Bernie Rollin, a world-renowned expert on veterinary medical ethics at Colorado State University, once served on a Pew Commission committee that was studying intensive animal agriculture in the U.S. If you’re unfamiliar with Rollin, understand that he is a lion-hearted friend of animal agriculture, and a professor of both animal science and philosophy who sees and understands the industry’s warts.
A swine industry representative testified before that committee, and said she hoped the committee would consider science in its recommendations.
“Madame, if we on the commission were asking the question of how to raise swine in confinement, science could certainly answer that question for us,” Rollin responded. “But that is not the question the commission, or society, is asking. What we are asking is, ought we raise swine in confinement?”
Glynn Tonsor, Kansas State University (KSU) agricultural economist, shared a recent tweet by the Center for Food Integrity that comes to the same bottom line: “Science tells us if we can do something. Society tells us if we should do it.”
In other words, adoption of technological innovation and management practices in the industry rely as much on consumer and societal acceptance as it does on the efficacy of the technology or management practice itself.
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Tonsor points to beef irradiation as an example. The technology is safe and proven to reduce foodborne pathogens. So far, however, consumers simply won’t accept it.
Such thoughts came to the fore with the recent, ongoing public debate about the use of beta-agonists in feedlot cattle.
Beta-agonists provide huge economic value to the entire industry — creating more beef with fewer cattle. Assuming there’s no erosion to cattle well-being when used responsibly and managed appropriately, it’s easy to argue such technology is morally right. After all, it enables more food production with the same resources at a time when there are so many food-insecure households in the U.S. and the world.
Whether or not you agree with that, beef producers are likely on the front end of needing to answer such questions for consumers. Just as important is who will answer those questions.
“If we lose consumer trust, we will lose market share, and we will not recover it in this generation or the next,” says Tom Field, director of the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Nebraska.
Field points to the recent National Beef Quality Audit. Between information in the report and what can be glimpsed between the lines, he believes it raises plenty of questions:
- Do we understand the system-wide impact of weight being the primary price signal? And do we have effective strategies to manage weight and rate of maturity differences in the cattle population? I think we’re about to break some biologic and physiologic rules.
- Have we conducted a thorough supply-chain risk assessment to determine potential threats to consumer demand? Do we have a blueprint to address these issues proactively?
- Where is the process to independently evaluate production technologies from a systems perspective? This includes the risks to consumer trust, market access, animal well-being, product flavor and consumer eating experience, as well as the production benefits ... We can’t afford to be selectively transparent.
- The Beef Quality Assurance program is a set of suggestions. The market wants a set of standards. Who delivers them?
Field believes the industry has one generation “to get it right.” On his family’s ranch in Colorado, they’ve begun asking themselves three questions about cattle-related management practices, technology adoption and inputs. These are questions that Field believes all producers should answer:
- Will it affect eating satisfaction?
- Will it improve product integrity and consumer trust?
- Am I proud to make this part of the beef story?
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