John Nalivka: A Few Thoughts – on today’s beef industry and the “Cattle Free in ‘93” movement

I recently wrote about important changes in the beef industry that have created the opportunity for growing demand and paying market premiums. However, other developments, mostly driven by environmental activism or the naysayers who simply don’t agree with eating beef, still loom over the industry like a gray cloud. And, while it seems as though this is nothing new, I am beginning to think the negative press has definitely been stepped-up a notch. Where this activism leads remains to be seen but I do think it is important to maintain a priority awareness.

For years, many of us have analyzed, discussed, presented, and written on the many structural changes that have occurred in the beef industry. Simply put, the economic incentives to change are strong and the end result has largely been consolidation and vertical coordination as producers, processors, and the industry as a whole strive to reduce costs, increase demand, and enhance revenue. And of course with consolidation and vertical coordination comes much discussion and lively debate concerning the impact with the focus on winners and losers? This is typical and sides are taken – nothing new.

So yes, there have always been environmental activists. Many of us remember very well the slogan, “Cattle Free in ‘93” that became popular with the environmental movement seeking to eliminate cattle grazing on public lands in the 1980s. To western states ranchers with grazing on public lands, this movement was serious. The movement was driven by those activists who simply thought it was wrong to graze on public rangelands. In their minds, public lands were for wildlife, recreation, wild horses, or whatever. But, they were not for ranchers to graze cattle. For those people, that thinking has not changed. However, I don’t recall mention of greenhouse gases and climate change in the “Cattle Free in ‘93” era. Perhaps, I was just not as aware of that aspect as my analysis concerned the benefits of Federal grazing permits to ranchers.

Fast forward to the current decade and activism against the beef industry goes well beyond grazing on public lands to now include climate change, diet and health, GMOs, antibiotics, etc. I would submit that in reality, it probably included much more than public lands grazing 40 years ago. But, 40 years ago, the industry was significantly different. Demand was falling, not growing and there was little comparison to the quality and safety initiatives of today’s beef industry. U.S. beef exports ranged only near 300 million pounds compared to over 3 billion pounds today. Branded beef programs and market premiums were unheard of. Social media and the 24/7 news cycle did not exist.

The U.S. beef industry has a great deal to protect today. There needs to be a concerted and constant awareness of those whose preference is a “Cattle Free USA” – for whatever reason.