🍔An Open Dialogue on Regenerative Grazing
This week, I wanted to share an edited adaptation of an open letter the other founder and GP of Soilworks Natural Capital, Lew Moorman, wrote to Ezra Klein in response to Ezra’s “Let’s Launch a Moonshot for Meatless Meat” Article for The New York Times. While last week’s piece focused on the financial opportunities with regenerative animal proteins, Lew’s letter encapsulates the environmental benefits and societal vision that come from pursuing a regenerative vision of our food value chain with holistically managed animal agriculture at its core as opposed to an industrial one. Additionally, after the letter, I’ll share some thoughts on three pieces of media that came out this week that provide keen insight into some of the strongest arguments in favor of regenerative grazing - and how the movement is stacking up against emerging categories (they are an interview from Koen van Seijen with environmental lawyer and regenerative beef entrepreneur Nicolette Niman Hahn, a debate between regenerative poultry pioneer Joel Salatin and animal rights philosopher Peter Singer, and a deep-dive into the “plant-based bloodbath.”)
Thanks for the interview with Mark Bittman - and your continued focus on improving our food system. I also appreciate your honesty in being "radicalized" on the question of animals and the reform of the current system. I am a tech entrepreneur devoting the next chapter of my life (and my resources) to regenerative ag. I am investing via a public benefit company called Soilworks Natural Capital and I also have a regenerative operation with cattle, lamb, and pork. Our country has a health, ecosystem, and cruelty crisis led by our industrial food system.
I encourage you to feature and engage with some of the most experienced people at the heart of the regenerative agriculture movement. Gabe Brown is among the most articulate, best informed, and longest-running (as a result he recently testified to Congress and has successfully published his book, Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture). His story is exemplary of a growing number of ranchers focusing on stewarding their land and pursuing self-sufficient profitability.
Given my experiences as a tech entrepreneur, I can appreciate your techno-utopianism (which I often fall victim to), but I think it is not fully informed in your focus on animal agriculture. The industrial meat system does rely on massive centralized animal feeding operations, hormones and antibiotics, and long-distance transportation. We subsidize corn and soy so much that it is so cheap we can fatten up cows (and make them sick in the process) to make $2/lb beef.
The movement to lab-based and plant-based processed products will simply reinforce our industrial system. Mono-crop ecosystems doused with chemicals are responsible for massive insect, bird, and fish kills; loss of soils; and massive nitrous oxide emissions. This means more agrichemicals, more soil degradation (which cost the US upwards of a trillion dollars a year in environmental damage and lost productivity), and more highly processed foods. Remember how we got ethanol wrong, which led to the “dot corn bubble”, and seed oils wrong. I truly think it would be worth your time to examine regenerative ag deeply…I think you would find:
It can scale. According to regenerative agriculture consultancy firm Understanding Ag’s Dr. Allen Williams, they alone are currently helping companies and independent farmers transition over 25 million acres to regenerative agriculture. As President Biden’s meat processing plans provide better infrastructure from smaller producers, many ranchers already practicing regenerative agriculture will be able to grow their supply to meet growing demand.
Nature can heal. It is resilient and recovers when allowed to. More time attacking symptoms will make things worse.
Grasslands are the largest single land type on the planet and a more reliable carbon sink than trees.
These lands evolved with roaming ruminants (buffalo, elk, etc.) Do you really think they will be just fine without ruminants? I assure you they will not. The grass and soil co-evolved with them. When grazed rotationally, land can get the impact and organic waste it needs to thrive - building back soil which is the baseline for water retention and organic life.
Grasslands are home to most birds and insects - and they too evolved with and rely on ruminants. Rewilding will not bring back migratory herd animals. We need regenerative management to do it.
Millions of years of evolution do not make replicating food easy. The number of compounds in natural foods (including fully grass-fed beef) is astronomical and we have evolved to need them. The costs are high now, but that is because we have a centralized system massively subsidized to deliver the current model). It would be much more expensive if all costs were captured - subsidies, ecosystem, and health costs down the road. A true movement to a decentralized system could drive costs down. And we need to bring biodiversity back to our land, which will allow us to produce much more nutrient-dense food in the process, including beef.
We simply need to commit to change - be it from consumers on the margins, policymakers, institutional allocators, and entrepreneurs. I am personally investing in this space…Please investigate! Ecosystems and health are massively complex. Your skepticism of the current system is well-founded, but more techno-utopianism has a bad history regarding helping nature and our health. It is not animals vs plants, but industrial vs. regenerative. Your voice matters.
I found the three podcasts coming out this week as almost a paradigmatic of where regenerative grazing is in the public consciousness. While regenerative grazing is certainly not mainstream on the producer or consumer sides, the tailwinds are starting to pick up year-over-year. Hopefully, the regenerative meat category will become its own story with appropriate metrics and falsifiable claims.
As an environmental lawyer with hands-on ranching experience, Niman Hahn presents the strongest case from an environmental and nutritional perspective for regenerative meat - carefully distinguishing against factory farming. I always recommend her Defending Beef book to folks interested in regenerative agriculture. However, as Niman Hahn notes, many of the empirical - as opposed to anecdotal - case studies and science on sustainable grazing have emerged in the past decade. They are slowly making their way into “discourse” and bar top conversations.
The debate between Singer and Salatin is fascinating. Their backgrounds and the topic of animal rights present clear tensions, but they often seem to speak different languages, with Singer conflating factory farming to regenerative and Salatin at times harking back to unfalsifiable points. Without casting judgment or “victory,” I encourage listening to this debate because it presents two very different worldviews, both with strong internal logic. Chewing on which is more compelling a vision of the two provides ample food for thought.
The deep dive on the “plant-based bloodbath” of Beyond Meat provides insight into various pain points of the business - as well as what it could portend for the meat substitute category if it follows a similar strategy. Be it in opacity with sustainability reporting, underperformance in taste and “clean ingredient” claims, or a collapsing gross margin, Beyond provides a fascinating case study in early stumbles of venture-backed businesses that could elbow out regenerative grazing at scale. Their stumbles open a sizable market wedge for producers targeting flexitarians and climatarians.
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