Live Purely with Robby Sansom
Live Purely with Robby Sansom

"It takes both plants and animals functioning in harmony and thriving ecosystems to produce a food system that drives solutions." 

- Robby Sansom

Robby Sansom: Creating a Force of Nature on The Planet Through Regenerative Agriculture and Land Stewardship

Elizabeth is joined by Robby Sansom, Co-Founder and CEO at Force of Nature, a regeneratively sourced meat company based in Austin, Texas. Robby talks about his journey of building EPIC foods and selling to General Mills, which set the stage for Force of Nature. He highlights Force of Nature’s partnership with land stewards, ranchers, and farmers with the mission to create a positive return on the planet, the issues with our current food system, and the impact of the Food Bill. Robby discusses his food philosophy, the importance of diversity in our ecosystem, and why value matters when opting for a healthier choice of meat.

  • PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

    Elizabeth Stein 0:00
    Hi, everyone. I'm Elizabeth Stein, founder, and CEO of Purely Elizabeth. And this is live purely with Elizabeth, featuring candid conversations about how to thrive on your wellness journey.

    This week's guest is Robby Sansom, co-founder and CEO at Force of Nature, a regeneratively sourced meat company based in Austin. Previously CFO, CEO at EPIC foods, Robby spent much of the last decade studying regenerative agriculture at branches all over the world. Through this education Force of Nature was co founded with the intention to accelerate the creation of a global regenerative supply network. Force of Nature works in partnership with land stewards, ranchers and farmers committed to creating a positive return on the planet. In this episode, we talk about Robby's journey building EPIC and selling to General Mills, which set the stage for Force of Nature committing to human health, sustainability and animal welfare. We talked about why we need a shift towards regenerative agriculture, the issues with our current food system including the impact of the Farm Bill. Robby shares about the relationship between animals and the land addressing the misconceptions about the impact of meat on the environment, and emphasizing the importance of diversity and ecosystems. I'm such a huge fan of everything that Robby and the team are doing at Force of Nature. To try out and support a better food system use code LIVEPURELY15 at forceofnature.com. Enjoy the episode.

    Robby, welcome to the podcast. It's an absolute pleasure, I'm so excited to really meet you and just to admire everything that you guys are doing.

    Robby Sansom 2:55
    I'm excited to be here, as we were saying before, a little beforehand, fan of yours as well and all the things that you've done and been a part of. Grateful for this opportunity. And for what you've done, fan of that as well.

    Elizabeth Stein 3:08
    Awesome. Well really want to use this time today to talk about your story, what you guys are doing and I think helps educate our community. We're on a regional journey ourselves and look up to you guys for what you're doing, and the transformations you're making. And I think being able to take away the impact and kind of some misconceptions that people might be having on meat and plant-based and all those good things. So before we dive into all those issues, let’s start with a little bit of your background before Force of Nature, and how you first got involved with EPIC. I think I've heard that you were childhood friends with Katie and Taylor, but let's hear that story.

    Robby Sansom 3:56
    Yeah, I knew Katie and Taylor before they knew each other, each individually. So Katie and I grew up in the same neighborhood together. She was a little bit younger but was really good friends with our next-door neighbor. So she was kind of in some senses, the girl next door, I was in charge of all the lifeguards in our neighborhood and the pool. So again, we just grew up together in the same neighborhood. And Taylor and I are the same age. So we were seniors when Katie was a freshman. But we all went to Austin High School. Taylor and I went to middle school together. So we knew each other for a long time. And their story, if you ever hear them tell it, they crossed paths in high school, but their relationship blossomed in college. And so we all grew up, strangely, we're one of the some of the few born and raised Austinites and I kind of took this formal path to go to university, get a master's degree, go to work for one of the big firms that everybody competes for the jobs, get herded down the path that is supposed to be the path to success, however, that might be defined and by academia. They went and pretty quickly hit the eject button on the rat race and just started being entrepreneurs. I was a little later into the game but decided that I needed to tap out of the race myself and went on about a six-month sabbatical, just to figure out, let me just talk and listen and learn from anybody and everybody that'll sit with me and find a path that inspires me. Because if the pursuit of money is the objective, you lose me. There has to be something fulfilling and rewarding and bigger than that in life, surely. And I went into the startup world, and the first company I went to work for, within my first year, we were number 21. On the Inc. 500, I was an executive at 25 and 100 people reporting up to me. It was wild. It was just a crash course. And I made a ton of mistakes, got a ton of things right, learned a lot. Meanwhile, they're just doing business, doing business, doing business. And so we ended up crossing paths, they were into endurance sports during triathlon. So as I said, we would ride, we would catch up, and we would stay friendly and connected. And they hit a point where this kind of answers a little bit of like you're leading with some of the polarization of meat versus not, but the roots of EPIC are a vegan energy bar company.

    Elizabeth Stein 6:31
    I remember Thunderbird well.

    Robby Sansom 6:35
    Exactly. And that was the name of the company. It was Thunderbird LLC that they started. And so that became EPIC, once they realized that they were experiencing health challenges, contrary to the dogma that they were fed, and the promises that led them down that path they had, had health challenges, but their values haven’t been changed. They still cared about human health, they still care about the health of lands and the sustainability of wild places, they still care about ethics and the welfare of animals and people in food-producing communities and the welfare of consumers, honestly, who are kind of victims and the failures of our food system. Some of those vegan ideals perpetuated from that initial brand into EPIC and that was where the pursuit of healthy protein or as we said at the time, protein as nature intended, in a space-snacking performance, that was overwhelmed with sugar, grain-based options, things like that. Stuff where there's a time and place for but where there are alternatives, those alternatives weren't represented. So we kind of brought that meat opportunity forward, but we didn't want to lose those ideals. And so that's where we went down the rabbit hole. Like, where does where the heck does healthy meat come from? How do you honor animal welfare? How do you honor making a positive impact on land, and people and do it by supporting meat? Because we were told back at this time that those things were mutually exclusive. And that, of course, turned out not to be the case. And we've spent the last decade forging some of that path and being the benefactors of many other giant two shoulders we stand on. But learning a lot about the myths and truths behind the animal agriculture industry. We were fortunate to do EPIC at the right time and find that path that those things could be done. And that resonated with other people and consumers. And we sold EPIC to General Mills, which had a profoundly positive impact. I think some at the time knew that we are selling out, we view that as big plus bad is fucking bad. But big plus good is fucking good. Sorry for the language. But if we want to see change, it doesn't come with having small brands that only we get to have exclusively. You need to drive change at scale on these large organizations that have that capacity and potential. General Mills was the first company to make a regenerative commitment. The first Fortune 500 company and many other large companies have followed. So we funded a massive lifecycle assessment that proved empirically that regenerative practices and ruminant animal proteins like beef, can have a positive impact on carbon issues. Even some of the leading alternatives like Beyond are impossible can't make that claim. They still produce more carbon than they can sequester. Tons of stuff that we're proud of there and that leads to a Force of Nature. The evolution of that, that same mission that we can improve our agriculture system, in this case, not just animal agriculture, but plant agriculture. Nobody deserves a free pass, our system is broken. It takes both plants and animals functioning in harmony and thriving ecosystems to produce a food system that drives solutions. That's the message that we want to get out. We've shifted our focus from ounces of snacks to pounds of primary meals. We're excited to be here. It's been a pretty wild ride, but we're encouraged.

    Elizabeth Stein 10:02
    It’s incredible what you guys are doing and the scale at which, as you said, taking EPIC to sell to General Mills, which is a total agreement, was the best thing for the mission to be able to reach that many more people and have that much more impact on the land. And now what you're doing at Force of Nature is just not to use the word but it is EPIC.

    Robby Sansom 10:28
    I feel like I want to use the word EPIC. And there was a long period of my life where I couldn't because it was just too ironic. I'm finally at a place where if I use it, people don't nudge me like, “Funny pun. Haha.” So, it's a little freeing.

    Elizabeth Stein 10:50
    So when you first started with EPIC the land and animals were at the forefront of the mission. Was region part of the conversation at that time? Were you guys so ahead of your time talking about that? I can't remember.

    Robby Sansom 11:08
    No, it wasn't. Gluten-free, paleo, low glycemic, those were pretty trendy. Meat was under attack, not as amplified as it's been these last couple of years. But regenerative agriculture wasn't even a whisper. It was way underground. It was only in that journey that I led into a second ago, of us searching for a path to animal products that we can be proud of that we found that rabbit hole that we've since dove into. Regenerative has emerged in the decades since it's still not reaching the mainstream, but it's in the public discourse. It's not necessarily entirely unheard of, it's more than a whisper.

    There's a groundswell forming and being called out as a trend. It's at that stage now where it's at risk of being greenwashed. We partnered with Savory Institute very early on. And they are a global organization that kind of creates a hub and spoke network. So they have representation on all the continents where there's agriculture or animal agriculture, and they have, essentially, peers and a community that is practicing this way of producing food that folks can turn to for support, advocacy, community education, and training. And it'd be contextual, at least from a geographic perspective. You can't expect somebody in the northwest to use the same strategy as somebody in the air itself. There are just different opportunities risks and challenges. And so Savory has been working on this for decades. And we partnered with him early on, as we learned about regenerative and this opportunity, and how we create scale. How do we convince people that this is worth pursuing so that we can generate supply that we are proud to put into our products? Our first core value at EPIC was what we call the golden rule of food, treat others as you wish to be fed. That was how we stumbled into it but then joined forces with it. There are so many good people all over the planet, not just in the States. And in fact, it's probably more advanced and more supported in other countries and continents. And it's been around for a long time. And we came in rather late. It's just earlier than most here domestically.

    Elizabeth Stein 13:39
    Absolutely. So let's get into some of those big benefits. You touched on the research that you did with General Mills at the time on the impact of the life assessment, climate impact, and certainly versus a Beyond burger or the likes of that. But that's to start to dive into maybe take a step back and say where are we with our agriculture right now, which is a mess. And how does region play into that as a solution?

    Robby Sansom 14:16
    Yeah, the problem was our food system, like you said, it's a mess and it's complex. What is the saying, that we have a food system that doesn't pay attention to our health and a healthcare system that doesn't pay attention to our food? So there are realities like that. And unfortunately, I don't see evil people abound. I just see incentives that have negative outcomes that are pervasive, particularly in government. And so I think, lobbying and persuasion and influence has steered us astray in that regard. And our food system in general is no different. When you think the most significant lobbying dollars in Washington come from some combination of big food and big ag, big chemical, big pharmaceutical, and big petroleum, they have a very significant interest in maintaining the status quo. You think about the scale of agriculture, and therefore, the scale of the challenge that we're faced with. It is roughly 50% of the landmass of the United States, and roughly 30% of land across the globe that isn't covered in ice. You can confirm that anytime you're on a plane and you look down, you see the little squares beneath you. That's how much we're doing agriculture. And if you think about that being roughly 900 million acres out of 2.2 billion acres in the United States, that's the amount of land that we tend to kill and spray herbicide, fungicide, pesticide, and fertilizer that comes from those chemical companies. And we run a tractor five times a year, which is a lot of diesel. And 80% of antibiotics go into animal agriculture so that you can promote growth and sustain life in environments that wouldn't otherwise be compatible with life. You think about what you're competing against, you look to the farm bill, which is the most significant piece of legislation influencing our food production system. And it went from saving farmers and ranchers coming out of that Dust Bowl era where, hey, we need to create a backstop and an incentive for people that keep working the land, because we need food as a society. We need people to take the risk and to make sure that they're supported, if there's something beyond their control, and it's morphed into a capture system that effectively pushes farmers off of their lands, squeezes them out of the supply chain, and further, taxpayers then subsidize cheapening of our food, we largely produced corn and soy, which is why corn and soy is in everything in the supermarket. And it's why corn and soy are fed to animals, because we produce them and sell them onto the open market at less than the cost of production, on the backs of taxpayer dollars, at the expense of the very people that this system and this policy was intended to save. I think there was a long period where we had to pay the government of Brazil $180 million a year because they sued us for flooding the international markets with these commodity crops at less than the cost of production. And so you look at that reality and it's really clear why it's difficult to disrupt or break free of that cycle, whether you're a farmer who's trying to make their ends meet, trying to maintain their sense of identity and self-worth or legacy in a system that's failing them or a consumer who's looking to buy real food, that they can be proud of the impact it has to a broad group of stakeholders, as well as the benefit it brings to them in their family. So I think agriculture has gone the way of those incentives. And I think the last thing I'll say, because I could just talk forever on this is I think, again, I don't want to assume negative intent. I think a big part of the Green Revolution in agriculture, go big or go home, making things cheaper. Yeah, what you hear today should be questioned, but making food more accessible, more cost-effective, and feeding a growing population, were truly your intentions a generation ago, I can't argue with that. That seems honorable. I think now we have seen enough and learned enough to know, okay, what we thought we had to do was not necessarily what we needed to do, and what we think the trade-offs must be, aren't necessarily so either. And further, we can also see the consequences of that policy, and we can see all of the negative externalities that are being swept under the rug. We have to address those. They're creating problems. Pollinators dying off, dead zones in oceans, our waterways are being poisoned, glyphosate showing up in breast milk and urine and the food system is insecure and unstable. Most counties across the United States being declared disaster areas due to drought, and local precipitation related challenges, lack of carbon in our food production systems, life expectancy declining, fertility declining mean, all of this stuff points back to food and externalities and the unintended consequences of decisions that were made a generation ago, so fine, well intentioned effort back then, but we have to be accountable to those outcomes and learn and pivot and make the adjustments and it seems that there's such an obvious alternative in the form of regenerative agriculture where instead of combating our food production systems, our land and nature, we can align with it, work with within its cycles, leverage human capacity for technology and ingenuity to celebrate the brilliance that instilled that fertility that we've been mining, and extracting from for decades and reinvest in those food systems, address and mitigate all those challenges I just rattled off, create more hope and opportunity for food producers, for food processors and for consumers, and take a course correction from making food cheap to reminding ourselves that food should be affordable, but it should also be valuable. We've celebrated cheapness over value, we need to value back in our food systems. That's how I would probably frame the history and the path from where we had been two generations ago to where we are now. And I think the opportunity for what is seemingly a subtle pivot, these aren't massive shifts, and we don't need to tear it down and rebuild it so we can rise from the ashes like a phoenix and it's going to be this overwhelmingly impossible pursuit. It's subtle shifts. It’s consumers thinking critically, paying attention, voting with their dollars, and sending signals to large incumbents like General Mills, Cargill, or Tyson saying, hey we want more value. When you made the decision, that you were going to save five cents on your chicken, and it was going to come at the expense of torturing these animals, I'm willing to pay that five cents. You never asked me. I'm telling you now. And so give that choice and transparency back to consumers. I don't think the answer is building complex supply chains, and manufacturing plants to take food adulterated, create a new form of food that emulates a pre-existing form of food, and call it better or more efficient, simply because you can patent it and own it and centralize wealth through it.

    Elizabeth Stein 21:50
    Totally. And I think an important thing in that messaging is that we went along, thinking that this was the cheaper option. Here's how we can make food inexpensive. But the reality is, that the long-term cost of that is far more expensive than what the label is saying in the grocery store. And I think that's a really important message for people to remember that the price they're paying for that cheap meat or such is costing far more than what is ringing in the store.

    Robby Sansom 22:25
    Yeah. If you want to get me on a soapbox, I'll start talking about the true cost of food. And I would agree, I think our products might be seen as expensive because they are premium to the category. But the truth is, the full cost is reflected in the product. And it's creating solutions. In our system, I mentioned externalities a moment ago, in a regenerative system, the externalities, you celebrate, because they're positive, all of them. And I did some math, I was talking to Mark Hyman. And I think he points to the cost of chronic disease every year in our country, preventable chronic disease, being like $3.7 trillion. And if you break that down on a per-household basis, that's $557, a week per household. And so just think about it from a food perspective, and add that to your weekly grocery bill. That's the hidden costs of cheap food, that's not affordable and overwhelming. It's not sustainable at all. It's profound. And that's just the health care costs. Again, we're not talking about the fact that our food systems are being desertified, to the extent that they're no longer going to be capable of producing food if we continue down this path. There are so many other areas that aren't calculated into that equation. But that one, that one single variable is so profound when you want to talk about whether this system is the food is expensive, or cheap or elite or available. And then the last thing I'd say is perspective. Sometimes I get asked the question, man, but it's so expensive. How do you address that? Because it's inaccessible to people and I have to stop and say, “Wait a minute, I think we need to challenge the premise of the question because it's not expensive. We're just conditioned to believe it.” In fact, on a per-ounce basis, our ground beef is half the price per ounce as Ruffles potato chips. It'll give you all of the nutrients that you need.

    Elizabeth Stein 24:15
    That's a pretty good comparison.

    Robby Sansom 24:18
    It won't bring you any of the harmings. If you go to 711 and buy a club sandwich a big gulp, and a bag of chips, you're going to spend more for that meal than you would spend on two servings of ground beef, some frozen organic vegetables, and stir fry that again, would be incredibly nourishing and far more cost-effective not to mention a value meal at Chick fil A is 12 to 15 bucks now. So it's like how has the most nutrient-dense food in the store that came from a living sentient animal, is expected to be the cheapest food product on the planet if it's even reasonably priced relative to ruffles, let alone bourbon, wine, olive oil, water, vinegar. Why does meat need to be so cheap? I just think that we have a confused relationship with food and meat in particular. And we started talking about the cost.

    Elizabeth Stein 25:22
    Absolutely. And I think there's just a confusing relationship with me, kind of in general, not just the cost. So I'd love to go down that path of meat, as he talked about meat and plants and climate. But on the whole, you guys are investing in these partnerships with ranchers and farmers around the country, to bring these amazing meats to consumers and have a positive impact on the land. And so I'd love for you to talk about the relationship between the animals and the land and how we should be thinking about those people in their head who have heard that we should be eating plants because that's the best thing for our climate and that meat is bad. And so yes, there are meats that are bad factory farms. So kind of going into what you guys are doing and how the animals play into the ecosystem, versus maybe some misconceptions that people are hearing.

    Robby Sansom 26:21
    So I think the way I'll approach that is I'll start with, there are no thriving ecosystems that consist of solely animals, or solely plants. So this driving for hours down the road and seeing nothing but rows of corn is bad. Much like driving down the road and passing a confined animal feeding operation and 10s of 1000s of cattle in a confined space, also really bad. What causes ecosystems to thrive is plants and animals in harmony, and diversity. The core tenets and principles of regenerative agriculture include a bunch of things. I can go through those and describe it, but you're asking specifically about the animal impact part so I'll focus on that. And I'll just say that plant-paying agriculture does not deserve a free pass. It's probably worse than animal agriculture. And the worst aspects of animal agriculture are the parts that come from the plants going to feed the animals. And again, animal agriculture also doesn't deserve a free pass. We wouldn't be here if there wasn't a true need to make serious improvements and adjustments. The reason animals aren't the enemy and that exterminating them isn't a solution in any way is, again goes back to the ecosystem, it goes back to the environment, it goes back to the land, and the fertility work, evolution, and biology. What creates thriving ecosystems? Besides just the presence of plants and animals, it's them fulfilling their evolutionarily potential role, particularly with species that we would consider Keystone, meaning they're having a disproportionate impact on an environment relative to their numbers. The bison for example, just like any megafauna, or large ruminant animal on any continent, was the keystone to the North American ecosystem. They would roam from Mexico to Canada, these bison and if you've followed history, or read the journals of Lewis and Clark, you can see their numbers were massive, somewhere between 30 and 60 million. The settlers or explorers might have to wait days to a week for a herd to go by, imagine that amount of impact. These grasslands which again, have turned into farmland evolved alongside that type of impact. And those relationships were symbiotic. In times of drought, those animals were bringing water in the form of urine. Think again, think about a million animals peeing in a spot. Not to sound gross, but that's life savings. Their wallows are habitat for species of amphibians that have gone extinct. Birds' nests, maybe birds have a 30% increased chance of survival if they incorporate bison fur into their nest because it limits smells and creates insulation for all of these sorts of things. Like subtle things, but also big things, how the grass grows and how photosynthesis happens. So these animals evolved to have an impact that the environment around them evolved to rely on. Those are ecosystem services. And in a regenerative system, you manage animals, particularly Keystone animals in a way where you can emulate those natural cycles and those natural relationships and those positive ecosystem services to produce outcomes that benefit the environment, which also create food for humans. Bison roaming across the plains also created food for humans and other predators and things like that. And so that's the simplest form without getting into the science of how they're positively impacting through photosynthesis and other things. We can talk about carbon and water and so many other important aspects of this that they kind of are a catalyst for. That's why animals aren't our enemy. Much like carbon is not our enemy. Again, you take the water out, or carbon, you and I sitting here talking like we shouldn't villainize things just because we don't understand that we should look into the complexity and find where's the glide path that I can work with instead of fighting. Nature produces hurricanes, tidal waves, and tornadoes. I'm not going to fight that. I'd rather have nature on my side and then in my sights because I know who's gonna win in the long run.

    Elizabeth Stein 30:40
    So one particular thing as it relates to the cycle and the biodiversity and region is certainly the soil. And we'd love for you to talk a little bit about the role that the animals are playing because certainly the soil is at the heart of the ecosystem and having that healthy soil. From my perspective, it's like getting that nutrient-dense soil is affecting our health. And without it, we're losing the soil, it's lack of minerals and nutrients. And so the animal is helping to restore that. And we'd love to talk about that relationship with soil. And then as that also relates to what you guys have done at Roam Ranch, because I think seeing firsthand, a farm and then what you've done by creating this diversity and the change in soil, etc.

    Robby Sansom 32:26
    Yeah, so taking what I just said, and carrying that forward into this question, maybe I'll talk about the principles of regenerative agriculture and use that to color that. The first principle isn't in any particular order but limits chemical and mechanical disturbance. So don't spray chemicals all over the place, don't destroy it. It's not saying never, it’s just saying limit. Because again, context matters. There's a time and place for everything and tools, but we till multiple times a year, we spray all the time and these things are devastating. They have very significant consequences and they should be limited in every way possible. And every alternative should be pursued. Keeping the soil covered or armored. Again, weeds, right or leaf litter, or anything. In the summer, bare soil can get upwards of 150 degrees even if it’s designed to kill pathogens, all the life in the

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