Who could have imagined 20 years ago how the beef industry would be so under attack? The past two decades have seen the industry transform itself into a consumer-driven business that has taken extraordinary steps to make its products even safer, more nutritious and convenient for Americans. Try telling that story though to the food elitists and animal rights zealots who seem determined to make the beef industry and U.S. agriculture the whipping boy for their prejudices.
I've spent the past 36 years writing about food production around the world. I've witnessed the ravages of foot and mouth and BSE in the UK, dairy farming in the desert in Saudi Arabia and drought devastation in the Australian outback. I've also seen the remarkable job that U.S. farmers and ranchers do, sometimes under challenging conditions, in supplying American consumers with a steady supply of high quality, affordable food.
There are millions of people in other parts of the world who struggle every day to find enough to eat, let alone the kind of nutritious food they need to stay healthy. U.S. agriculture plays a huge role in helping those people. But again, try telling that to the food elitists.
The beef industry is under siege, and it's time to fight back. I am outraged at some of the appalling half-truths that the industry's opponents throw out. So the counterattacks must contain all facts.
I was delighted to see Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) in late September deliver on the Senate floor an excellent rebuttal of the TIME Aug. 31 cover story, “The Real Cost of Cheap Food.” The story told me there's a dangerous new wave of advocacy journalism masquerading as news reporting.
I'm also pained that the beef industry contains people who want to undermine the changes that have kept the industry successful and cozy up to activist groups who consistently attack the industry. They want to play protectionist and keep foreign cattle and beef from entering the U.S., forgetting that beef exports are crucial to the industry's prosperity. They want to dismantle years of alliances and business agreements freely entered into by producers with packers and resurrect a marketing system that largely caused beef demand to decline for 20 years.
It's ironic that the new national buzzword is “sustainability,” yet that is what ranchers have been quietly practicing for 100 years. It's bizarre how agriculture's critics refuse to acknowledge that U.S. agriculture is still dominated by family farmers. It's also troubling how the “factory farming” label has been attached to the very systems that produce some of the most wholesome and cheapest food on the planet.
So why the new attacks on the beef industry and on agriculture? My theory is that most Americans take their food for granted. Even in these tough economic times, no one starves to death, as they do in other countries.
Second, Americans are increasingly removed from any part of food production. They are suburbanites. Yet they are acting as “food and grower police,” as veteran industry official Chandler Keys puts it. He's been one of the industry's most astute observers of changing trends, particularly at the policy level, through his work with the National Cattlemen's (Beef) Association and now with packer JBS.
The current danger, says Keys, is that the suburbanites have the ear of politicians as never before. President Obama's is the first truly urban administration. “Cul-de-sac consumers,” as Keys calls them, are pushing animal welfare reform. They give hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the Humane Society of the U.S., Farm Sanctuary and other groups whose goal is to dismantle modern animal agriculture and promote a non-meat diet. Your very livelihood is at stake. It's time to fight back.