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Smith marks the beef story as multifaceted

Denver – Telling the beef story is not only important, but is also complicated, said Gary Smith, head of the Department of Animal Sciences at Texas A&M University. 

Smith opened the International Livestock Congress, held in Denver, Colo. on Jan. 15, by emphasizing the importance of telling the beef story and providing attendees with useful information on accomplishing that goal. 

“Telling the beef story consists of five parts,” explained Smith. “We will talk about meeting the challenges of feeding the world, take a glance back at the technologies we are using now and have used in the last 50 years, look at what kinds of technology we can see on the horizon and how we can best tell the story of what we do to customers and consumers.”

Challenge to agriculture

Smith began by noting that by tomorrow, an additional 200,000 people will inhabit the earth, and farmers and ranchers will be asked to produce enough food to feed them.

“Farmers and ranchers are going to be asked to produce more food in the next 50 years than was produced in the last 10,000 years combined,” Smith remarked. “We know that world food production will need to increase by 100 percent in the next 50 years, and 70 percent of that is going to have to come from technology.”

He added that the challenge is present, but if agriculture continues trends, it is doable. Food production has increased 145 percent in the last 50 years. 

“If the people on earth remained as hunters and gatherers, we would presently be able to sustain a population on planet earth of 30 million,” he continued. “Today, the U.S. along has 315 million and the globe has 7.1 billion. We feed about 85 percent of those.”

Of the remaining 15 percent, or about 1 billion people in the world, who are starving or hungry, Smith says the majority – 75 percent – are small farmers who lack the knowledge, improved seed, fertilizer or hand tools to adequately feed themselves and their families.

“We have been able to meet the challenges of food and will continue to because of economies of scale and the use of high yielding agriculture,” he said.

Role of technology

Despite the incredible influence that technology has had on developing agriculture and increasing production, Smith noted that there has been resistance to technology for many years, beginning with mechanization and introduction of technologies like tractors.

“Prior to 1948, my dad farmed with mules,” he commented. “People didn’t want us to have mechanization of agriculture, including use of tractors, then, and now they are fighting factory farming, biotechnology, hormones and antibiotics.”

Smith also marked large scale operating as being under fire by many.

“The best scientific analysis of what large scale structure has done says it benefits sustainability, producers and consumers,” said Smith. “Large scale structure takes advantage of economies of scale, which is more sustainable because we use less of everything. It halves the cost of products for the consumer, as well.”

“Why do be believe in large scale structure?” asked Smith. “Because it works.”

Where we use technology

Agriculture utilizes technology in a number of ways, all of which are important to maintaining production efficiency.

“Agronomic technologies include plant breeding, genetic modification, and precision farming,” he began. “Animal breeding technologies that we have and are important include EPDs, gene markets selection and estrus synchronization.”

Smith pointed out that technology use in agriculture is incredibly extensive, and also includes animal health technologies like vaccines and nutrition programs.

“John Lawrence of Iowa State said that if we had to produce beef without the use of modern technology, the cost of a calf would go up $274. The cost of background and stocker cattle would increase $95,” Smith stated, “and if we couldn’t use these technologies in the feed yard, they would increase $155.”

The benefits of technology can also be seen in the costs of production. Prices for organic and grass fed cattle are so high, said Smith, because they cost so much to produce, and while production in niche markets is important, it isn’t practical for feeding the world. 

The beef story

“We must be proactive with our message, rather than reactive,” Smith commented. “We need to talk about our beef story.”

While Smith said, “We are doing wonderful things,” he also noted that there is more than can be done, and social media is one tool for addressing that.

Between using network sites like Facebook and Twitter to blogging and sharing videos on YouTube, Smith noted that, “The results of using social media have been positive and beneficial to our industry.”

However, he also added that too often the agriculture industry is reactive, rather than proactive, which can lead consumers to think the industry is hiding things.

Trust

“Everything we talk about has to do with trust,” he explained. 

Trust is based on confidence, competence and influential others, according to Smith, who added that they must all be used to garner consumer trust.

“Confidence is the belief by the consumer that the person selling a product has the same ethics and values and will always to the right thing,” Smith said. “We use competence – or scientific, technical proof –  to prove that what we say is right.”

Influential others can include people or groups, he explained, adding that it is important that consumers believe the values and beliefs of influential others mimic their own.

“Of the elements that drive trust, Rural Sociology says that confidence and people’s belief that you are selling a product with the same values and ethics as theirs is three to five times as importance as competence,” Smith said. “They don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Transparency

Additionally, in gaining trust, transparency of the industry is important.

“We have to be transparent enough to stay out of trouble,” commented Smith, clarifying that it is important to make sure that consumers don’t think producers are keeping secrets. “Kay Johnson of the Animal Agriculture Alliance said the more transparent we are, the less activists can affect consumer opinion.”

However, on the same token, he noted that there is some danger in being too transparent, which could confuse consumers. Highly technical information is difficult for consumers to understand and counterproductive.

“Should we share every tiny detail?” asked Smith. “No. In all likelihood, you’ll create more of a problem than you will solve.” 

“The overarching theme is that in order to feed 9 to 10 billion people, it isn’t going to be enough to produce safe and wholesome food,” Smith stated. “It is also important to show that farmers and ranchers are accomplishing higher social and ethical goals.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at saige@wylr.net.