The self-proclaimed agricultural experts trumpeting a movement to organic production as an industry-wide trend have forgotten a few key points. For example, estimates say we're moving from a current world population of 6.7 billion people to 9 billion by 2050. If we aren't going to expand into wilderness for more agricultural ground, but continue to insist on the utopian picture of organic farmers selling small-acreage produce and meat at farmers' markets, then I think I need some help with the math.
Don't get me wrong. If you decide to go organic, power to you. But, don't accost me with stories of more nutritious organic food (proven absolutely false) or a picture of greater animal welfare when sick animals can't be treated with an effective product.
The insistence by these activists that agriculture adopt early 20th century technology on a large scale to feed an ever-increasing population demonstrates both arrogance and ignorance. When you look at the labor and feed inputs into these systems, the activists essentially are insisting that consumers “be wealthy to eat healthy,” while the producers should live in subsistence mode down on the farm.
The importance of cost gathers even more importance when you consider that 11.1% of U.S. households were food insecure at least some time during 2007. For me, I'm going to search for the best utilization of resources combined with reasonable use of technologies, food safety, and a satisfying food product.
Are you curious as to what difference current technologies make in the cost of beef production, and therefore in the price of food? John Lawrence, Iowa State University agricultural economist, has studied the effects of modern technologies on the cost of beef production.
Based on 2007 prices, the removal of growth-promotant implants, dewormers and fly control from cow-calf production would increase the breakeven price 47%, a value of $274/calf.
In the stocker phase, he calculates a 12.7% increase in the breakeven price with the removal of growth implants, ionophores, antimicrobial therapy, dewormers and fly control — a $95/head value.
In the feedlot phase, removal of growth implants, ionophores, antimicrobial therapy, beta-agonists and dewormers results in a 13.2% increase in breakeven — a $155 value.
The paper concludes with a model analysis showing that decreased production combined with higher prices eventually lowers beef demand. It's important to remember that demand is a combination of a desire and an ability to purchase something.
Any advocate for the use of technology in the production of affordable agricultural products should be familiar with this study. Cost is a factor in the decision for purchase of a balanced diet for millions of Americans. Let's not allow the anti-food animal activists to take that issue off the table. We can be proud to be part of an industry that uses technology resulting from vigorous testing, and subject to extensive regulations, to maximize the resources committed to our production.
Our industry is committed to producing a wholesome product right here in the U.S. Technology allows both the consumer and the producer of beef to share in reduced production costs of $524/animal when all three phases are included in the system.
Producers definitely aren't pocketing this difference in costs; the nature of a commodity is to have a price near the price of production. Thus, this isn't a case where the increased efficiencies stay with us and any risks go to the consumer.
As an industry, we're continually evolving to increase our ability to do the right thing by our animals and the consumer. As producers, you need to keep your congressional representatives informed on this issue. The anti-food animal agriculture activists are running the misinformation manure spreader in high gear in Washington, D.C. Many of our elected representatives don't know enough to identify what is flying out.
Mike Apley, DVM, PhD, is a professor in clinical sciences at Kansas State University in Manhattan.