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Q&A: Sara Place of NCBA
If you haven’t heard Sara Place speak, you should. This researcher with the National Cattleman’s Beef Association is bright, funny, and quick to call out a false statement or anti-beef comment when the time is right. Successful Farming magazine caught up with Place at The Future of Food summit in New York City, put on by Eating Well magazine and IFIC.
SF: What is beef doing to stay in touch with consumer trends?
SP: A lot. We have a whole team at NCBA that is working on consumer monitoring and market research. Everything from social media monitoring, and a lot of market research, in terms of understanding how people are making purchasing decisions and what are the new food trends out there. On the sustainability front, we’re active in this space. We don’t want to get caught in 10 years, like, “Now this sustainability topic is a key driver in people’s purchasing decisions.” We have to always be monitoring that and being as transparent as we can be in terms of what we’re actually doing in the industry.
SF: What research do you oversee?
SP: All the work that I do is funded by beef checkoff dollars. The key thing we do is benchmark where we’re at as an industry with regard to sustainability metrics and then research some more unique aspects of sustainability that don’t necessarily make it into the headlines. A big part of the benchmarking work is doing life cycle assessment of the U.S. beef industry. It started in 2013, but you can think about life cycle assessment like the whole supply chain – really from grass to plate. We look at those environmental impacts along the entire way. It can be greenhouse gas emissions, could be water use, fossil fuel use, those types of things. We really went deep into understanding the regional variation across the United States, because the production takes place in all 50 states. What happens on a cow-calf operation in New York state is very different than the eastern plains of Colorado. We’re hoping to release that research in 2020.
SF: How do you define sustainability?
SP: For me, it’s always about the three pillars: economics, social, and environmental. It’s about producing safe, nutritious beef with economic viability, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility. It’s a very broad definition, but you have to define it broadly because what it means for every specific producer – in terms of how they’re going to make their operation better, or fit within their natural resources – is going to be very different. We purposely keep it at that high level.
We also have another effort called the U.S. roundtable for sustainable beef. That has been around since 2015, and they’ve just released their framework for sustainability. They’ve come up with actual metrics for what they’ll measure for sustainability. Essentially their six indicators are greenhouse gas emissions, air emissions, land resources, water resources, and efficiency and yield (your productivity and your economic output). And then animal well-being and worker health and safety.
SF: Do consumers understand the cattle business?
SP: The key thing that I want people to understand is this unique aspect of cattle as ruminant animals and what they’re actually providing the food system. They take things in with little or no value and they make higher-value products. A lot of the protein that they generate and a lot of the nutrients that we generate for the human food supply just literally don’t exist without them. Cattle, sheep, and goats – they’re painted as inefficient, but they’re actually very efficient at what they do.
SF: How are they so efficient?
SP: When we look at the total feed intake and the grain-finished steer in the U.S., 82% of the feed resources are actually grass and other forages. Another 7% are all the by-products: the dried distillers’ grains or cottonseed meal. Then only about 11% is actually grain. So I think that’s one of those things that kind of shocks people when we talk about corn-fed beef in America.
SF: Animal agriculture gets blamed for significantly contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. What’s the fact?
SP: Those stats can get confusing quick. Globally we know from the UNFAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) it’s 6% of global emissions coming from beef cattle. Of that, the U.S. is less than one half of 1%. In terms of our global contribution, what often happens is people will conflate all livestock – so dairy, cattle, pigs, chickens, everything – with beef cattle. The global number for all livestock is 14.5%. You often see that thrown out there, like that’s all beef, but it’s not right. So 6% is beef. If we zoom in on the U.S., what we see from the EPA is just 2% of emissions. So it’s not nothing, but those numbers are much lower than people quote.
SF: Why do you suppose that animal ag is so vulnerable to attacks?
SP: It’s always good to take a step back and look at this historically. I’m kind of a nerd, I like to look at the old scientific journals. Quite frankly, you can look at some of these same issues from 100 years ago. With the exception of greenhouse gas emissions, the issues covered are pretty much the same conversation. I think this gets renewed over generations and people stumble upon it and they think, “I've discovered this issue.” A lot of folks in the animal rights-committed community have seen that maybe some of their tactics that appeal to people’s emotions haven’t worked. Climate change is the big hot topic at the moment. So a lot of them have latched onto that. That’s where you see statistics that are just completely bogus. When people use those kind of things, they’re just trying to push a narrative. But a lot of the rest of it is coming because of the interest in climate change.
SF: How do producers counterbalance the activism?
SP: In the livestock industry, there are a lot of conservative folks, right? They don’t like to put themselves out there. For a lot of them, the reason they are in livestock agriculture is because they would rather deal with the animals than people. In the last few years we’ve definitely made progress in terms of being more open and just like telling it to people straight. When you’re not as willing to engage with people, then these myths kind of perpetuate and, unfortunately, dominate the discussion. Because once something’s out there, especially now if it’s on the internet, it must be true, right? You can find anything to confirm any of your biases.
SF: What is your take on the alternative meat trend?
SP: I think a lot of it is kind of silly. Because even the alternative proteins, if you look their ingredient lists, they generate by-products that probably are getting fed back to livestock. So I think this whole thing has been framed as like either/or, and it has been for decades. We need plant and animal agriculture working together. If anything, we need to strengthen those integrations more. Not talk about these things like they’re separate.
SF: Have you tried any of the products?
SP: I have tried Impossible. It was a plain patty because we just wanted to see what it tasted like. I wasn’t that impressed. I realize I’m a biased person because I eat a lot of beef. I think they still have a ways to go, in my opinion.
SF: It has certainly got the industry fired up.
SP: I won’t speak too much on the policy side because that’s outside of my realm. It’s another protein choice out there. Just like we’re not going to run chicken down either, right? Yeah, it’s an agricultural product. Everything comes from the earth somehow. So that’s just the way it is. What’s triggered some of our producers is the marketing angle that those new companies have used. Obviously Boca Burgers and bean burgers have been around forever and nobody really cares. I think what’s causing all this angst within agriculture is the way they’re marketing directly on sustainability. That’s what’s driving people nuts, if you will.
SF: Will it hurt sales?
SP: There was a report last week, with the Impossible Whopper, that beef sales are actually up. For a lot of these fast food places that maybe didn’t have a vegetarian option, it’s like they’re offering something so the whole family can go there. And not everybody’s going to buy an Impossible burger, but the other people may buy beef products. That’s what we’ve tried to tell producers. Our market research team is looking at all this sales data. They’re looking at retail scanner data. We don’t see any evidence at all of a sales dropoff. If anything, it’s just growing the protein pie. And that’s good.
SF: What is your view of the future of food?
SP: I think there’s a lot of interesting trends right now, but on the macro level trend, people can’t forget that we’re going to have 2 billion more mouths to feed. People are getting wealthier and, despite a lot of noise about dietary shifts, there is no evidence of that. People are going to eat more animal source foods in the next few decades around the world. There are a lot of people in the world, and they want to eat high-quality foods. There’s going to be a lot of growth. Regardless of what you do in agriculture, we’ve got to keep getting better at what we’re doing.
Title: Senior director of sustainable beef production research, National Cattleman’s Beef Association
Hometown: Oxford, NY
Education: Animal Biology Ph.D. at UC Davis, Animal Science B.S. at Cornell University, Agricultural Business in A.A.S. from Morrisville State College.