The executive director of the U.S. Dry Bean Council talks about the need to do more on the domestic side of things to complement a robust international program.

By Dario Bard

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In April 2015, the U.S. Dry Bean Council (USDBC), the leading advocacy group for the U.S. dry bean industry, named Rebecca Bratter its new executive director. As she settled into the job, one of the first things Bratter noticed was that, whereas the USDBC’s overseas presence was strong (as one might expect, given the country’s standing as a major dry bean exporter), there were ample opportunities for improvement on the homefront to complement the global initiative.

“I felt there were a couple of areas where we let our presence lapse with key U.S. constituents, especially in the agro-political scene in Washington, D.C.,” she says. “People weren’t hearing from the U.S. Dry Bean Council, about what we cared about. We hadn’t been weighing in on trade agreements, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We needed to get our voice heard again and insert ourselves in these sorts of discussions.”

A mere ten months following her appointment, there are already signs of improvement on that front. In January, for example, the U.S Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services jointly released the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, which are sure to influence national food policy for the next five years. In a press release, the USDBC praised the new guidelines for underscoring the importance of dry beans as both a vegetable and a protein source.

What’s more, says Bratter, “Our product is singled out for a shout-out in these guidelines with a sidebar that specifically encourages Americans to eat more legumes, including dry beans, and also highlights their nutrient dense qualities. We are pleased to see these additions to the guidelines and think the timing couldn’t be better as we kick off the International Year of Pulses.”

Bratter spoke more about the guidelines and other issues of interest to the dry bean industry in a telephone interview with IFT.

IFT: Tell me a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get your start in agriculture?

Bratter: I was born and raised on Long Island, right outside of New York City. For about 20 years, I studied, lived and worked in Washington, D.C., where I focused on global trade programs. Currently, I live in Miami where I still do the same kind of work, but in a better climate.

Professionally, I started out working on organizational and community development in Central and South America through USAID-funded democracy-promotion programs, building civil societies and creating a non-profit sector.

Through that experience, I became very familiar with how to work on government programs and with government grants. My original intention was to become a diplomat and focus on Latin America, but then, by networking, I fell into the work of agricultural trade promotion. My first job in that area was with the American Forest and Paper Association, promoting U.S. wood products around the world.

Once I got into the world of agriculture promotion and trade development, I found that it allowed me to be a diplomat of sorts, but on my own terms; I got to go where I wanted. So I ended up not pursuing a foreign-service career and instead decided to stay in the private sector.

I’ve worked with various commodity groups in different leadership positions. From my initial work with wood products, I moved on to the U.S. Wheat Associates, where I focused on global market development and trade policy for wheat farmers. Then, I became the VP of global programs at the U.S. Grains Council.

Following that experience, I decided to take a different turn and work on the other side of the equation, which is building demand overseas in transitional markets. And so I started working in Africa on school-feeding programs, as well as on agricultural development in southern Africa. I really wanted to have that kind of experience and learn about how things work in that part of the world to round out my professional experience.

After that, I started my own consulting practice, The Chaski Group, working on new market development and food aid policy. I still operate the practice while serving as the USDBC’s executive director.

IFT: And how did you come to that position with the USDBC?

Bratter: It was a culmination of my background and networking. Having worked all over the world, I had a global perspective and I had a lot experience with different commodity groups under my belt. I was fortunate to hone my skills learning about all these commodity groups and the issues they face. Each commodity is unique in the challenges and opportunities it has all over the world, but the common thread is that they all participate in the same private-public partnership with the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. That creates a template that we all work off of. We are a small group of people working on global agricultural development and export development, so just by being around colleagues, I heard about the USDBC position. At the time, I was doing consulting work for different clients through The Chaski Group. That meant working on studies and analysis. And I really missed being in a leadership role, leading an industry and having the opportunity to shape an organization’s future. So when this opportunity came up, it was a perfect fit for me.

IFT: What most surprised you when you started working at the USDBC?

Bratter: I was surprised that the industry seemed to lack a bit of focus. It wasn’t possible to formulate an overarching agenda for the industry with regards to where we are trying to go, what we need to do, what our goals are, how do we increase the consumption of U.S. dry beans around the world.

That lack of focus resulted in the industry drifting away from the goal of increasing consumption of U.S. dry beans. Because of that drift, everyone was sort of doing their own thing instead of working from one, unified platform.

That has led to a lapse in our presence in the agro-political scene in Washington, D.C., where the industry wasn’t being vocal about where it stood on issues like trade agreements.

There were lapses in other areas, too, like in Food Aid. The USDBC’s efforts needed to be re-energized there and our profile enhanced. Not so much in terms of our overseas presence, which has remained very strong—thanks to the great people we have around the world—but on the U.S.-side, where there were opportunities for the USDBC to insert itself in political dialogue that has the potential to impact agriculture. We needed to step that up a bit.

IFT: What challenges and opportunities do you see for the USDBC moving forward?

Bratter: We need to have our industry a lot more inserted into the strategic debate about how we approach marketing around the world; that is both a challenge and an opportunity. Presently, there are not a lot of opportunities for us to get together and talk about our strategy and priorities. There is an opportunity for all our members to speak directly a lot more to our global programs and to me to make sure that what is going on overseas and what the industry wants to see here in the U.S. is more aligned and there is more of a direct line of communication.

For example, this year, after hearing some of the states say they really wanted to explore opportunities in India, we now have an in-country representative there. Before, there wasn’t a consistent presence. We would go to shows, but then there wouldn’t be any follow-up. Now we have someone on the ground who is building a more consistent presence.

There is also a big opportunity for us to unify our priorities, to start looking at new markets. In this respect, we are starting to see the benefits of trade agreements like the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia. We are now able to enter that market duty-free and be competitive, especially with pinto beans, in a market where we hadn’t been able to do that before. That’s exciting.

The great thing about the U.S. is that we are not seasonal, we are always exporting. And it is rare for us to have a major disruption to our supply. Obviously, this year, because supplies are ample, we should be really competitive, and that is an exciting opportunity.

Of course, there are also many challenges. We still need to do a better job promoting the qualities of our products. We still need to increase our reach into our markets. We need to have a stronger voice in trade policy, in the U.S. and around the world. And we really need to step up in the area of food assistance programs. This year, we have an opportunity to make sure the government and the humanitarian organizations that conduct food aid programs are aware that we have competitive pricing on our beans and we have some surpluses, so we have product that can be shipped around the world to people in need.

There is also a lot more work to be done on the domestic policy side. We have budget limitations there because we work mostly off a USDA grant for global exports. But we need to more clearly define our domestic agenda, because if we don’t produce a good crop here, we are not going to have much to talk about around the world. We need to get involved in discussions about improving productivity. We are not going to necessarily have the funding for research, but we can form alliances and talk to the right people about it. We are doing a few things here and there, like working on the issue of white mold, which is something that really impacts production and the quality of our bean crop.

Another very real challenge that is coming up is the zero tolerance issue. I see the regulatory environment calling more and more for zero tolerances, whether that applies to the presence of GMOs or on damaged product. Right now there is a lack of consistent guidelines, so many regulations tend to default to zero tolerance. No one can meet zero tolerance, so we will have to address that issue and weigh in with realistic standards that we can meet.

And this year, of course, we have a tremendous opportunity with International Year of Pulses (IYP). There is an incredible awareness-raising campaign happening on social media that is not only promoting increased consumption, but also getting the message out about how what we eat impacts our wellbeing, and that ties in perfectly with the newly released 2015 Dietary Guidelines. IYP is also helping to get the message out on sustainable agriculture. It is a message that resonates in states like California that are experiencing prolonged drought; pulses return nutrients to the soil and consume relatively little water compared to other commodity crops. IYP is getting these messages out and reaching a broad swath of folks who may not be aware of the multiple benefits of dry beans and pulses in general.

IFT: You mentioned the new 2015 Dietary Guidelines. Could you discuss the role the USDBC played in shaping them?

Bratter: The process was open to the public and the USDBC, along with nutritionists and people who work in our industry, were all encouraged to submit comments. We made sure our messaging was uniform and I believe we provided objective, nutrition- and fact-based comments. When the guidelines came out, we were pleased to see that they reflected pretty much everything we suggested.

Of course, I can’t speak for the entire ag sector, but overall I think the guidelines came out okay for everybody. They take a whole-diet approach rather than focus on individual foods. They also put more of an onus on individuals to keep themselves healthy over a lifetime.

The biggest criticism I heard is that they weren’t radically different from past iterations. I’d say that is true, but they did reflect some subtle improvements. I don’t see them significantly altering what anybody eats right now. The guidelines tie into trends that we’ve all been seeing in the headlines and that are common sense. Even so, it is good to see the government put some emphasis on a plant-based diet.

That is a trend we are seeing overseas, in places where we have promotional campaigns. We have a new program in Europe, for instance, where, with our partners, we are seeking to encourage plant-based meals in schools. Culturally, it is going to be a tough sell in some places, but a plant-based diet is something we all need to consider.

What typically happens is that as the consumer class grows—and you can see this in China and India—as people have more money, they tend to eat more meat. Obviously, the meat industry likes that and so do those who produce grains for feed. But at the same time, there is a concern that it might not be the healthiest choice, and some are looking at beans as an alternative protein source. There is also a concern about losing some of the cultural identify in countries where beans have a historical place in the daily diet. But that is happening in countries that are seeing consistent growth in the middle class., that’s where we are seeing some of the demand drivers. The pattern is that people eat a lot of meat once they have the money, and then health concerns set in and they start balancing that out or returning to a diet rich with plant-based sources of protein.

It’s a pattern that we are seeing in the U.S. and it’s what the Year of Pulses is focused on. But until we have a dedicated budget for domestic promotion, we’ll continue to put out the proper messaging and support our members and other stakeholders who are taking the lead on this. It is certainly a message we will be promoting in everything we do.

Certainly the dietary guidelines can help in that regard. The hope is that they will help us unlock some additional resources. I would like to see the USDBC more engaged on a nutritional initiative here in the U.S. The more we can codify the importance of beans in our diet, the more impetus that gives us to unlock new financial resources for our domestic work. That is an important point for us in the coming years, that we’ll be able to tap into resources out there to promote increased bean consumption in the U.S., now that it is scientifically codified in the dietary guidelines.

That would make a big difference to our efforts here at home.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.

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Dario Bard, IFT Journalist