quite a while, grain-fattened beef has been more to America’s liking. But recently, as  local, natural and organic foods have gained popularity and distribution beyond small community outlets like that butcher shop, grass-fed beef is making a comeback.

But guess who’s raising  a growing chunk of Americans’ grass-fed beef? Australian farmers. It’s traveling around the world to us frozen.

So here’s a question: What do you do when one sustainable action or trend causes unintended, perhaps unsustainable, reactions?

The American Grassfed Association proclaims grass-fed beef healthy for people, animals, planet and community. Grass-fed cows certainly live in a more natural state than cows that are fattened up on a rich diet of corn – and are often confined to feedlots, rather than roaming in pastures.

Grass-fed cows take several years longer to reach full size (and thus ROI) than grain-fed ones. Feeding cattle grass only, with no additional grains (like corn), may seem intuitive, but it’s difficult in most regions of the U.S. without stockpiling plenty of hay for winter feeding. The costs associated with this, and for all the space grass feeding takes, make it harder for American grass-fed beef producers to compete against Australian imports, even if those imports have left carbon hoofprints across the globe.

There’s not a clear-cut guide to weighing the sustainability-related benefits of grass-fed beef against the issues of international transportation and refrigeration. (And, of course, there’s more complexity to the pros and the cons than we’ve talked about here.) While you likely have no power over the economics of imports and exports, you can be cognizant of the side effects generated by sustainable actions and trends that you support.

Here’s another, related sustainability conundrum: Biofuels (and the high need for animal feed corn) have driven up demand for corn and soy, giving landowners in the Western Corn Belt plenty of reason to convert their property from native grassland to corn and soybean farms. One study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences points out that today’s remaining grasslands are being converted to agricultural uses at rates that haven’t been seen since right before the Dust Bowl. The loss of grassland presents a critical conservation issue, and the study suggests that the good prices for corn and soy growers could be limiting the economic viability of other effective, beneficial types of biofuels.

As you develop and track your sustainability goals, you should consider side effects like these. The path toward sustainability can sometimes become a tunnel, and it’s easy to stop looking outside it once you’re headed in a good direction. Opening up the tunnel vision is beneficial for several reasons:

  • You could be an innovator in your industry: If there’s a more sustainable, more effective way of doing business or meeting goals, lead the way – even if the better path is the road less traveled.
  • You can ensure you are, in fact, benefiting people and the planet – not just your own sustainability story.
  • You won’t be caught unawares as savvy consumers, who desire transparency, become more aware of these conundrums (especially pertinent if you target a greener audience).
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December 17, 2013

About the Author

Meghan McDonald

Meghan McDonald

Meghan concepts and writes copy for clients and also reviews creative deliverables for clarity, grammar and brand alignment. She brings an interdisciplinary background in environmental studies and journalism to our team. If you want to know the name of a tree or flower, she’s the one to ask.

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Suzanne Shelton

President and CEO

Suzanne is the voice and the vision of Shelton Group. Drawing on her extensive experience in energy and the environment – and 25+ years in the marketing and advertising industry – Suzanne provides high-level strategic insights for our clients and guidance for our research and creative departments. She regularly speaks at conferences around the country, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and the International Builders’ Show, and serves as a guest columnist for publications like Fast Company, Green Builder and GreenBiz.com.

Susannah Enkema

VP Research & Insights

Susannah directs our research team and plays a key role in extracting the nuggets of information that pave the way for recommended marketing strategies and creative approaches. Susannah has nearly two decades of market research and strategy experience, including her role as president of SE Consulting, where she led the services for the likes of DIY Network and the makers of GORE-TEX®.

Laila Waggoner

VP Client Engagement

Laila leads our client engagement process, overseeing activities from both a strategic and a tactical level to ensure our work generates desired results – and clients’ satisfaction. She brings 25+ years of marketing leadership experience to her client relationships, with particular expertise in the homebuilding and remodeling industries as well as member-driven organizations, such as the Vinyl Siding Institute and Plastics Pipe Institute. Before joining Shelton Group, she led strategic marketing teams for Owens Corning’s insulation business.

Matt Brass

VP Creative

Matt steers the creative department in concepting, designing and producing campaigns. He ensures sound strategy and deep insights inform everything his team develops, and works closely with the accounts department to ensure copy and designs will meet our clients’ goals. As a designer and filmmaker himself, he’s also a principal contributor to all of Shelton’s in-house photography and videography work.

Glen L. Vesser III

VP Finance and Administration

Glen manages Shelton Group’s finances and administration, ensuring our internal systems run smoothly so we can provide exceptional client service in a seamless and timely manner. Glen’s financial and administrative expertise has been shaped by decades of experience in a variety of industries, including public accounting, media distribution and health care.

Mike Beamer

VP Business Development

Mike joined our team to help provide strategic vision and foster our agency’s growth by overseeing new business leads and managing agency marketing and website content. He arrived in Knoxville steeped in energy efficiency and renewables – he previously led client service for an agency division in Boston dedicated to marketing communications strategy and branding for B2B and B2C clients in that space.