Beef Issues Quarterly Archive

An interview with Dr. Jason Clay

An interview with Dr. Jason Clay

Senior Vice President Market Transformation, World Wildlife Fund

Recently, Beef Issues Quarterly Trends Advisory Panel chair Rick McCarty spoke with Dr. Jason Clay, the Senior Vice President of Market Transformation for the international nongovernmental organization (NGO) World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

In addition to his position as WWF’s Senior Vice President of Market Transformation, Dr. Clay manages the WWF Network’s private sector advisory board and led the development of WWF’s private sector engagement strategy. He is a leader within WWF and the NGO community more broadly on identifying global trends and issues as well as supply chain management. Over the course of his career he ran a family farm, taught at Harvard and Yale, worked in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and spent more than twenty-five years working with human rights and environmental organizations. Clay received his Ph.D. at Cornell University in 1979 in anthropology and international agriculture and has authored more than 250 articles and 15 books on the topics of environment, agriculture, aquaculture, poverty alleviation and corporate social responsibility.

Working on a global scale, Clay brings people together to improve environmentally sensitive practices in agriculture and aquaculture. He has co-convened multi-stakeholder roundtables to identify and reduce the social and environmental impacts of salmon, soy, sugarcane, cotton, palm oil and beef (see the Fall 2010 edition of BIQ for details about the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef).


Rick McCarty: Dr. Clay, there's a great interest in World Wildlife Fund and what you have to say. Let's begin at a very basic level: your title at WWF is unusual; tell us what that means and what you do.

Jason Clay: World Wildlife Fund was started 50 years ago this year. Our initial focus and the cornerstone of our work today is species: the protection of species around the world; the world’s biodiversity; and the ecosystem services we all depend on – fresh water, clean air, etcetera. A lot of what we’ve done historically is creating national parks and protected areas that provide homes for different species and provide ecosystem services.

More recently we’ve come to realize that food production, biodiversity and ecosystem services are going to collide. So as an environmental organization, if we’re going to succeed in our mission of preserving biodiversity and ecosystem services, we need to engage in terms of how we produce food and where we produce food.

We think that we probably need to freeze the footprint of food. We need to figure out how to produce more food, with the same amount or less land. The United States has been doing this for the last 50 years or so. There hasn’t been an agricultural expansion but rather an intensification of production for row-crops, and for the livestock industry as well. But, just as in the rest of the world, there are places in the United States that we think probably need to be preserved, so a cornerstone of our work is still species and habitat protection.

My team really focuses on how humanity uses natural resources, whether that use is sustainable and how it can be made more sustainable. We also want to understand how we can improve use over time, share lessons learned and better inform people of the work others are doing.

WWF’s goal through our market transformation program is primarily to work with the major companies in the world and their supply chain around 15 key commodities that we see as the biggest threats to the places we care about.

RM: I hear a lot of people say "sustainable agriculture." How do you define sustainable agriculture – can you give us a basic working definition of what sustainable agriculture is?

JC: The general definition of sustainable agriculture is that you use resources today in a way that allows future generations to have the same amount of access to the same resources. You don’t degrade the resource base, whether it’s the soil that we need, the water, the organic matter, etcetera.

I think in the short term, in lieu of a better definition for sustainability, what we’re talking about is improving production. And we can’t improve production around 100 different things, so we really need to focus on the four, six or eight things that are most important. And that’s why WWF has been very interested over the last 20 years in working with different groups of producers for different types of commodities, to sit down at tables together with researchers and scientists and to figure out what those six or eight things are. We realize that we’ve got opinions about them, but our opinions aren’t any better than anybody else’s opinions. We try to make them informed by science, but science is changing.

We really need to build consensus about what those six or eight key impacts are that we ought to work on, and then understand where producers in different parts of the world are on their performance around those impacts. What’s the benchmark globally for this? What’s the range and why does that range occur? Is it just because of better land and growing conditions, or is it also because of practices – is it because of the way cattle farmers and ranchers are producing things?

If it’s the latter, then we can share that information and make everybody a little bit better. If it’s the former, then we should begin to look at what crops could be grown on some areas that maybe wouldn’t cause the same amount of damage.

But I think focusing and beginning to measure impacts is the way to reduce them. And if we can begin to build consensus of 50 percent or 60 percent of the people in the middle, then the extremes on either end

– either the ranchers and farmers who don’t want to hear about any of this or the NGOs for whom nothing is good enough – become outliers in the system at some point. If we can occupy the middle space and work together, we can begin on this process of continuous improvement.

Here’s the bottom line: We can argue a lot today about what is and what is not sustainable. But by 2050, with 9 billion people on the planet, nearly 3 billion more than today, consuming twice as much as we are now, whatever is sustainable today isn’t going to be in 2050. So we’ve got to get better. We’ve got to figure out how to do more with less. I think with livestock, what we need to do is figure out where we are and what the ranges are. Then we can look at what role management and genetics and other things have to do with improving production.

RM: You mentioned improvements in production and said that to be sustainable, agricultural production has to be more efficient. Can you talk about what sustainable beef production looks like and, thinking globally, what part the efficiencies of animal feeding operations play in that?

JC: As I see it you’re asking two questions. One is: What can be done to improve the performance of beef production globally? And the other is: What is the current situation of beef production in the United States and what are the trends likely to be going forward? Because I think the two issues are related, but distinct.

U.S. beef production, for its scale, is head and shoulders above most of the rest of the world in terms of how long it takes to get an animal to market, the production of greenhouse gases during that time, how much feed it takes, how much land is required and how much water.

Going forward in the United States, I would say that to make that system even better, we’re probably looking at more intensive management of cow-calf pasture operations, and probably genetics that would allow us to have animals that would finish off maybe a little quicker. We’re most likely already topping out at the weight of what animals ought to be, but maybe we can get there a little quicker. If we lived in an ideal world, I’d probably be looking for something in the three- to five-month range for feedlot operations, rather than the six- to eight-month range.

Here's the issue: I think once we start managing for multiple variables, we’re going to start producing things in a slightly different way. So if you’re only managing for weight at time to market, then you’re going to produce beef in one way. But if you’re also trying to look at greenhouse gases, water, habitat and other kinds of issues, then you might be a little bit different. Again though, what to manage is part of building this consensus about what’s most important to be looking at, and I think that’s going to be extremely important going forward.

Globally, the issue is a little bit different. Throughout the world, some of the biggest impacts of beef are habitat. For instance, beef is the single largest cause of deforestation in Brazil. So in Brazil, we have a situation where we have a much bigger herd, a considerably lower out-put, and the greenhouse gas contribution to the environment is a great deal larger per ton of meat than in the United States. And I think people are going to begin question, what systems are better? Globally, what we see is that the best beef producers – like any other commodity – are probably 100 times better than the worst in terms of productivity per unit of land.

Globally, I think we will have the biggest positive environmental impacts by moving the worst rather than trying to move the best. The best are going to innovate. I think if we’re really going to concentrate on where is the worst beef production on the planet; it wouldn’t be in most developed countries.

RM: That’s an interesting point of view. You mentioned ecosystem services, and I know the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has looked at this in some of its reports, including Livestock’s Long Shadow. My interpretation is that some of these pasture based systems might not be able to improve their beef production efficiency, and so ecosystems services would sort of be their contribution. Is that how you see things globally?

JC: I think virtually any system can be improved. As I have talked to farmers and ranchers in the United States and on every other continent, there’s a real sense that they’re all better than average. And in fact they’re not – half of them can’t be by definition. I think they’re all doing the best that they can, and what would be very helpful is understanding how to do it better. Let them see how other producers achieve better performance than they do, or worse for that matter. But it could be a learning tool.

Industry associations can only do so much, and the people who usually belong to industry associations are some of the most progressive people and they tend to be the ones who are looking for better ways to do things. Some of the worst producers aren’t part of those organizations, so you will never reach them through those groups. So we have a real problem here, I think, where 40 percent to 50 percent of global impacts of any commodity are probably caused by the bottom 25 percent of producers, by performance. So if we don’t move the bottom, then it doesn’t matter in some ways if the top gets better, because the bottom is what everybody’s going to continue to point at.

We’ve come to a time where a farmer or rancher can’t simply be above the fray and point to their own performance and show how good they are and expect to somehow avoid the ire of people who look at the whole system and see what the impacts are. And so we need to think about how all of us – ranchers, researchers, government officials, NGOs, companies who buy these products – can help move the bottom part of the performance curve. Because we will actually improve performance, reduce impacts, improve efficiency, improve sustainability, and more importantly improve the license of everybody to operate if we can reduce those impacts that are the biggest and are often perpetrated by the people on the bottom of the performance curve.

RM: The Global Conference on Sustainable Beef held in Denver in November 2010 brought an amazing range of beef industry stakeholders together, including producers, researchers, scientists, NGOs, associations and major corporations. From WWF’s point of view and your objectives, what do you think was achieved at that meeting and, now that the dialogue has begun,what do you see as critical next steps in working toward sustainable beef both domestically and globally?

JC: I thought it was a great first step and it started to clear the air. Now, we’ve got to figure out if there are enough areas of consensus amongst that group, or some subset of it, to begin looking at the key impacts; determining the benchmark for those performance levels; and identifying how can we improve them. And part of that might be some kind of certification program with standards that come about. But part of it might be producers in different parts of the world simply using that kind of framework and structure to begin to look at their own approaches to sustainability. So, for example, in the case of the beef industry, it could be renewing your focus on key results, rather than just every practice that ranchers use. It might include clustering the practices around the results that they affect, updating them, and conducting some business analysis as to what it costs different farmers to improve their results but doing it through different approaches.

One of the things that I certainly believe is that every producer has different assets they will bring to solve a problem. Let’s not be creating strait jackets and trying to force everyone to do the same thing, which is what a practice-based approach does. Let’s look at what the problem is we’re all trying to solve and then figure out what an acceptable impact would be. Or even what a transition toward a more acceptable impact would be. And then let’s get ranchers and farmers moving in that direction, each in their own way, using their own tools.

RM: What sort of interaction should the U.S. beef industry continue with other nations? Out of the meeting there was an expectation and commitment to have regional meetings of this nature. As we move forward, is it helpful to maintain this global contact so each region knows what the other is doing?

JC: I think it’s essential to do that for two reasons. One is a positive reason and the other is an avoidance of a negative issue. So from a positive point of view, I think it’s very important to identify, agree, and focus on a very small number of things to be working on at a global level – and to be sharing information about how that’s done. I think there’s a lot to be said for global agreement on a finite number of issues, and sharing information globally about how to do it. In agriculture, I’ve seen that some of the biggest gains have been made when the Brazilians talk to the Iowa soybean producers, and the sugarcane producers in Brazil talk to India and Australia. Those kinds of interchanges are extremely important.

I think going forward that the question of how much animal protein will be derived from which sources on a finite planet is going to be one that is looked at very closely by civil society and by government. So I think it really behooves growers to get organized and figure out what they think about this. What’s the best way to approach this? Or what’s the best way to bring science to bear on these issues? Because a lot of the information that’s out there simply isn’t science-based – it’s ideological or based on assumption.

On the other side, I think every producer in the world in a global economic system really depends on a fair market. And not being penalized for things that other people can do at will. Any discussion that helps create an apples-to-apples comparison and allows for a more level playing field for all producers globally will help raise the bottom producers up, but also not penalize growers from one part of the world or another. And I think that’s going to be extremely important as markets become more integrated than they have been in the past.

What’s interesting is that markets are much more transparent and global today than they’ve ever been. And government is still national. I think the private sector, in terms of companies and the food industry itself, is really beginning to look at comparative advantage for production. Where can we buy products produced with fewer impacts? Or the most productive? Or the lowest cost and still factor in impacts? They’re beginning to look at the world and looking for solutions at a global level. Governments aren’t doing that yet. Producers need to get themselves organized so that they can begin to make offerings that are addressing many of those same issues but do it in a proactive, rather than a reactive way.

RM: You mention that markets are global and governments still tend to be national. What should the role of government be in fostering sustainability in agriculture? Or should it have a role?

JC: I don’t think government will ever identify and support the most innovative, progressive and sustainable production systems. I don’t think governments are very good at that. They’re too slow to react; they’re too based on long, drawn-out processes. Today’s better practice is tomorrow’s norm, and the day after is the practice we’re trying to get rid of. So if your process for identifying the better practice takes 10 years, then it’s probably too late. Because the guy that invented it is already doing something else, something better, and this needs to be much more nimble than that. I think companies do that; I think banks encourage that; I think NGOs and producers working together can figure out how to move the top. It seems to me that government’s role is probably to move the bottom.

And that’s where regulation has come in. But with fewer resources, I think government is going to have to be very strategic about what it wants to do. If we can agree what the four, six or eight key impacts are, and what an acceptable performance level is to be called sustainable, and then get government to focus on those same four or six issues at a lower level of performance, then we can actually shift the entire bell curve.

RM: Looking forward at where the beef industry needs to be, and how it needs to move forward, is there anything more you want to add for our BIQ audience?

JC: I think it’s going to become very difficult if the beef industry doesn’t try to figure out what the key issues are and begin to address them. A circle the wagons mentality and saying there are no issues, or there is no impact, is probably not in the industry’s best interest. It’s important to show what the actual progress has been over the last 30 or 40 or 50 years. I think Jude Capper really does that very well in her research. And that kind of analysis shows what kind of things will need to be worked on going forward.

What I see looming in the United States is the largest transition ever in ownership of land, particularly ranch land, and the aging ranching population. Transitioning to what, is the question. What are optimal ownership models? What can be done? What should the ranching community be trying to organize around in terms of shaping what becomes of ranching land 20, 30, 40 years in the future? Who is going to be driving those discussions? Based on what kinds of values? And based on what interest in maintaining not just beef production, but the cultural production of and the place of beef in many communities? And what are they going to be basing those decisions on?

In this respect too, it seems to me that there’s a need to reach out to like-minded entities. Many people have a vested interest in beef, whether they’re the customers of particular companies, whether they’re civil society more broadly, whether it’s researchers, government officials, NGOs. I think all of them have a role to play. But this transition won’t occur in a vacuum and it won’t just be shaped by ranchers.

In fact the question that I would say is before us all, is will it even be mostly shaped by ranchers? That’s what I would be concerned about. What role or voice ranchers are going to have in the future of U.S. ranching going forward?


Rick McCarty is Vice President of Issue Analysis and Strategy for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. He has more than 25 years experience in agriculture including agricultural banking and finance, communication, issues management and research. Rick currently serves as a member of the NCBA Market Research team focusing on consumer issues research.

Tags: Beef Issues Quarterly, Questions and Answers, Winter 2011

March 31, 2011