What is soil carbon and its role in regenerative agriculture? In this episode, host Koen van Seijen and Russ Conser, co-founder of StandardSoil and BlueNest Beef, discuss the potential of soil carbon in regenerative agriculture, the role of regenerative entrepreneurs and the science behind livestock farming.
LISTEN TO THE CONVERSATION ON:
Key points of the interview:
- the key role of regenerative entrepreneurs to find business models to get regenerative produce sold
- why birds are a key proxy for healthy farms/soils
- this story is so much bigger than carbon
- why regeneration is inevitable
This is the story of how a former Shell engineer and manager discovered the potential of soil carbon and the key role of regenerative entrepreneurs to find profitable business models to get regen products from the farmers to the consumers. A discussion grass, cows, methane, carbon, distribution models, bird friendly ranching, the Gaia hypothesis and how to scale regenerative agriculture. Hope you enjoy this wide ranging interview!
The Role of Regenerative Entrepreneurs
One of the main keys that are often overlooked is how to scale regenerative agriculture. As a mechanical engineer, for Conser scaling from an industrial perspective means building something big, such as a feedlot that is seen as fragile in our food system. It’s easy to go to people and create relationships with local ranchers, but that will not work in large areas with a major urban population.
“The challenge was ‘how can we help you?’ This sounds really good because you have both a supply-side and you have a customer base. If you really want to make this thing work at scale, you have to figure out how to aggregate that supply process. Put it together, market it, ship it, all of it.” – Russ Conser
The Importance of Grassland Birds
It is a challenge to create a story that engages the consumers to understand and enthuse about change. Furthermore, the protection of grassland birds is especially hard with the rise of industrial agriculture in the United States which means there was a steep decline of up to 50% of their populations in the last 50 years. The birds play a vital role in the ecosystem and help in the production of great tasting food through the soil.
“We like to say birds are the treasure in the measure. You know, for Audubon, there are legitimate conservation goals. They is also a legitimate biological sensor, that votes with its wings to go around and say, ‘This place is better than that one.’ I think we can use wildlife as a leading indicator of regenerative agriculture. Then it has a double benefit. It’s a much easier story to engage consumers around birds and butterflies.” – Russ Conser
Regenerative Livestock Farming
One of the traditional conservation methods in protecting grassland bird habitats is buying a piece of land, regenerating it and protecting its bird habitat. However, resources are limited and private ranchers can only buy as much land. Conser wondered how they would create a market-based incentive mechanism to work if they produce friendly coffee and chocolate from the rainforest.
“I tell people, ‘Hey, if you have a local rancher, especially one that’s Audubon certified, that can understand and develop a relationship to buy beef that’s been produced in a way in your ecosystem. It’s doing good things for birds and good things for wildlife and good things for carbon and all this kind of stuff.’” – Russ Conser
The Potential of Soil Carbon
Soil Carbon, simply, is taking carbon out of the air and storing it in soil. For Conser, looking through their data, the quantity and distribution of carbon was identical to the source rocks that were buried hundreds of millions of years ago that later formed oil and gas. The connection between the two is that source rocks were made of dead organic matter and were buried, decomposed and cooked under time, temperature, pressure in the deep earth.
“I spent 30 years figuring out how to take carbon out of the ground that was dead. Now, I’m in the business, realizing the potential to put living carbon back into the soil. I’ve come to see in a very unusual way that these are all part of just the one big carbon cycle that drives the overall health of planet Earth.” – Russ Conser
Influence of Soil in Taste
Many think that animal genetics is most important in terms of good taste. Actually good taste starts with healthy soil and plants. Managing the soil means liberating all the nutrients that are needed for it to grow. In food production, managing healthy soils liberates the rest of your nutrition analysis that comes from the soil, such as calcium, magnesium, and iron.
“As human beings, we’ve evolved in the same type of ecosystem. What you and I say, that something tastes good is really your body’s way of telling you that ‘Oh, there’s nourishment in that food for you.’” – Russ Conser
To learn more about Russ Conser and the importance of soil carbon and regenerative livestock farming, download, and listen to this episode!
Russ Conser is a broadly skilled Fortune 50 business and technology leader with practical experience in making big ideas real at scale and an emerging voice for soil and ecosystem science.
- BlueNest Beef
- Shell gamechanger
- Carbon cowboys documentary
- Standard Oil
- Nourishment book by Fred Provenza
- The Dorito effect book by Mark Schatzker
- The Omnivore’s dilemma by Micheal Pollan
- Gabe Brown
- Ray Archuleta – Understanding Ag
- tedX Grassfed Exchange – We mentioned a number of times Russ’ tedX talk on Methane and Cows. Actually it was a presentation at the Grass-fed Exchange
- Gaia hypothesis
- Interview with David R Montgomery
- Keeling Curve – Earth is breathing
- 2016 paper by Paige L. Stanley, Jason E. Rowntree David K. Beede, Marcia S., DeLongeb, Michael W. Hamm – Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems
- Can responsible grazing make beef climate neutral
- The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
- 1491 book
TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW
soil, carbon, system, regenerative agriculture, methane, regenerative, farmers, years, scale, big, birds, beef, food, taste, ecosystem, grass, consumers, grassland, earth, science
Russ Conser, Koen van Seijen
Koen van Seijen 00:00
How a former shell engineer discovered the potential of soil carbon. The key role of regenerative entrepreneurs to find profitable business models to get regenerative products from the farmers, who are the heroes in this story, to the consumers. We discuss grass, cows, methane, carbon, the science behind regenerative livestock farming, distribution models, bird friendly ranching, the Gaia hypothesis, how to scale regenerative agriculture, and why regeneration is inevitable. I hope you enjoy this wide ranging interview as much as I did recording it.
Koen van Seijen 00:34
Welcome to another episode of "Investing in Regenerative Agriculture: Investing as if the Planet Mattered", a podcast show where I talk to the pioneers in the regenerative Food and Agriculture space to learn more on how to put our money to work to regenerate soil, people, local communities and ecosystems while making an appropriate and fair return. Why am I focused on soil and regeneration? Because so many of the pressing issues we face today have their roots in how we treat our land, grow our food and what we eat. And it's time that we as investors, big and small, and consumers start paying much more attention to the dirt / soil underneath our feet.
Koen van Seijen 01:10
In March last year, we launched our membership community to make it easy for fans to support our work. And so many of you have joined as a member, we've launched different types of benefits, exclusive content Q&A webinars with former guests, ask me anything sessions plus so much more to come in the future. For more information on the different tiers, benefits and how to become a member, check gumroad.com/investinginregenag or find the link below. Thank you.
Koen van Seijen 01:37
So welcome to another episode today with Russ Conser, co-founder of Standard Soil and Blue Nest Beef: Feed the Soil and Nourish the World. Russ comes from a background of Shell, and is now laser focused on taste and birds. And obviously we're going to ask all about that. Welcome, Russ.
Russ Conser 01:52
Hi Koen, what a joy to be here.
Koen van Seijen 01:53
To start, I mean, I always ask this personal question, you come from a world of energy, Shell, fossil fuels, how did you end up on I can imagine, obviously because of climate and carbon, etc. but you have quite an interesting story there. Why did you? How did you end up in soil? And then we get to the beers promise.
Russ Conser 02:10
Yeah, they cut to the chase really, I spent 30 years figuring out how to take carbon out of the ground that was dead and now I'm in the business, realizing the potential but living carbon back into the soil. I've come to see in a very unusual way that these are all part of just a one big carbon cycle that drives the overall health of planet Earth. I'm an engineer by background, I'm sure that'll become visible as we chat, and I went into the energy industry in the 1970s because at that time, the issue was like hey, we're gonna run out, we're not gonna have enough. We had shortages and these were the big issues. We were certainly aware and thinking of clean and alternative etc. at that time but that wasn't the driver. But over the course of my career, got more deeply involved in that. I helped set up Shell's technology venturing group in the late 1990s, led an innovation investment group called Game Changer through the 90s and into the early 2000s, for a long time. And early, you know got exposed to entrepreneurs in every facet of alternative energy systems, biofuels, solar, wind, as well as novel approaches to oil and gas, and part of that was carbon sequestration. And we realized it was a really big problem, but it was a really tough problem. And we'd invested in quite a number of ideas for taking carbon out of the air and none more particularly compelling. And then I ran across some folks one day that said, Hey, we could take carbon out of the air and store it and soil. My very deep background in oil and gas was measuring and counting carbon in the deep earth and when I went looking for data, I said "Holy cow, the quantity and distribution of carbon in the earth was identical to the source rocks that were buried hundreds of millions of years ago that later formed oil and gas. So literally what these regenerative farmers were doing, was putting carbon back in the earth, right where it was put millions and millions of years ago.
Koen van Seijen 04:05
Can you explain that a bit? What do you mean that the composition was the same? For the non-engineers and the non soil scientists. I said, What do you mean by the composition was system?
Russ Conser 04:11
Yeah, so oil and gas comes out of what we call source rocks. Source rocks are made of dead organic matter that was buried, decomposed and cooked under time, temperature and pressure in the deep earth and then a liquid or gas came out of it and floated up into a place where a guy like me used to poke a hole in it to suck it out, refine it, and put it in your tank. And literally, I still remember where it was sitting the day I got the first data set from a farm in Australia. And I looked at the quantity and distribution of soil organic matter and I go "I know exactly what this is, this looks just like the source rocks I used to measure."
Koen van Seijen 04:46
A bit higher up...
Russ Conser 04:48
Yeah a bit higher up but morphologically, if you put it under a microscope, it looked identical. You had some sort of broader matrix, what we would call soil in the shallow earth what we would call a rock in the deep earth and interspersed within it are these little particles of organic matter. So what it really did for me was appreciate not only the connectivity, but the doability of regenerative agriculture because these pioneers that were developing and deploying methods to put carbon back into the soil weren't asking the planet to do anything it hadn't done for millions and millions of years, it was really just tapping into the same natural force. It's like the equivalent water running downhill, right? You know, if water runs downhill, and I come up with a plan to make water run downhill, you should expect that that's a doable plan in some way. Now, how fast, how much, you know, you got to do the math but the basic mechanisms were entirely the most unnovel thing you could think of anyway.
Koen van Seijen 05:43
And that, you were in that office, saw that paper coming in you thought, Holy cow, I've seen this before. That was quite a few years ago so what happened after that? What happened in your life? What changed? And what, did you go to Australia? Did you visit this farmer? What were the next steps?
Russ Conser 05:58
Close. At the time I had already decided I was going to retire from Shell and get involved in helping renewable energy entrepreneurs mature their businesses. And I just had met a number of friends that kept pulling me into these questions about the science and scalability of regenerative agriculture. One in particular, my very dear friend Peter Bick, he's a movie producer, and made a movie called Carbon Nation, was in the process of making a new movie called Soil Carbon Cowboys at the time. And he'd say "Russ, you need to come to this conference or this event". And I started doing that and pretty soon Peter and I were cooking up plans to do science projects and studies, along with some other colleagues. And again, I was kind of like the reluctant, regenerative agriculture entrepreneur, if you will. I was still spending most of my time working with renewable energy entrepreneurs. And then at some point, I really came to appreciate that these regenerative agriculture producers were very much where the renewable energy entrepreneurs were, say 20 years ago. They knew how to make these principles work on small scale in various places, but they really didn't yet have the business models and the resources in which to kind of make it all come together and help at scale. So it's kind of the equivalent of back in the days when the only solar panels you would find were on fence posts on farm gates or something, or the off grid hermit, right? And so once I started to really spend time around these folks, I'm like "Oh, man, the economics of this is a business. Just, I mean, it makes sense, right? And what would it look like to create a business that would create value and profit by putting carbon back into the ground in the same way we had previously taken it out of the ground? That's where this name Standard Soil was born, it was like, would it look like if John D Rockefeller were to land back on the earth and try to create a business to pump carbon back into the ground as fast as he took it out.
Koen van Seijen 07:53
And that made you almost reluctantly a regenerative agriculture enterpreneur? Right. I mean, Standard Soil has been around for a bit. What is Standard Soil at the moment? We're talking June 2020. I mean, everything is fluid in these crazy times but what is Standar Soil at the moment? What do you spend most of your time on at Standar Soil?
Russ Conser 08:13
Yeah, wo we spend quite a bit of time trying to find the optimal business model to help pump that carbon back into the ground fastest. And what we're working on exclusively at the moment, or nearly exclusively maybe I'll say, is a direct to consumer grass fed beef business. One of the really big challenges with regenerative agriculture is how to tell a story that engages consumers if they can understand, I mean you might get people enthusiastic about change, but who really knows what a ton of carbon is right? You know, if you went to the store to buy a ton of carbon, what would you get? And some of my colleagues here had already been working with the National Audubon Society who separately and simultaneously come to the realization that grassland bird populations were in steep decline due to industrial agriculture in the United States, or in North America, actually about 50% decline in the last 50 years. So that's total populations. And when they looked around and said "How do we work with people that manage land in a way that can re-create grassland bird habitat, they of course landed on ranchers that are producing beef.
Koen van Seijen 09:19
So just to explain, because this is how we get to the birds, the Audubon Society is the biggest association of people that are very interested and are caring about birds in the US. It's more than 1 million members, right?
Russ Conser 09:31
Yeah. More than a million members, many millions of people engaged in the conversation started by John James Audubon many, many years ago. Famous naturalist.
Koen van Seijen 09:39
And they landed, they figured out that we have to work with ranchers, because they manage so many grasslands and that's one of the key areas where birds have been disappearing, plus the area of opportunity for bird habitat to come back.
Russ Conser 09:52
Yeah, exactly the traditional method of conservation was one in which conservation groups goes and buys a piece of land and regenerates, you know, protects the bird habitat, right? Well, that's also resource limited. You can only buy as much land as you have a bank account. And they said "How do we create a market-based incentive mechanism to work with private ranchers where if they produce, they graze their animals in a way that's good for birds, they can be a part of our program." And it was kind of certainly inspired by things like, you know, rainforest friendly coffee and chocolate type things, but can we create this similar type thing for cattlemen and beef production, of course, being their primary product. So to be able to create a certification system that you can then deliver to consumers and they've been up and running for a couple of years now and so you can find local regional farmers that are following these practices and buy their beef. And for us, the challenge was like, how can we help you? This sounds really good, because you have both a supply side and you have a customer base but if you really want to make this thing work at scale, you got to figure out how to aggregate that supply, process it, put it together, market it, ship it, all that stuff.
Koen van Seijen 11:01
So not just your local rancher that has been certified bird-friendly or bird-friendly and extra habitat, etc., which we'll get into in a minute what that actually means, but you're saying there should be a brand on top of that aggregating the beef and making sure that there's a market as well, not just a local market for the local rancher that has to stamp.
Russ Conser 11:19
A market at scale. I think one of the key words that we lose track of in regenerative agriculture is how to get this to scale. And the way we think of scale from an industrial perspective, again, I'm a mechanical engineer by background, Big Oil guy, right? I think, in terms of scale, we got to build a big something, right? And in today's industrial agriculture, that means the big thing is the feedlot and the processing plant. And we've kind of seen how that thing, that model is fragile in our food system, in our current environment, but it came about because you need efficiencies that you can only get at scale. So how do you do that? I mean, I tell people, Hey, if you have a local rancher, especially that's Audubon certified, that you can understand and develop a relationship to buy beef that's been produced in a way in your ecosystem. It's doing good things for birds, and good things for wildlife and good things for carbon and all this kind of stuff. Awesome. Go do it. But that doesn't work for people in New York City, Miami, Boston, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Houston, where I live. You know, we've got large major urban population centers and so we need scalable businesses that can do that. And that's what we're trying to do Blue Nest Beef is create this scalable businesses. So now we work directly with the National Audubon Society to tell that story to engage consumers and try to bring impact because we have to take this whole regenerative agriculture thing from being a nice little story and a few farms started here and there into the mainstream somehow. And so we got to get scale, I think we just have to get scale using different approaches than feedlots and KAFOs.
Koen van Seijen 12:52
So at the moment, at Blue Nest Beef, I can order a package of beef if I'm living in a major, let's say urban area or anywhere in the US, and I get this from bird-friendly certified ranchers basically delivered at your step.
Russ Conser 13:07
That's it. So you can't get it where you're at. But anywhere in the lower 48, we've had to exclude Alaska and Hawaii, shipping frozen food is a little bit more complicated those longer distances. But there you go.
Koen van Seijen 13:20
And I mean, I mentioned in the intro you're, we're going to unpack a lot of these things, but you're very much focused on taste. Can you explain a bit on, not necessarily the 'why' because I think the 'why' is pretty clear, because it's very important and has to taste good, but how do you select on taste? Or where does that focus show that you are so much focused on trying to get the best tasting, grass fed and grass finished beef?
Russ Conser 13:41
Yeah, well, of course, a lot of people think of animal genetics, which are important, but the thing that a lot of people don't realize is that a good taste starts in healthy soil and healthy plants that grow in healthy soil. When you really start managing soil differently what you're essentially doing is liberating all of those other nutrients that are necessary to help different things grow, you know, all the carbon comes from the air, all the water comes from the pores in the soil by way of rainfall or irrigation, but all of the other stuff, all the other things that you see about in your nutrition analysis, the calcium, the magnesium, the iron, all that stuff starts in the soil. And so when you're managing food production systems in a way that regenerate healthy soil, you're liberating that stuff, you're allowing the plant to thrive, so whatever eats the plants is now healthier and this propagates down the value chain. One of my favorite authors and good friend, Dr. Fred Provenza, retired now from Utah State, wrote a book called "Nourishment". His research actually started with grazing goats, who would self select different browse different things to graze on based on taste? And it turns out that that taste is very deeply connected to nutrition and even medicinal properties that the goat would need to optimize its own health. And as human beings, we've evolved in the same type of ecosystem. What you and I say tastes good is really your body's way of telling you that, oh, there's nourishment in that food for you. Another relevant author here, I guy by the name of Mark Schatzker wrote a book called "The Dorito Effect". It actually chronicled Fred's story a little bit in that story, he said: one way to look at where we started to go wrong in our food system is when we started decoupling taste from nutrition. So the moment we started lying to our taste buds...
Koen van Seijen 14:35
What do you mean by lying?
Russ Conser 15:36
Lying, so deceiving a taste bud. You add something that adds flavor and delightfulness to the human body but...
Koen van Seijen 15:43
Russ Conser 15:43
Koen van Seijen 15:45
Russ Conser 15:45
You decouple that. Whereas when you get back into real whole food - I just had some filets off of our beef here last weekend - by far, and I've been in the grass fed beef business a while, the most amazing beef I've ever had. And my body, when you take a bite of real whole food that's produced from healthy soil, your body goes, "wow". And I think it goes "wow" now because we've lost that. And I had a customer here two weeks ago, send an email saying "My wife was raised in France. And when we were cooking the steaks, it reminded her of the smell in her grandmother's kitchen. And when we ate them, the flavor was exceptional". So...
Koen van Seijen 16:25
Is it something that's a risk in a sense that we've been lied to, or our taste buds adn thus us, have been lied to so much that we sort of like the taste now of certain salty, sweet, sugary things, and maybe we're not able to distinguish the real taste and thus the real nutrition? Like, are we easily fooled at the moment?
Russ Conser 16:44
Well, we are easily fooled, but it's also, my experience so far has backed up Fred's research. One of the phrases he talks about, Fred Provenza, here is the wisdom of the body that it's still there, we didn't breed it out of our system, it's a joy when we've done little tasting things for customers and it doesn't matter whether you're three years old, thirty years old, or eighty years old, when you taste real whole food, and your body goes "Wow, I did remember that that's what it was". So it's still in there. You just have to get out of that Dorito effect mindset, which is short term delight without nutrition. I honestly think you this raging diet wars are really annoying, right?right? You know, eat this don't eat that. But if people were to just eat real whole food and let their bodies select what they need, based on taste, I think we'd all be so radically healthy, we could start shutting down hospitals, right? Because they think our bodies are still wired to do this really, really well.
Russ Conser 17:42
Now, it still takes people, the heroes in regenerative agriculture, the farmers, they're not the investors, they're not the entrepreneurs like me, the people, who the hard work is the farmer out in the field, looking at their ecosystem, and what they have to work with their soil types, their animals, their environment, the rainfall. How do I optimize the system to maximize the expression of healthy food that comes from it? And there'll be reading things like the diversity of forage, the properties of the soil, is it getting softer the smell of the soil, but at the end of the day, that all shows up as flavor in food that people like you and I can recognize. And even in our business, I've always known it intellectually, but over the course of the last six months, I would say, I've heightened my practical appreciation for the full lifecycle role of processing. We're working exclusively with a processor under the name of Lawrence Meats in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. They were profiled by Michael Pollan in the Omnivore's Dilemma as the class avatar, for their ethic and sustainability approach and Mike and Rob Lawrence and their team are so amazing. The respect and care they give the animals and how it's treated through that lifecycle. You know, we've always said it, but now I really believe it. That every step matters in preserving that flavor and nutrition. If the animal is stressed prior to processing, you'll detect it as an off flavor. And I mean, this is part of the challenge in developing regenerative agriculture.
Koen van Seijen 19:13
In terms of scale, in terms of yeah, you don't want to go to that massive plant that are all shut down now because of COVID. But yeah.
Russ Conser 19:20
I mean we have to borrow from, you know, and relevant and analogous industry. If what we're trying to do is the equivalent of electrifying transport, we need to make it so that when people get into an electric vehicle, it doesn't feel like a cheap compromise. It's like a "Wow, that's amazing", right? So that's what Tesla did to the world for us is their mission was to really accelerate this transition to electrification of mobility. But what they did was design and deliver an amazing car, you sit in and you go "Wow, that's a really good car". If you drive it and you go, "that's an amazing car", right? And I think that's what we have to do in regenerative agriculture. And I think the tool that we have to work with is a taste and flavor and aroma and 30 human senses, and then it'll show up in terms of improved performance. I mean, I tell people in my own journey, I spent 50 years not realizing as a child of the 60s eating processed food, Kraft macaroni and cheese and Tang as a substitute for orange juice, and I actually loved Spam when I was a little kid, right? I mean, these kinds of things are relics of the mindset that we had, which is we could industrially replicate anything. And what I discovered about 10 years ago, is the nature figured this out all along, and we just lost track of it. So all we need to do is rediscover it. And then I think as entrepreneurs, our role is how to invent and roll out business models that can make this viable, compelling, convenient...
Koen van Seijen 20:43
Russ Conser 20:44
accessible, all these things, right? That's the role of the entrepreneur and the investor here, but the heroes are the farmers, they're the ones that are reading the landscape, integrating the animals. And the missing ingredient, frankly, is the consumer, the consumer who gives a damn. It's been really fun on this journey with Blue Nest Beef, you know, what we need most are thoughtful consumers that give a damn, that they care about where their food is coming from, they care about its story, its impact on ecosystems, its impact on their health. And I don't get frustrated with vegans and vegetarians, because most of them are thoughtful eaters. I get frustrated with what I call careless carnivores, which are people that are just like, give me the cheap stuff. And they can't see the system that's around that, that causes problems. And I realize that kind of is what it is now. And again, that's where us entrepreneurs come in is we have to develop systems that at some point, by starting with the people that can really appreciate and be thoughtful about food, and help this thing scale. And someday, you won't even have to be a thoughtful carnivore, it'll be the better way that we produce food. But of course, it's the way we produce food in a way that restores soil soil instead of degrading it. So, I mean, this is decades and centuries long transition. I don't know if you're familiar with an author by the name of David Montgomery, written several books lately, very importantly, I think foundational.
Koen van Seijen 21:03
We had him on the show, almost at the beginning, I think I'm gonna say Episode 27 or something in that row.
Russ Conser 22:11
Very early on, right?
Koen van Seijen 22:12
Very early on, yeah, but the "Growing a Revolution" was already out.
Russ Conser 22:15
Yeah, Growing a Revolution. I always tell people go back and read "Dirt: the Erosion of Civilization".
Koen van Seijen 22:20
Yeah. Which is very good.
Russ Conser 22:21
Because David's story is one in: civilization as a whole without realizing it was based on a business model of exploiting the organic matter in soil until we had depleted...
Koen van Seijen 22:33
For centuries, I mean, people say "Oh, but the agriculture changed the last 50 years" Which is absolutely true, we speed up the process, but the extraction, except for some exceptions, I mean, there's some especially indigenous peoples that have been, let's say, sustainable, in some cases, even regenerative. But that's it. That's some kind of exception somewhere. We've mostly been extracted for the last, since whenever we invented agriculture. 12,000 years ago, it has been a downhill battle, which we're losing. And yeah, it's...
Russ Conser 22:47
And it wasn't my design or intent, right?
Koen van Seijen 23:06
No, we didn't know. I mean, we maybe knew a bit, but it was too slow to really see I mean, soil erosion, like a millimeter a year, how much do you see about that except in a generation, you see, suddenly the tree doesn't have roots anymore?
Russ Conser 23:17
Koen van Seijen 23:18
Or you see the roots, which is a problem.
Russ Conser 23:19
You see the roots they're exposed now. Yeah, you don't see it. I mean, it's not like somebody woke up 10,000 years ago and said "Let's deplete the soil." It's just like it was there.
Koen van Seijen 23:28
Let's do annuals instead of perennials, yeah.
Koen van Seijen 23:30
And then when this one wore out, you went here. And that worked fine. I like to say as long as there was another Iowa out there somewhere, right? So living in North America here, it was really a great resource, exploitation of a country that have rich soil that kept us running for the last several hundred years. But now I mean, I grew up in Nebraska I went school in Iowa, we're pretty much, we're getting close to running out of Iowa. And so the new conversation is by people, you know, I love the movie Interstellar because it fictionalized this story of we've ruined the soil on planet Earth, we have to move to the stars. What I've learned by spending time with these regenerative farmers the Gabe Browns, the Alan Williams, the Ray Archuletas of the world. These are the folks that like "Oh, no, we can fix this". In fact, I've kind of flipped the story in my own mind, we don't have to leave the earth to find the next Iowa on Mars, if it were, we can't have any hope of making Mars work unless we figure out how to make earth, the easy one work first. And so the good news is in spending time on the ground with these folks. The hard part is changing how you think, which is really as some people say, changing how you see but once you can do that...
Koen van Seijen 24:40
What do you mean? What should it change in? What is a or b? What is before and after? Let's say let's say 10 years ago, or maybe even 15? Whenever you got that paper.
Russ Conser 24:48
Well the farmer will say that it's a big flip of tactical things like shifting the mindset from: what do I need to kill today to get more of what I want to grow. And the shift is too: now how do I enable what I want to grow more - so the positive, the affirmative - and to bring it in balance with the other stuff. And even I mean, the insightful people no longer see weeds as the enemy. They see weeds as first responders, right? The weeds are the things that nature brings in first, when the soil is broken to start life growing again. There's some functional physiological reasons for that.
Koen van Seijen 25:23
There's a role.
Russ Conser 25:23
Yeah there's a role.
Koen van Seijen 25:24
But it's step one, and then you have to as a land manager or farmer, you think about step 2, 3, 4, 5, 15 down the line, but it's a continuum, or it's a transition.
Russ Conser 25:34
Yeah you have to learn to think and systems. So maybe the thing that's really understandable by people now, because it's been so big in the last decade, is the study of human microbiome research, right? Where germ theory, for a long time, we thought, like, germs are bad. Let's kill everything, we're gonna do whatever and we started realize, we actually what we did was create evolutionary pressure for some of the things we didn't want. So we get intestinal infections of Clostridium difficile, right, C Diff. And what we did was we brought that out of balance. So it wasn't that we had too much of something we needed to kill it was we were missing the things that would naturally keep it in balance. So the more general abstraction of this, I like to say is, and I feel I come from this disease myself, if you will, is we have to learn to think in loops instead of lines. Or the linear way we've been thinking since the dawn of civilization is we take an input, we do something to it, we get an output, and everything else is somebody else's problems. But nature doesn't work that way, everything is connected to everything else. And the output of one thing is an input to another, and it's all interdependent. And that learning to think in loops instead of lines is a fundamental skill that most in western civilization just haven't cultivated. You mentioned indigenous peoples, I think this is the real advantage of indigenous thinking. Indigenous peoples all around the world, they've held on to the ability to see systems to see relationships. And so I think we have to rediscover and reconsolidate and re-expand these ways of thinking in order to kind of create a regenerative future.
Koen van Seijen 27:13
Which is I mean, some huge steps you made as an engineer going from very machine thinking, input and output, to much more systems thinking and circles and loops instead of lines. And you ended up selling beef. And I think I want to...
Russ Conser 27:29
I get it.
Koen van Seijen 27:30
I wouldn't say pause there but actually dig a bit deeper into that because I can already imagine obviously, you mentioned vegan and vegetarians, okay, great, but why beef and why not regenerative grain, perennial crops in a certain trees in a certain way? What draw you to the livestock industry, which can have a huge environmental positive impact when we see the LCA is coming out, we're going to discuss methane and we're going to get into that, but what ended up he ended up for you basically drawing in and slowly getting closer to the livestock side of things.
Russ Conser 28:07
Short answer, land area and rates. When you look at Planet Earth, the grassland ecosystems constitute a very large fraction...
Koen van Seijen 28:15
Russ Conser 28:16
really comparable, so scale. There's a really important, it's a bit technical scientific insight here, in the grasslands are a fairly modern evolutionary invention. They've only really evolved in the last 30 million years worldwide. Grasses as a species, you can trace their roots back into the Cretaceous, but not any further, they didn't expand into the eoscene and then later the mioscene. And it's because what happened was grasses invented a different way to do photosynthesis.
Koen van Seijen 28:45
Compared to trees or other, yeah.
Russ Conser 28:47
Trees, yeah. Most photosynthetic organisms on planet Earth work on a pathway called C3 photosynthesis and grasses figured out this trick called C4 photosynthesis and basically, and C3 photosynthesis that the plant can get confused about whether it's trying to grab onto an oxygen or a CO2 molecule and so it kind of loses efficiency and C4 photosynthesis, it kind of puts a front end filter on that it separates the CO2 from the oxygen, and then it does the rest of its metabolism.
Koen van Seijen 29:21
Meaning faster biomass growth and root growth.
Russ Conser 29:26
And the process by which a plant does photosynthesis requires evapotranspiration, the plant basically gives off water in order to bring in CO2. And so C3 photosynthesis didn't really work well in continental inlands. When grasses kind of evolved, they figured out how to conquer these continental inlands and cover very large ecosystems on Planet Earth. They also developed traits, for example, coexistence with fire number one, which is if you can just kind of imagine a fire running into an ecosystem that has both grasses and trees, the grass grows back faster than the trees right so there's a evolutionary advantage. The important one here is the evolution of grazing ruminants. So grazing, ruminants, in a natural ecosystem, where you have dense herds roaming frequently come in and eat the nutritious part of the grass, say the top half for simplicity, and what that does is cause the grass to go back into a growth mode, which is like, hey, I need to catch more sunshine again instead of produce seeds. And so this symbiotic relationship between grazing ruminants and grasses is a really good photosynthesis engine. And photosynthesis is the primary process by which planet Earth takes up carbon, and then does something with it.
Russ Conser 30:35
The other advantage that grasses have is as perennial systems with dense root systems, they have a really symbiotic relationship with the soil. So within a very narrow sphere, or narrow volume in the soil, you have all these reactions that show up in your food as taste but really it's the biology of buying and selling micronutrients to help the plant grow. And so the rumen it really is kind of a tactical contributor to a system that helps the earth capture more sunshine. And that's literally why I ended up with grass because grass and cows are a formula to capture a whole bunch of carbon in soil fast or grass and cows and sheep and any other ruminant. Now it's not at all exclusive. So this relationship can work in savannas, and it can be present in other ecosystems as well. If you start going down the path, you'll realize that all of nature's kind of doing the same thing. It's participating this in this bio economy of loops that are feeding each other in a system and then the role of whatever the agent is, and I would argue now it's humans, is those species that figure out how to participate in that ecosystem to help it grow more, you get more of those. Evolution says I like that you can reproduce, you're nourished, you can have children, you can have more of that. And species that don't help that happen, they get kind of winnowed out of the system over time. And I honestly think it's a bit of a, I know it sounds like a bit of a leap, I think that's exactly what we face as a human species right now is we've gone through 10,000 years is a tiny, tiny little fraction of Earth's history. We've unintentionally inhibited the capacity of the planet to capture and cycle sunshine. And the choice sitting right now in front of us with regenerative agriculture is how to help Earth do what she wants to do more. And if we help her do that, she's gonna say I like you, I, you know.
Koen van Seijen 32:38
And if we don't?
Russ Conser 32:39
And if we don't, well, she'll replace us with something else at some point.
Koen van Seijen 32:43
Meaning you're suggesting that if we don't act as the agent to help speed up regeneration or speed up biomass production and to maximize growth of life, we at some point will be replaced by something else that will do that for nature.
Russ Conser 33:00
If you did zoom out to the, I realize I'm like worse than a helicopter and more like a helicopter with a jet engine going up and down sometimes.
Koen van Seijen 33:08
That's why we have this space in this interview, that's why I don't do formats. People would have switched off by not if they didn't care.
Russ Conser 33:13
Yeah, the only place that the input really matters is it the outer interface of the planet as a whole. So the upper atmosphere where the sunshine comes in. If you look at the earth, and although it's not completely irrelevant I think from volumetric flow, we'll put it aside for now. Comets and meteors and things like that, there are meteors that might bring exogenous material to the planet. Now we can put that aside, for now. Really, the only true input to planet earth is solar energy. And Earth has evolved as, you know it's a very close cousin to the concepts of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis of Gaia theory, as an organism that moves out of equilibrium that helps life cycle and that's kind of the long arrow, the long arc of evolutionary biology on planet Earth. And yeah, I mean, I'm not trying to be fatalistic, these cycles are really, really long, right? It seems like a long time ago when the pyramids were built, but in the scope of Earth history, it was yesterday. And so in general, I think we can see that in the history of the earth, those species that continue to help the earth, do what it wants to do, which is capture it's one and true only input will be rewarded with prosperity. And if not, at best, you're fighting it right. To me the way, you know my friend Gabe Brown says, you know, I'd rather sign the back of the check than the front. And I think that's exactly the right way to think of regenerative agriculture as a farmer, but I think it applies to civilization as well.well. If we can work with the natural forces of the universe to help Earth do what it wants to do, nature will be writing us the checks and prosperity, however that's defined, will continue.
Koen van Seijen 34:57
Probably not just in monetary terms. It's exactly the thing you mentioned before on farmers like the mind shift of seeing of fighting and killing what wants to live on your land, in this case weeds or other infestants etc. and desperately trying to keep something alive that wants to die, and fighting or flowing with or seeing what emerges, etc. Which all sounds very nice in theory, and I know the practice is very different, but it is that mind shift of seeing what actually wants to emerge here, wants to grow here. And it's the same that you hear every regenerative farmers say, like, I never expected to grow X, Y, Z here, but it does really well. Just I'm facilitating that, a herder and not someone that plants or grows or kills in that sense.
Russ Conser 35:43
That's exactly right, regenerative farmer is trying to read the flows of nature. Again, as an engineer, what I can see is that that's all about...
Koen van Seijen 35:50
And capture as much sunlight as possible.
Russ Conser 35:52
And capture as much sunlight as possible. And then things like soil, soil is the battery of this system. This is the thing where the solar energy gets stored and exchanged in this ecosystem. What we then counted up and attributed to sequestration is carbon, because there really is carbon that's held. What we're really doing is just taking a snapshot of a component of an overall ecosystem that's working better. And the farmers that figure this out, you know, they generally find better businesses on their arms, they find better happiness, they're not stressed by fighting the flows of nature.
Koen van Seijen 36:26
I think there's there's a survey of Gabe Brown, I'm going to find it for the show notes, but they surveyed the happiness of farmers and the relaxedness and is farming fun, and the regenerative ones were obviously saying - they did the surveys obviously they surveyed - but they were generally much happier than the conventional, extractive. I don't like the word convention, I always like to say extractive ones that haven't made the transition yet, but maybe we're thinking otherwise doing this survey. But you could see that happiness, very, very different. I think if you look at stress levels, etc. of regenerative farmers, you would find much lower levels. I'm making a big assumption, email me if you have those research, because we'd love to see it.
Russ Conser 37:04
Yeah, and I think those are good. You know, with those kind of thoughts in mind, I still think our role as entrepreneurs is to figure out how to allow those things to come into being given that reality.
Koen van Seijen 37:16
Given the current economic system we're in where carbon is not a currency, but money is a currency. And that might change in the long run, because we're in this for the long run, but for now, it's not. So if you want to help these farmers, and I'm going to get back to the methane piece, I know we skiped that. But if you want to help these farmers, you figured "Okay, you need to help them sell beef". When did you see that the bird friendly was very close? Well, is it exactly the same? Like if you're very advanced as a regenerative farmer rancher, in this case, livestock? Are you automatically very good for birds? Or is it also the other way around, like you're very good for birds, automatically, you're storing a lot of carbon, or there's some small nuances there that are different?
Russ Conser 37:53
There's quite a bit of nuance in there. If you're a regenerative farmer, you're almost certainly good for birds, you can do good things for birds without necessarily being fully regenerative.
Koen van Seijen 38:04
Okay, so you selected the ones that were certified.
Russ Conser 38:07
Yeah. And what I'd say is, as an engineer, part of my DNA that I still carry with me is the sense of pragmatism, which we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. So if we can start with birds and practices that are good for birds, and bring farmers on a journey to improve practices that over time become more and more regenerative.
Koen van Seijen 38:26
And better tastes, as you mentioned.
Russ Conser 38:28
And then we're moving the needle in the right direction. And in the near term, I can work with the farmers in a very simplistic, mechanistic way. You know, they follow the protocols, they get certified by Audubon, there's another third party certifier in there that ensures compliance. But what really makes it compelling for them is that I can show up at the gate and say, because you've done that I can pay you more for your cattle. Right if I can pay you a premium. So it's we're not asking people to do this out of the goodness of their heart. I tell people I live here in Texas. And I laughed back in my dead carbon days, I was leading a production team out in West Texas and we were thinking about what are we going to do? Nobody's paying as much for oil anymore. This was the early 1990s. And one of the guys in the room said why don't we throw up a windmill, maybe people will pay us to make wind power. And we all "Nah that'll never work". And now, of course, you drive through Texas...
Koen van Seijen 39:22
Texas is s a huge wind state at the moment.
Russ Conser 39:25
And it's not like Texas got religion about renewable energy.
Koen van Seijen 39:28
No, no it's thirty years in technology.
Russ Conser 39:30
The landowners said "Ah, you'll pay me money for putting up a windmill, I'm in for that". And then the entrepreneurs figured out how to bring in investors and wrapping business models and secure power purchase agreements to make that kind of stuff viable and happen. And it's been a 20 year journey to do that. Right.
Koen van Seijen 39:47
And you've mentioned that the pre-call we did that you expect, because we mentioned affordability like a few times, we've discussed taste and almost exclusivity. Like currently the prices, I think you're charging but correct me if I'm wrong, are definitely above the supermarket part, the supermarket meat that's used. That's my, I wouldn't say my enemy, but it's the client that buys that without thinking about it. That's the worst. But you also said like in eight or ten years, I think that grass fed and grass finished and let's say holistically managed, or paddock, whatever term we put on it, let's say soil-friendly, is going to be cheaper than CAFO's and factory farms. Where do you see that happening? Do you see that's, because it's the same, maybe 30 years as wind? Where do you see the biggest shifts their? Potential to make it affordable? Or maybe raise the prices? I don't know where the difference is going to be?
Russ Conser 40:36
Yeah, in renewable energy world, we have this phrase called grid parity, we've kind of forgotten now because we've already passed it.
Koen van Seijen 40:43
We didn't do a party for that, we should have done that.
Russ Conser 40:44
Yeah we should have.
Koen van Seijen 40:45
We've talked about it for 20 years, and then we managed in many places then we sort of "Ah yeah, that was fun". That was a lot of work!
Russ Conser 40:51
Now coal is irrelevant, people are still trying to pretend they're killing it, but the power market in most places is an interplay between solar and wind and natural gas and a remaining residual baseload of nuclear if it happens to be present. So I think here what we're talking about is regenerative parity, or CAFO parity, maybe we need to coin the right phrase. I think operationally it's doable within eight to ten years on any given property, but in aggregate, to reach it would be much further out.
Russ Conser 41:23
The real unbeatable advantage of regenerative agriculture is that once you start managing the system of life to capture more sunshine, by storing energy in this soil carbon battery, that you can grow more life, right? So industrial agriculture today is based on a linear mindset, that's a once and done thing. I go into spring I till, I plant, I let it grow, I harvest, I'm done, I come back next spring and do it all over again.
Koen van Seijen 41:49
I bring it to the CAFO and yeah feed it to...
Russ Conser 41:51
Right, and no matter what you do, you invent better and better fertilizers, whatever, you're gonna get an asymptotic yield system out of that, and it's gonna fall prey to the gravity of well let's call it the David Montgomery effect of depleted soil at some point where you're having to add more and more inputs to compensate for the loss of natural assets, and it hits a wall. With regeneration, what we typically see is that the leading producers here can go into a piece of land and increase the overall productivity of that piece of land by a factor of say, two to three, sometimes more.
Koen van Seijen 42:25
In what time period?
Russ Conser 42:26
In that eight to ten year time period, within ten years. In some places where you have good moisture to work with, you might be able to do something in five, but it's really remarkable to see what, again, these people are my heroes, right? I mean, we need to dress Gabe Brown and friends in an Avenger costumes or something, I don't know
Koen van Seijen 42:46
They would like that, but I don't know, I don't know, the picture would look good.
Russ Conser 42:49
But these folks that are listening to their ecosystems and are working it, it's really remarkable once you understand how to do it, how fast you can turn around any given piece of land.
Koen van Seijen 42:57
And why do you think there is so much pushback? From there are not enough peer reviewed studies? What about the methane? What about the climate impact of all this livestock? Isn't livestock the huge enemy? Yeah Gabe Brown is doing funny things, but it doesn't scale? I mean there's such an enormous pushback from I don't know where, I mean I see it a lot on Twitter, etc. But where's that coming from?
Russ Conser 43:20
Well, what I would say is you have to distinguish between legitimate pushback and good questions, we'll come back to the scale, one that you mentioned there at the end. That's where my focus is, how do we scale this? The other stuff, the type of science we have to do here is observational science of functioning ecosystems. The early people that tried to study the science of this tried to break it down into a few key components and control it and in the process you inevitably break the ecosystem of the leading practitioners that are effectively managing it.
Koen van Seijen 43:49
Meaning you had basically, not decrease but like you're going to just study one piece of a very complex rotation, for instance.
Russ Conser 43:57
I'm going to take that 10 acres, I'm going to put 50 cows on it, I'm going to take this 10 acres and put 100 on it, and I'm going to everything else is going to be the same. And we're going to compare the two. And that's what we call reductionist science. It doesn't take into account that over here on this 10 acres that some regenerative farmer is reading the system every day and trying to figure out how do I manage it so it can capture more sunshine and store carbon in soil. And so it's always going to have this functional limitation that observational research is really the only way to do it. And that means if it's observational research, somebody has to do it first and then somebody has to follow them and study it. So the research, the science will follow the practitioners. I'm involved with a science project here led by my friend Peter Bick, who's a movie producers is also at Arizona State, the funding from the foundation of Future of Agriculture Research, McDonald's and some others to study comparison ranchers.
Koen van Seijen 44:50
So just to go on record here, McDonald's is investing in the future of beef. That's very interesting.
Russ Conser 44:56
Yeah McDonalds is investing in trying to figure out how we can make viable supply chains for regenerative beef. Absolutely.
Koen van Seijen 45:05
Lets give them some credit where it's due. I mean.
Russ Conser 45:07
Yeah, you know, as a guy who used to live inside of, you know, the big bad whatever. Oil in my case, but pick your big bad ag, big bag pharma, whatever. I've learned that these companies and organizations are just, they're people just like you and me, they're trying to do their best every day, they just unintentionally often caught in paradigms and incentives that keep them where they are from exploring new things. In the case of McDonald's, the question legitimately will be scale, right? It doesn't really matter if Gabe Brown is running a herd of a couple 100 head.
Koen van Seijen 45:39
How do we get? I don't know how many Gabe browns. So let's get into that. And then we touched upon the methane one because I keep promising. Maybe we will keep still listening bu the methane, I will link you have a great TEDx talk on methane and all the questions around it, which I will link definitely below, but we can do a few summaries of that. But let's first tackle scale. So it doesn't matter if Gabe Brown is great doesn't even matter if he's double the size. So what, I mean that's what you've been focused on, how do we get to the acres or the acreage we need to have an impact?
Russ Conser 46:07
So step one here is, kind of parallel steps, if you will, we have to study the people that are doing it right, now.
Koen van Seijen 46:13
Which is interesting how you go from a linear here to a loop as well, like they're parallel steps. It's not that 1, 2, 3, 4.
Russ Conser 46:19
That's exactly right. So we do our best to study the people that are doing amazing things now and compare them against other people that are trying their best to do things. And then we try to draw differences. And so in this McDonald's funded study, we've studied five sets of ranches in the southeast United States and we're documenting changes in everything from soil carbon, to water infiltration, to microbial genetics, to plant species to insects and bugs, and even rancher well being, happiness, like you were describing earlier and trying to draw that out. We're just aggregating that data now and will be publishing hopefully sometime this year with the first pieces.
Koen van Seijen 46:59
That'll be amazing.
Russ Conser 47:01
But we have to realize that even if 10 other people join us and doing similar research, those things will always follow not lead the regenerative practices, because the only way to get regeneration is to work at the system level. So Meanwhile, what I can tell you is anecdotally, even though I don't have the quantitative data, I'm very early on in my journey I set foot on so many regenerative ranches. And frankly, I still remember the time I took my wife out in the field on one of these regenerative producers, Greg Judy in Missouri, and she says "Oh my god, there's like insects everywhere butterflies, dragonflies." And the first thing you actually see is as a human being you notice, because very few of us are soil scientists, is that wildlife is thriving in this place. And so in that way, I think, you know, it's a legitimate hook for us.
Koen van Seijen 47:48
Which means life, insects, which means birds by definition, yeah.
Russ Conser 47:52
Insects and birds. So birds feed on insects, birds feed on habitat, all this life is connected in its loops, right?
Koen van Seijen 47:58
Birds can fly away, they don't need to be there.
Russ Conser 48:01
I like to say: birds vote with their wings.
Koen van Seijen 48:03
Yeah, I'm gonna make the canary in the coal mine, I think is a great point here. They will go if the insects are not there.
Russ Conser 48:12
Some people say the Metalarc is the canary of the prairie as a cliche. I didn't invent that but I think that's, that's true. And it ties back to that 50% loss of grassland birds in the last 50 years. So I think the one thing we can say definitively and kind of, strangely enough in this McDonald's funded research project, it was a little bit of an add on at the end. One of my dear friends Steve Applebaum at applied ecological services, their team did a lot of the on the ground work here, but they did bird count data on these same five companion ranches and it's the the grassland bird species on these ranches is the most different thing of anything we measured. So the birds really are voting with their wings to tell us that "hey, I like this one better than that one". That's true in terms of population and it's true in terms of species diversity. And what's really valuable here, we like to say birds are the treasure and the measure, you know, for Audubon they're a legitimate conservation goal. But they're also a legitimate biological sensor, that votes with its wings to go around and say this place is better than that one. And so I think we can use wildlife as a leading indicator of regenerative agriculture. And then it has a double benefit of course, it's a much easier story to engage consumers around. Birds and butterflies and, you know, those are things that are just much easier to talk to ordinary everyday folk about than a ton of carbon.
Koen van Seijen 49:33
More birds is better. I mean, more butterflies is probably better.
Russ Conser 49:36
You know "Mommy, I like the pretty birds." Right? It's just an easy, it's an easier thing. And again, I think we're talking about a civilizational scale journey. If we're gonna unwind the bad things we unintentionally did from 10,000 years of history, we're not going to snap our fingers and do it overnight. Any given farm can do it real quickly, this kind of five to 10 year window, it's really quickly but if we're going to rebuild a system it's gonna take generations and so I think we don't have to, like, throw messages out to consumers that create a really long leap for them to try to understand and engage in a different food system. If we can start with simple stories like: this food is good for birds and butterflies and wildlife.
Koen van Seijen 50:16
Russ Conser 50:16
Yeah, and you, it's healthy for you. It's delivering a nourishing food for you. But if we can kind of start there, and then over the course of years and decades have a conversation about carbon and water and prosperity. And there's just a lot of benefits of letting nature write the checks, right? Gladly write the checks, which I think is what's really going on.
Koen van Seijen 50:37
I completely agree. I think it's, this is a long game, but we have to start now because we're entrepreneurial, meaning you need pay, you need to get the lights going and get more farmers on the journey.
Russ Conser 50:49
And the clock's ticking. Interstellar is a movie is not far off the mark. I mean, we're again, I went to school in Iowa.
Koen van Seijen 50:55
You're running out Iowa.
Russ Conser 50:55
We're running out of Iowa. And the climate is telling us that something is broken. And it takes time to do this at the scale we're doing it even now in the age of COVID, a lot of people are disappointed to see that the Keeling Curve hasn't turned around and gone back down just because we turned off all the power plants and cars for a couple of months. But I would invite people to go into that Keeling Curve, this is the curve that measures atmospheric CO2 that you see frequently. The year to year increase is what happens as a result of industrial civilization. But if you look at the curve, the intra annual variations, the up and down, this is nature inhaling and exhaling, it's breathing, it's doing what I was describing at the planetary level, and it's about 10 times bigger than the annual increase. And so the task we have in front of us here is to manage Earth in a way that gets that inhale to be bigger than the exhale. And once we can do that, we can start turning the atmospheric CO2 curve back in the other direction. And there'll be a whole bunch of other things that go with it. You know, water syster systems will flow better, birds will come back, humans will be healthier. So there's a lot of co-benefits in that system. But that clock is ticking out there.
Koen van Seijen 50:59
Is it safe to say that Earth has a respiratory disease?
Russ Conser 52:09
Koen van Seijen 52:09
Or at least an issue? Yeah.
Russ Conser 52:11
I like it. Can I use it? It's great.
Koen van Seijen 52:14
Yeah, of course, of course I just thought of it. But probably I'm for sure not the first. But it is, I mean, you described that we always look okay, it's now May or June 2020 if we look at a year ago we were at 416 parts per million, etc. but we always forget there's this huge shift over the year and over the day, even over the place, even in terms of literally breathing. Where does it come from? From everything that goes on Earth.
Russ Conser 52:38
That's exactly right.
Koen van Seijen 52:39
Thus by definition we need more stuff growing on Earth, as soon as possible, and much of it because that's the breathing or the cough basically or that's the issue we're in it. Plus we're ruining it, obviously. But there's a much bigger curve happening there. Most people focus on that little difference, which is a huge issue, but the breathing is the piece that we can actually change very quickly.
Russ Conser 53:00
Yeah, for what it's worth just so people know it. All the scientists do, but few of the lay people do. If we could somehow shut off all of the emissions today, we would still be getting warmer. So we have to take out of the air, some of the CO2 that we've put there or we're still in trouble. So we absolutely need to eliminate the emissions as rapidly and significantly as possible. But it's not enough. We really have to find ways to reverse the carbon cycle. And I think nature is our biggest tool to do that. Yeah, we can invent physical industrial machinery to do that, some. But back to the story of grassland and what it's doing, all we got to do is manage grasslands and forests and savannas differently. And we can help push that needle back in the right direction.
Koen van Seijen 53:49
Because that's a question of scale, I get often as well, because you get very different reports there and potentially you get some groups, a report comes out okay, if we change agriculture, just in a few places, we store enough for X, Y, Z and some others, like even if we change all the agriculture in the world it will never be enough. Like there's a very mixed messages coming out there in terms of potential for carbon storage. What is your take on that?
Russ Conser 54:12
Yeah, I was humbled and honored to be a co-author on a paper with some really smart scientists. Steve, who I mentioned Steve Applebaum, who I mentioned earlier where we tried to put some numbers on that for North America. It was published in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation in 2016. And what we tried to do is we have a story of regenerative agriculture applied to not only the livestock and grazing systems, but crop production systems and in doing that, we were able to demonstrate that at least in terms of potential, right, again, it's really hard to say in terms of potential that we could really put a major dent in this kind of overall climate equation sequestering over a billion tons a year in North America on an ongoing basis, so it's still really early, there's really wide uncertainties around that. And it's why I'm so supportive of step one is get more farmers doing it. Step two is measure it. Step three is engage consumers in that started crate pull for step one and step two.
Koen van Seijen 55:13
Because there's a lot of uncertainty in terms of where are the plateaus, how deep do we store it? And I think a lot of these headlines come out of that, like regenerative agriculture is never going to do enough or regenerative agriculture is going to do everything. And it's a constant, like a swing between and I think, I mean, there's an argument there, obviously, on the carbon, I think the story is much bigger than carbon, which we've touched upon this piece, it's about water cycles, it's about regeneration of life, in general. Even without the carbon piece, even if we wouldn't be severely suffering of climate change, we still would like to change the agriculture and land use sector completely because of all the other benefits, even just some taste, that would be enough to do this. But probably we're gonna figure out, at least my imagination, we're going to figure out a lot of extra benefits, even in terms of local climate stabilization of increased rainfall in places where we want to, of decrease in places where we don't want or softer rainfall. I mean, there's going to be so many things we're going to figure out over the next decades that the focus on just okay, can we store enough carbon quick enough in the top 20 centimeters, it's an important piece, but it's only one piece of a much bigger puzzle but it's what all the papers are focusing on or at least all the online statements.
Russ Conser 56:28
They do. As someone who's spent a long time investing in heretical ideas in energy technology I'm used to working with bleeding edge science,
Russ Conser 56:37
And this is bleeding edge, yeah.
Russ Conser 56:39
Yeah, absolutely, I love it, it's so bleeding I get more excited every day because there's so much learn. Nature blows my mind. That they over constrain something, because we're really smart at something. Even things like the top 20 centimeters of soil that you just described, it was obvious to me very early on, perhaps because I stepped in from the side, that our whole mental model for how soil carbon accumulates is just incomplete, it's the way to think of it. Without realizing it we were calculating carbon as if we were filling a bathtub with something, you know, there's like a fixed volume, and we're gonna fill up the little holes between the grains in the soil, and then it's going to be full, and it's done. In reality, what's going on is it's a part of a biological dynamic system, where the system is evolving and churning, and you're actually growing the bathtub, the soil is growing upwards in time. And I know there'll be people on this, listen to this and think that's heretical, but I would say Archimedes himself would recognize that it's just first principles of physics, there's no novelty in that every soil scientist in the world knows that as you increase soil organic matter, the soil gets less dense. And that's because effectively you're fluffing it up. And you're filling up some of the fluff that you've created with organic matter. But still, it's overall fluffed up. And it's kind of funny as an old oil and gas guys, because everything I thought I knew about how carbon worked and sediment, if I just flip it around the other way, like hold it up to a mirror, I get regenerative agriculture. So in that world, we would extract carbon from a reservoir, it would deplete and it would compact. And in regenerative agriculture, we pump it back in and it inflates and gets larger.
Koen van Seijen 58:19
Which sort of makes sense because a lot of the topsoil we lost is both floating away, and actually carbon that went up in the air. This sort of compaction and a lot of it is - I mean don't email me with your soil scientists please - but from a conceptual perspective it makes sense. We lost a lot of topsoil, you see that in Iowa, you see this beautiful picture, I mean horrible pictures, of how much topsoil we lost which floated away, in many cases, flooded away, etc. But in many cases, also was gas and basically was the fluffiness that left the soil and went up in here which is why we're partly in this mess.
Russ Conser 58:51
That's exactly right.
Koen van Seijen 58:52
Super interesting. No, I mean, we can spend hours and hours on this. I want tp touch upon a few more pieces. First of all, actually, we didn't really answer the question, like an eight to ten years you said, on an individual level of farms, you can get to cheaper than a CAFO but then aggregated it takes longer because of what you're building, right? Because of the butcher side, because of the consumer side, because of the transport. I mean, all of that cost more when you're very small. Is that fair to say?
Koen van Seijen 59:19
Well, the market has to grow, right? So Tesla's been making amazing cars for 10 years now or more but they're now becoming the best selling cars, right? So you've got this big fleet displacement problem in food, just like you do in transport.
Koen van Seijen 59:35
It's a bit faster, maybe, yeah.
Russ Conser 59:36
Yeah... it'll take time. And even in the farming community I think there'll be innovative business models. You know, some producers themselves will honestly like in my segment here with livestock production, it doesn't take much more labor to move 500 head than 50 or even 5000 than 500 in a day. So there are some economies of scale on the production side, but they're also in processing. There's a lot of energy now on small local processors, which is great. This company Lawrence meets, I mentioned it processes our food.
Koen van Seijen 1:00:07
I will link them below.
Russ Conser 1:00:08
They're not as big as a CAFO large processing plant, but they're way bigger than your town lockers. They're kind of are optimized to be able to flow through a fairly moderate amount of animals in a day and so it works. And so I think, you know, new business models emerge, even on the farm side, it may not be like the land has to be held by the same person, but maybe new business models where many farmers join their herds together and manage 1000s of acres as a community.
Koen van Seijen 1:00:35
Which is how we used to do it in the commons.
Russ Conser 1:00:38
So I think you'll see the reemergence of some of this stuff.
Koen van Seijen 1:00:41
Removing a lot of the fencing.
Russ Conser 1:00:42
Yeah, so I think it'll get it'll get interesting and you know...
Russ Conser 1:00:47
Because there's the size thing there right? The bigger herd the bigger impact, not just because they're more but there is a network effect there, right?
Russ Conser 1:00:53
Well, maybe the way to think of it is at least here in North America, the stories are of bison herds that would take days to pass a river, right? So again, if nature has her choice to do things, she does figure out how to do economies of scale, and systems that works for the benefit of both the ecosystem and the animal. And so I think we'll see new types of scale, they just, they'll be loops of scale, instead of lines of scale, if you can make that. And our business here with this blue nest beef and delivering food to customers is a way to tap into other people that have already scaled other things like fulfillment distribution, right? Like, I can now ship things frozen to your doorstep by FedEx and UPS that I couldn't do even 10 years ago.
Koen van Seijen 1:01:38
Yeah. Because so let's talk about it you launched in November last year. I mean, timing. pretty good but I think the last few months have been interesting. Can you describe briefly what has happened at Blue Nest Beef?
Russ Conser 1:01:50
Well, certainly I wish we would have launched a year earlier because we would have had all the kinks worked out before COVID hit. But yeah, all of a sudden in March and April of this year consumers started to care a little bit about where their food was going to come from, but not from a sustainability perspective, more from just like, where-am-I-going-to-get-my-food perspective. So the rush to online groceries in general was large, and the rush to online meat sales was even larger. And it's because people that always kind of held back on fresh and frozen food products, and they are very comfortable with getting a box of something delivered to their doorstep.
Koen van Seijen 1:02:28
Clothes mostly, but food it was always a bit tricky.
Russ Conser 1:02:31
It was always a bit tricky. Of course, online grocery was one of the first internet crazes and they all cratered, right, because they couldn't figure out how to make it all work economically. And that's what I mean by, now with FedEx and UPS, I mean you can whether you're ordering seafood or meat or whatever you can get just about anything delivered to your doorstep along with the razor blades, if you want it, right. I mean, it's a very liquid flexible system because the Amazons of the world and the many other entrepreneurs have evolved that business.
Russ Conser 1:02:59
So indeed, the current crisis has been a surge to our business. It has its own challenges, our messaging, you know, we'd really like to talk about birds and carbon and some of these bigger things and a lot of our messaging is like "Hey, we still got inventory, we can ship you something that will be there". So we're still learning as well but I'm quite encouraged to see that probably more broadly than just us in Blue Nest Beef is all across America, at least and I would expect in other places as well, the many farmers who are figuring out how to sell to their local communities have experienced the same rush, right, which is, if you had food for sale, people came to your doorstep and figured out how to get it to their kitchens. And so, you know, even aside from the food, what that means to me is that there are thousands, hundreds of thousands of Americans are now getting to know a farmer somewhere and getting to know something about where their food came from and how it was produced, who produced it. What it did, and I hope some of that sticks, I realized at some point that the convenience of just being able to go to the grocery store and get it cheap.
Koen van Seijen 1:04:06
Yeah, but some of it I think, we don't know if it's gonna be 50% of this growth, or ten or two, but it's not going to be zero. I mean, not everybody switches back, especially on taste and especially on convenience. I mean, it gets to your doorstep. I mean, how convenient do you want to have it? And that's probably, yeah we don't know that number. Maybe in a year we know more or less what has been sticking and has that been enough to grow a lot of these businesses and a lot of these farms.
Russ Conser 1:04:31
And that's exactly right, taste and convenience is where we're putting our bets. You know, we think if you taste our food and you find it as compelling as we think you will, that you're much more likely to stick with it. When you go back and get that especially in a grocery store a hamburger and take a taste and go, you have to use more ketchup I guess.
Koen van Seijen 1:04:50
You can always cover it in sauce.
Russ Conser 1:04:52
You can always covered with something. But I think once people, once their bodies recognize real food and again, it's really hard to know how many stick with it, but I'm pretty confident that many will, as well. And then of course, our challenge as the entrepreneurs is to ensure that we can continue to deliver that. But I mean, everything is hard to predict. I feel, I tell people that, you know, in the age of Covid here I feel like I'm in a wormhole and I don't know what the universe is gonna look like when we pop out the other side but I know it's not exactly this, I think we're in a temporary transitional state of some kind. Now, I think the principles of physics that support...
Russ Conser 1:05:32
They're still going to apply, right? I believe that there's some really, really deep physics and science behind this, you know, what nature wants, what the ecosystem wants to happen, that will continue to drive things in a favorable direction. But exactly how that plays out and you know, whether our particular business model is, you know, welcome and central, those are still uncertainties.
Koen van Seijen 1:05:55
And let's wrap up with a few questions. One, let's very briefly, which is super dangerous, because this is never going to be briefly talk about methane. Again, I will link your TEDx talk, but for people that say: Okay, but okay, we talked about carbon, but what about - let's assume with all the research that's coming and actually some of the research that has been done that the carbon footprint of beef can be positive when done well. I think I think it can you think it can, but we still need a lot of research that, which has been going on I mean, there's a lot there - but what about this methane which seems to be like the second argument everybody uses immediately. Yeah, but they fart a lot, which is not true, they burp. But what's the short answer? I'm asking an impossible thing. But the short answer on when somebody says, let's say a potential client calls you and says: Yeah, but Russ, what about the methane?
Russ Conser 1:06:41
So the shortest possible answer is that the carbon we store in this soil is significantly more than offsets the potential methane emissions.
Koen van Seijen 1:06:49
Russ Conser 1:06:49
A little bit of insight probably helps. The talk that you're referring to is I gave it the Grassfed Exchange in 2017.
Koen van Seijen 1:06:57
It's a few years ago, yeah so there's I think a lot more.
Russ Conser 1:07:00
Yeah but it's still mostly relevant. And because of where I am and the people I know, I had early look at things that have only since become public, and I give some clues in that conversation. But the way to maybe help people understand this is methane is nothing more than incompletely combusted hydrocarbon.
Koen van Seijen 1:07:18
You can hear an ex-Shell person talking. That amazing.
Russ Conser 1:07:21
Yeah, exactly. Think of it like the leaky gas from your exhaust pipe of your car that wasn't quite completed in the engine. So it's a symptom of an engine that isn't perfectly tuned yet to combust it all the way into CO2.
Koen van Seijen 1:07:36
Are you saying that if a cow burps it means that a cow hasn't digested everything, meaning that if a cow is feeding on the super diverse, perennial grass, as you're mentioning, she is burping a lot less?
Russ Conser 1:07:49
You're clever guy.
Koen van Seijen 1:07:51
I saw the video, but yeah.
Russ Conser 1:07:52
So it's a situation in which...
Koen van Seijen 1:07:56
That's interesting! Which means that if we - sorry to interrupt - that if we study that, which protein a lot of this research hasn't been done, but if you study very healthy soil grass systems with ruminants we would like to know the difference in burping of ruminants that are in the systems and ruminants that are in CAFOs.
Russ Conser 1:08:14
Correct. And I think that that's an area that there's some clues, it still needs more research. But once you understand the fundamental principles involved, it kind of makes sense. So first of all, anytime a cow is like an internal combustion car, it is a combustion engine. Most of that combustion is you know, biological metabolic stuff rather than high temperature engines. And so as long as there's a combustion car, it will have a tailpipe, and there will be exhaust so you can't eliminate methane completely. However, what we can say is when the diet is diverse, and has everything it needs to get as most as much energy out of the fuel as it can, there'll be less methane that comes out. So you're seeing a wide proliferation of ideas of additives for...
Koen van Seijen 1:09:04
Seaweeds I've seen I've seen many, many.
Russ Conser 1:09:07
What those things did, think of them like gasoline additives for your car. They helped the engine perform more perfectly, to shift more of that energy towards the favorable things that the animals metabolism is trying to achieve. What we can see, so in one of the famous papers that addresses this question directly by Paige Stanley at Michigan State University with Dr. Jason Roundtree, they actually did some measurements of methane and pasture of the animals and they found that they were actually 30% lower than what the standard IPCC standards would expect. Now, they did all of their calculations with the IPCC standards because that's what you need to do, but I think it was noteworthy that they saw this about a 30% reduction, which I would attribute to a diverse healthy forage from healthy soil.
Russ Conser 1:10:00
Jason is involved in this McDonald's project that I mentioned earlier, we've got a similar system, where we do methane measurements of animal feeds at feeding trough, like do some temporary things. They come in and they chew and they burp. And then you measure how much methane is in there. And we're finding a fairly similar number there as well. So I think we're seeing that directionally things are moving favorably in these diverse pastures. Exactly how far or how fast how big, I don't know. But what we can say, is at least the potential, we just don't have enough places mapped out with all the variables, like I said, much to the chagrin of conventional scientific mind, but kind of is what it is. But we can certainly document more and more places now where the net uptake of carbon in the soil is more than the effective climate contribution of the methane that's being committed. And so that's
Koen van Seijen 1:10:55
That's not a perfect answer, but it's a good start.
Russ Conser 1:10:58
Yeah, if you want to understand the methane in question, you got to look at a slightly bigger picture and understand this relationship of soil and animal and grass and all of the above.
Koen van Seijen 1:11:07
I'm shifting gears now what if you would be, let's say, tomorrow morning, or today, be in charge of a $1 billion investment portfolio? What would you invest it in? How would you put it to work?
Russ Conser 1:11:19
And it's a great question. I've heard you ask something like that before so I kind of cheated and thought a little bit ahead of time. I think I would probably invest about 20% of that in just really good science, observational science, very much like I talked about because I think the more we understand, the more we're going to understand what we need to do.
Koen van Seijen 1:11:38
And what would be a single piece, like if you had to select one, okay, what I mean, this is reductionist thinking, but what would you love that a group of scientists focused on? Now, tomorrow, yesterday?
Russ Conser 1:11:49
Well, it is reductionist thinking. It's thinking at that system level, right, the unique thing in this McDonalds research is that we did work at a system level compared to at least any other science. So we need to understand the relationship of the animal to the grass to the soil to the sunshine to the water. And so I would, by definition, only allocate that 20% to that kind of system level science. Everybody else can continue on with, you know, focused reductionist science. I think from that science you're going to have some new technologies emerge that allow us to measure, track, model, perhaps coax and cajole that regenerative ecosystem that might fit in the classic investment portfolio of a venture capital type thing.
Koen van Seijen 1:12:32
Some risky tech, yeah, I can see that.
Russ Conser 1:12:34
Risky tech type stuff. But I would say the 60% of the majority of that investment I would direct towards actual implementation of novel business models which I've talked about so far.
Koen van Seijen 1:12:45
Getting the regenerative products, produce products from the farm to consumer.
Russ Conser 1:12:50
Yeah, there'll be tech involved. So heavy Information Technology and measurement technology and stuff like that. But I think the entrepreneurs are going to make regenerative agriculture happen and are the ones that invent new business models that help scale regenerative agriculture. The principles may be controversial to scientists, but they're not controversial to practitioners. They work each and every time, in the field, what we have to do is figure out how to build market mechanisms.
Koen van Seijen 1:13:17
But yet Allan Savory gets an enormous amount of pushback that it's never been proven and scale, etc. etc. I mean, if you read the comments on his TED Talk, or in some of the discussions in the UK, it's really interesting. I mean, I always wonder when is the last time you talked to regenerative ranchers that would tell you it actually does work and here you can see it, but there's this, I don't know this cloud of misinformation or talk around it.
Russ Conser 1:13:44
Yeah, I'm used to that from the world I came from to in energy technology, it's no different.
Koen van Seijen 1:13:49
Solar will never get beyond a given percent and things like that.
Russ Conser 1:13:52
Everybody's always skeptical. Copernicus, of course, the famous stories, right?
Koen van Seijen 1:13:57
That's true, that's true. No, no, okay.
Russ Conser 1:14:00
We human beings are not really quick to jump on to things. I'm a big fan of Thomas Kuhn wrote a book called "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" really coined this phrase paradigm. I always tell people that a paradigm is the most difficult thing to break. So this thing of thinking in loops, instead of lines is a paradigm shift.
Koen van Seijen 1:14:18
This thinking killing, not emerging instead of killing, is a paradigm shift.
Russ Conser 1:14:22
You just have to fundamentally look at things differently. And what Kuhn taught us in his study of all the scientific revolutions throughout history, he was a professor of the history of technology at MIT, was normal science tries to squeeze everything into conventional explanations up until the moment when it can no longer fit.
Koen van Seijen 1:14:40
Then it bursts.
Russ Conser 1:14:41
That only happens when you get enough data that just cannot be ignored.
Koen van Seijen 1:14:46
Yeah, just finished the book 1491 on how the landscapes looked and how the indigenous peoples manage landscapes and how long a lot of these things have stopped, like how much science was already there for 20-30 years until people say: no, actually there were a lot more people living people living all across before Columbus came, and actually there were a million other things that we never thought were there would actually happen. Sometimes you see a lifetime of a scientist that has been publishing and complaining, like, Look, it was completely different, they managed with fire on a huge scale, and they did this, this and this. And it took until after he or she was dead before the whole thing unraveled.
Russ Conser 1:15:25
The heretics and you know, famous examples in the modern time are the people that invented the concept of plate tectonics, the idea that the asteroids killed the dinosaurs, the fact that ulcers are caused by microbes. These are all heretical ideas that were thought by early traditional scientists. All the more reason why the data, what Kuhn taught us in that book was that the crisis that allows the new paradigm to emerge only emerges when the data becomes so compelling that it can no longer be ignored away. And so this is why I think it's so important that farmers and business people around the world just focus on implementing, just get it working on the ground, ignore the critics, you don't need to convince every consumer to buy your food, you need to find the 10 that will and figure out how to make it profitable to serve those 10, or those 100.
Koen van Seijen 1:16:15
How to stay in business while the science is catching up, basically.
Russ Conser 1:16:18
Exactly! And over time, we're going to get the data and the observational science that first 20% of the billion dollars. We'll start realizing: oh, you know, this is how that works. Now, having dug into this - because of the way my mind works early on to the first principles of physics - I really think the flow of energy in the universe is on our side. So I'm not terribly concerned that there's like a fatal flaw that we're going to uncover. I floated up the levels and didn't even know it existed before and considering why regenerative agriculture works. But the actual manifestation on the ground, how to make it work in business, how to make it work in different settings. These are all things that generations of practitioners and scientists will figure out and it just doesn't do us any good to get caught in debates that are historical, at the moment when the urgent need here is to reinvent our food system in a way that simultaneously improves the health of both people and planet.
Koen van Seijen 1:17:13
If there, there was one thing you could change overnight, so you take you away from your $1 billion, I'm sorry, with a magic wand there's one thing you can change overnight in the food system? Or in general? What would you do?
Russ Conser 1:17:25
Oh, good question. If I had a magic wand so I could trick people's brains into doing things I would waive it and have people learn to think in loops instead of lines. It's so foreign to the Western mind, you know, mechanistically, maybe we all need to go live with indigenous people for a while. 1491 you know, if we could all transport back to 1491 and be observers in that system, and learn from it. That would actually be a great way to learn to think in loops instead of lines. I think it would be so so educational, and so countered to everything we think we know.
Koen van Seijen 1:18:03
Yeah, there's so much we don't. I want to thank you so much for Russ for this conversation. I don't think it's the last time we do that. We covered a lot but still scratched the surface. And I want to wish you good luck in this crazy times to keep shipping and keep delivering regenerative products toyour customers.
Russ Conser 1:18:22
My pleasure. Thanks for having me on, a real joy to talk with you Koen.
Koen van Seijen 1:18:26
If you found the investing in regenerative agriculture and food podcast valuable, there are a few simple ways you can use to support it. Number one, rate and review the podcast on your podcast app. It's the best way for our listeners to find the podcast and it only takes a few seconds. Number two, share this podcast on social media or email it to your friends and colleagues. Number three, if this podcast has been of value to you, and if you have the means please join my patreon community to help grow this platform and allow me to take it further. You can find all the details on patreon.com/ regenerative_agriculture or in the description below. Thank you so much and see you at the next podcast.
Sign up to receive email updates!
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.
Feedback, comments, suggestions? Reach me via Twitter @KoenvanSeijen, in the comments below or through Get in Touch on this website.
Join the Investing in Regenerative Agriculture and Food newsletter on www.eepurl.com/cxU33P
The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.Join the Community