Green: Consumer opinions hold more weight than science in the eyes of AmericansWritten by Saige Albert
Globally, beef production is facing a number of challenges, and a variety of outside forces put pressure on the industry each day.
Ronnie Green, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources Harlan vice chancellor, says consumers are one of the most notable influences behind the industry.
As the global population grows, with expectations of increasing by 3 billion people over the next 20 years, Green says, “Not only are we going to have to produce more food for 9.6 billion people by 2050, we know there will be an increase in urbanization, particularly in the developing regions.”
Worldwide, a transition is expected from roughly half of the population living in urban centers to nearly two-thirds.
“We are also expecting the population to be more affluent,” he adds. “We will see an increase in the social economic middle class.”
As a result, the demand for animal protein will increase by 40 to 45 percent over the next 15 years, particularly as it relates to red meat.
“This is a big opportunity for our industry,” Green says. “It is an opportunity for our industry to innovate and produce.”
Today, consumers are already targeting issues that they see as important, including water, food waste and limited resources.
“Some of the interplay happening in social discussions comes back to the competition for limited resources and environmental concerns,” Green says.
As a particular driver related to environmental issues, Green cites the controversial issue of climate variability and climate change.
In a report published by UNL in September 2015, he notes that plant hardiness zones from USDA have moved north, a trend that has developed over the last 20 years.
“The climate change issue is an important one,” he says.
To address these challenges and work toward providing the additional food necessary for the growing planet, Green comments that continued research is necessary.
“There are groups trying to make the argument that we not only need to increase our plant-based research, we need to significantly increase our advancement in animal-based research, which has been happening,” Green says.
He adds, “I’m very pleased that, for the first time in my career, we have a voice other than ours saying this is true and we do need to make investments.
Green references the popular TV series Downton Abbey, explaining that the show is rooted in the difficulties that surround making changes through time.
“It draws a parallel for me with what we are experiencing in our industry,” he says. “There are major forces happening around us. Whether we agree with them or not, we need to understand them fully and understand where they are coming from to move forward and be successful.”
For consumers, Green notes that statements beginning with, “I believe” and, “In my opinion” have replaced statements like, “I know” or, “The facts clearly prove,” which is challenging for the ag industry.
“We talk about science and things we know have been proven, and we’re still exploring things we don’t understand,” he says. “If we look at the media today and on social media, we see, ‘I believe’ statements.”
Know versus believe
Green notes that it is a new understanding, and new priorities are driving the changes seen in much of the industry.
“We talk about ag being the one percent of the population that feeds the other 99 percent,” he says. “Agriculture has become a small minority group in the country, and we are also a minority in terms of being a group who appreciates nature and nurture.”
In interacting with college students, Green says it is increasingly obvious that there is a lack of understanding of the natural world that is being replaced by technology.
“We have a society that is moving toward less of an understanding of real biology and science,” he explains. “That is being replaced in the misuse of science.”
Green continues, “There is a big different between 'know' and 'believe'. Most of us grew up in a time period where belief was based around faith and religion. Now I would wager to say that many groups have a belief system that is driving them that is not factual or scientifically proven.”
Wide interpretation of science and definitional differences also make an impact.
As the scientific literacy of the global population declines, a lack of understanding of cause and effect is seen, which has created challenges for agriculture.
Lack of scientific literacy leads to a population that doesn’t understand when science is cherry-picked to support an agenda, Green asserts.
“We have a culture that also has an increasing level of anti-belief against things that are big,” Green says. “There is also a growing level of anti-agriculture sentiment.”
He continues, “There is also a willingness to sacrifice human life for beliefs.”
Social elitism also plays a factor, and Green explains that the general public seems to have a viewpoint that food policy should be directed toward social elitism instead of freedom of choice.
“This is a food movement,” he says, noting that the movement includes people from a variety of groups who advocate for a need for change in food policy. “I would say that the dead center of the target of this movement is our industry – the beef industry.”
Green notes that the beef industry must be engaged and understand the viewpoints of their opponents to be successful.
“We need to understand these discussions very well and understand what is behind them,” Green says. “We need to reconnect the public to us and what we do.”
“The next generation of our media campaigns needs to be about stewardship, protection of the environment and protection of the families in our care,” he adds. “That’s what we do and who we are, but the public doesn’t understand that. We need to get ourselves ahead of this to move into the future.”