By Drew Slattery

Preparing for Sustainable Beef: Two Conditioning Challenges Changemakers Face

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November 15, 2021

One of the most important components of creating change is the psychological concept of “classical conditioning” . Put simply, the idea behind conditioning is to understand a person’s unconscious response to a concept, this concept explains why we react the way we do – whether physically or emotionally – to the world around us. Ensuring that this unconscious response is aligned with your goals is essential to driving change.  

When we look at creating the change needed in agriculture to create more sustainable and equitable production systems; conditioning is key. Take cover crops and no-till for example – while not new practices by any means, they have seen a rapid spike in implementation in recent years as the industry seeks to move row crop producers towards more sustainable production. Central to this effort has been the conditioning of both farmers and the businesses that support them to accept, adopt, and support the transition to these practices. Investments and support of programs driving the adoption of cover crops by farmers is way up – thanks to this conditioning, organizations know this is what it takes.  

For programs and partnerships looking to improve beef’s sustainability-related outcomes, two key conditioning challenges will limit progress if not addressed pro-actively:  

Producer Conditioning 

Ask almost any row crop farmer about soil health, cover crops, or any other sustainability tenant and they will likely have much to say about their own journey. But pose a similar question to a beef producer, and you may be met with confusion. The push for soil health and conservation agriculture has been ongoing in the row crop space for decades and in very public, high-profile ways. The same is not the case for beef production. Sustainability is a relatively new kid on the block here, and beef producers have catching up to do.

Market Conditioning 

Excluding producers, the businesses that make up the beef supply chain have historically been less engaged in beef sustainability initiatives compared to other aspects of agriculture. At the corporate level, many organizations have historically had less investment, research, and personnel/infrastructure dedicated to serving beef sustainability than their counterparts in row crops. Ultimately, this means they are less used to investing (dollars, technical expertise, and time) at the scale and speed needed – they are less conditioned to expect this as a pre-requisite for change and program success. In turn, this can lead to an endless stream of under-resourced pilot projects, rather than the transformational investments needed, as organizations test the waters.  

Before hitting the ground running with sustainability programs, organizations looking to drive impact in beef should work to minimize the negative effects from these conditioning challenges; paving the way for more successful, scalable programs. Doing so will make it easier to unlock and deploy the resources needed to affect change.   

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin  

Image courtesy of USDA NRCS Flickr – Kurt Dagel of Hendricks, MN

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