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'Let's best tell our story,' animal scientist says

By Larry Dreiling

SUNSHINE—A Hereford heifer gets a trim before a show at the National Western Stock Show. (Photo by Amanda Johnson.)

As if meeting the challenge of feeding the world weren’t enough, agriculturalists must also be good at telling their story to consumers.

That's the word Gary Smith, Ph.D., distinguished professor emeritus of animal science at Colorado State University, delivered during keynote address at the annual International Livestock Congress, held recently in conjunction with the National Western Stock Show at Denver.

"Somehow, while I wasn't paying attention, a large part of the world apparently decided that technology is evil when it comes to producing more with less, or producing food at all," Smith said.

"The fact that we can feed multitudes on less land with less water, produce floods of milk with fewer cows, produce millions of pounds of beef with less feed, and have greatly increased life span has become a bad thing. We must now be accomplishing a greater good for society."

The overarching theme relative to feeding 9 to 10 billion in 2050, Smith said, is that it is not enough for farmers and ranchers to produce safe, wholesome food. It's also necessary to show they are accomplishing larger societal goals such as nutrition education, hunger relief, economic stimulus, and conservation of existing resources.

This is quite a challenge on top of the of the one in which farmers and ranchers will need to produce more food in the next 50 years than was produced in the last 10,000 years combined.

"By 2050, world population will reach 10 billion," Smith said. "To feed all these people, food production must rise 100 percent in the next 50 years, and 70 percent of such an increase must be achieved through technology because increasing arable land is not going to occur. The goal is attainable because, in the past 50 years, world food production has increased by 145 percent."

The greatest barriers to accomplishing the goal are allowing vocal minorities (those who Smith says drives what he calls the green-push for natural and organic) and what he calls "luxury extremists" to turn their choices into food policy.

"Had people remained hunter-gatherers, the maximum sustainable human population on planet Earth would have been 30 million. The present population of the USA is 315 million; that of the planet is 7.1 billion," Smith said.

"We feed 85 percent of those; the world's hungry has now reached 1 billion people because of war, drought, political instability, high food prices, and poverty. Seventy-five percent of them are small farmers who don't have the know-how, improved seed, fertilizer, or hand tools to adequately feed themselves and their families."

Smith continued with a series of metrics outlining the vast improvement in agricultural productivity since the first settlement at Jamestown, Va., in 1607, causing life expectancy to climb from 30 years then to 78 years today.

The U.S. ability to feed itself and the world appears without much appreciation of how it got there, Smith said.

"Our comfortable life seems a birthright only because it is predicated on the talents of Americans who, with little fanfare, put a bounty of food on our table and the world's," Smith said.

However, anti-technology factions have arisen in the years following World War II. "These critics of mechanization in agriculture fought against the 'tractorization' of agriculture, much as today's anti-technology factions attack 'factory farming,' biotechnology, antibiotics, and hormones," Smith said.

"You hear and read things today like, 'How well is your cow treated before it turns into your burger patty?' Not great, you think, since you know how lax the laws are regarding factory farms, and 'the remedy for avoiding these cruel animal proteins is to go local, humane, and buy your beef at a farmers market.'"

Getting bigger, Smith maintained, is a way to improve industry sustainability.

"Big is celebrated in many ways because it often equates to success, but big farming often gets a bad rap, but farms often grow in size to sustain more family members," Smith said. "Big doesn't mean that a farm isn't a family business. Farm families own 98 percent of the nation's 2.2 million farms."

Smith said that since 1960, the deflated price for finished harvest cattle has declined by 56 percent; so, cattle producers had two choices: either live on less money year after year or raise more cattle.

"Larger farms can buy cheaper, sell higher, and are more efficient, since labor specialization allows them to match worker skills and wages to job requirements," Smith said. "Their large-scale structure benefits sustainability, producers and consumers."

Finishing cattle in a feedlot produces meat more efficiently, effectively offsetting the greenhouse impact of the additional transportation and feed production needed, Smith said.

"Feedlot beef production also generates less greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of meat than grass-fed beef production--completely offsetting grain-fed beef's higher individual carbon footprint," Smith said.

The world has new technology to feed, on a sustainable basis, a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology, Smith said.

"While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions and pay more for foods produced by so-called organic methods, the billion chronically undernourished people of the low-income, food-deficit nations cannot," Smith said.

"Environmentalists are standing in the way of feeding humanity through their opposition to biotechnology, farm chemicals, and nitrogen fertilizer. We should get the additional food from higher yields on the 37 percent of the Earth's land we already farm--not by clearing more land for low-yield crops."

Between 2012 and 2050, meat will become less available and much higher in cost, Smith admits, because water will be scarce and grain will be needed to feed humankind.

"Within the next 15 years, more and more of human needs for protein will be met by eating insects--two-thirds of the world's people already eat insects," Smith said.

Which Smith admits is begging the question: Will only part of the world be fed?

"The year 2050 is 38 years from now, 38 years ago we did not have many of the technologies used in our personal lives or used for food production and processing," Smith said. "By 2050, technologies will have developed to increase capacity to capture and utilize water, and to enhance agronomic, animal breeding, animal nutrition, and animal health technologies.

"The gloomsayers always use today's technology extrapolated into the future and ignore the creativity of mankind."

Yet, Smith said producers should heed the words of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack when he said rural parts of the country are becoming less and less relevant.

Smith said he agreed with Vilsack that Rural America's biggest assets--the food supply, recreational areas and energy--can be overlooked by people elsewhere in the U.S.

"We need a proactive message rather than a reactive message," Smith said.

He told the gathering how much he appreciated the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's membership in the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, in which NCBA participates in the alliances "Food Dialogues" programs with consumers and consumer influencers as well as the checkoff-funded Masters of Beef Advocacy program that works to develop stakeholders willing to actively promote "agvocating."

"The beef industry faces challenges from new-age methods of communicating hot-button issues, especially those involving food activism. It's an important challenge," Smith said. "Smart phones and social media allow an individual to communicate with an unlimited number of people; the 'Pink Slime' situation is an example of the effect a few uninformed people can have."

Some bloggers "get it," Smith said, giving credit to "I'm Farming And I Grow It," a video parody of a song "Sexy And I Know It" by Greg Peterson (a Kansas State University student and his brothers) that became a viral Internet sensation with more than 3.2 million views between June 25 and July 8, 2012.

"The Petersons aimed the video at their city friends on Facebook because they hardly knew anything about the farm," Smith said.

These are all good ways of telling the industry story, Smith said.

"The industry must find ways of being transparent throughout the beef supply-chain in order to assure product authenticity and ultimately maximize consumer trust. Buyers for retailers and restaurants demand beef that is safe and delicious," Smith said. "However, their perception of beef quality has evolved further, to include transparency in production practices. They want to know where the cattle were raised, how they were managed, and why.

"Why do so many of today's shoppers love to buy their groceries at Sprouts, Trader Joe's, Vitamin Cottage, and Whole Foods?," Smith asked. "They believe they can shop there--at leisure and without need to exhaustively pore over labels and ingredient statements--because they trust that the company shares their beliefs, honors their values, agrees with their ethics, and will always do the right thing."

As he neared the completion of his presentation, Smith showed a formula that he said needs to be a part of telling the story: "Beef + Transparency = Trust."

Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at

Date: 2/11/2013


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