Technology in markets - Changing environment provides opportunities in agricultureWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Fort Collins, Colo. – Keith Belk, a professor at the Center for Meat Safety and Quality at Colorado State University (CSU), sees a rapid rate of change in today’s science and agriculture.
Belk was one of a host of speakers who presented at the International Livestock Forum, held at the Colorado State University campus on Jan. 13.
“When I was in graduate school, we actually had to punch data cards,” he explained.
Stacks of data cards were taken to one large, campus computer where the data was analyzed. One small punch error would result in having to start over from the beginning.
Impacts of technology
“As a consequence of that, it took a long time to do research. Once we finished collecting data and doing a study, it would take us that much time again, or maybe twice as much time again, just to analyze the data,” he said.
Soon, the first portable computers, carried like a giant suitcase, were available. Scientists used them to write and to analyze data.
“A paradigm shift occurred with the advent of scientific technology that paralleled the development of electronics and computers,” stated Belk.
Changes in technology changed how researchers approached science.
“We are about to undergo the same kind of paradigm shift in science, only it’s going to have even larger ramifications,” he said.
Genomics, he explained, will mean that scientists have to start thinking differently.
Belk and his research partner Paul Morley are doing research in “metagenomics,” studying genetic material in microorganisms.
“We are interested in looking at what happens, not only as we apply a management treatment to some sort of outcome, but we are also interested in what happens to the ecology all around us as we apply that management treatment,” he stated.
For example, in a recent study, Belk and Morley investigated antimicrobial resistance in animals and people resulting from antibiotics used in feeding systems.
“What happens from the time we put animals on feed until the time that we slaughter them, and if we change management practices during that time, do we change the amount of bacteria in the microbiome that are resistant to various antibiotics?” asked Belk.
As a pilot study, his team collected fecal samples from cattle when they entered the feedlot, when they left the feedlot, as they showed up at the back door of the packing plant and as they were processed.
“We found all sorts of antimicrobial resistance genes in the environment where the cattle were fed and also across all levels of the industry. We identified 347 unique resistance genes,” explained Belk.
But those genes were not present in the bacteria of samples taken from the packing plant, where the product was prepared and packaged for consumers. Samples were taken from two processing plants, including cattle from four feedyards and eight different pens.
“We think that this is pretty good news for the beef industry. Now we need to find out if the same thing happens in pork, poultry, lamb and other species,” he says.
Belk then illustrated how quickly genomic technology has advanced.
In the 1990s, scientists spent billions of dollars sequencing the human genome.
“We could sequence the entire human genome this afternoon for about $1,000,” he stated.
As far as investigating and solving problems in the future, Belk said, “It is a really powerful opportunity.”
Next, Belk discussed globalization, defining it as the development of an increasingly integrated global economy.
“There was a large global company that developed quite some time ago, in the late 1800s, called the Vestey Group,” he said.
Global companies are not a completely new idea. The Vestey Group operated out of London, England but also operated in Brazil, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.
“They couldn’t farm enough food in Europe to supply all of Europe, so they began buying ranches in several other countries,” he explained.
Belk questioned whether large or global companies should be viewed negatively.
“I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I know it’s increasingly an issue in society,” he said.
He used JBS as an example of a large company, noting that it is predicted to bring in $60 billion in 2015. In contrast, Walmart will bring in about $460 billion.
“About one out of every 200 people that we meet will work for Walmart,” he stated.
Some people are okay with large-scale production, Belk noted, but others are strongly against it. He believes that some of the resistance is mistrust from consumers.
“Recent data would indicate that there is a high level of lack of confidence in the food chain and food supply,” he explained.
Concerns range from lack of confidence in food safety to hormones and residues in the product to sources of antimicrobial resistance.
“Consumers believe that they need to know more about where their food is produced, and how it’s produced, and it needs to be produced locally,” stated Belk.
To support this claim, he referenced USDA data that shows rapid growth in farmers’ markets, as well as community supported agriculture (CSA) programs.
“Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with the consumers who want to spend the kind of money that they are spending on these less-than-efficiently produced products, somebody needs to produce them,” he said.
He noted that 52 CSA programs exist within a five-mile radius of CSU.
“There is a lot of interest in these programs,” he explained.
In some systems, people participate by buying a share of the farm and receiving a share of the production. In other systems, people participate in the labor of the farm.
“We are starting to see a growth in dairy, livestock, meat and egg production, in this concept,” he said.
There is a growing demand for products in which people know how they were produced and also that they feel they are involved in its production.
“If people are in agricultural production, how can they ignore this growing marketing opportunity?” he asked.
Belk believes that the market provides an opportunity.
He said, “If we play our cards right, we can reengage consumers in agriculture. This is an opportunity to reeducate consumers about what takes place in agricultural production.”