Veterinarians may be the biggest advocates in explaining how food is produced
With the problems in animal agriculture today, veterinarians may be the most important advocate for the beef industry and food animal production. Dan Thomson, DVM, spoke to producers about how the industry is changing during “The U.S. beef cattle production journey: The destination is up to us” program in Curtis, Neb.
“My job is to work with retailers of the beef industry, and tell them what a good job we do as an industry, how hard we work, how safe our food is, and how much we care about our animals and neighbors,” Thomson said to producers. “Based on what the retailer asks for, I go out into the country and say to producers, ‘Here are some things our customers want us to do in the future.’”
Sustainability has been the buzz word in the agriculture business for the last several years. Thomson sees animal welfare, environmental stewardship, and food safety and security as all important parts of sustainability. “The one thing people forget, is if it will cost more to be sustainable? Without profitability, there is no sustainability. Define what you want to be sustainable,” he said.
Thomson asked the audience who wants a sustainable lifestyle more — people in the U.S. or third-world countries. “Americans want to stay sustainable,” he said. “In third-world countries, people are starving and have nothing. They don’t want to be sustainable.”
Companies like McDonald’s are concerned about sustainability, he said. “They want to still be in business in 40 years, so they want to identify which beef businesses will still be in business in 40 years,” he said. “They are using indexes to identify those herds, so they can form relationships with them. They are looking for those producers who are concerned about global change and disease prevention, people working with traceability issues, and those who want to conserve antibiotics. They are looking for the producers who will do the little things to stay in business.”
“We should be thankful companies like McDonald’s are chewing on us, because that means they need us,” he said. “They are looking ahead 40-50 years from now, and thinking about our kids and grandkids that will be taking over our operations. They are planning on us still being in the business.”
Thomson said the beef industry should be more concerned that Tyson is investing in alternative beef proteins or fake beef. “That should start sending signals to us about what’s to come,” he said. Animal activist groups have an agenda against agriculture, and their goal is to refine, reduce and replace the animal protein in the human diet, he said.
The latest research Thomson has shows that 96 percent of Americans still include beef in their diet. “What we need to do a better job of is educating consumers about where their food comes from,” he said. “How did we get to the point where animal activists attack us? It has to do with the human-animal bond.”
In 1980, 25 percent of Americans lived alone. In 2010, 50 percent of Americans live alone. The significant other in their lives has been replaced with companion animals. “It is hard for people not engaged in agriculture, and who have adopted a pet, to understand our intent,” Thomson said. “Our intent, from the time we put the bull in the pasture with the cows, is to produce food, not a 1,500-pound-lap-dog. We have to go out and educate the consumers, because we have a lack of consumer attachment,” he said.
It doesn’t help that only 2 percent of the U.S. population is involved in production agriculture. “Today, there are more people incarcerated in U.S. prisons, than those that farm and ranch,” he said. “We are a minority. If I ask a third-grade classroom where their milk comes from, they will say a store. They think green beans come from a can,” he said. “We need to educate consumers about where their food comes from, how it’s made, and how it gets to their table.”
The U.S. is a first-world country, which means its citizens are affluent and have money. “What if you came here from a third-world country, where people are starving to death, and 75 percent of your income goes to buying food?” he asked. “A person whose belly is half-full has many problems, and a person who is starving to death only has one. We are so lucky to have the problems we have here in this country. They are pretty small when you think about what people in these third-world countries go through,” he said.
U.S. consumers spend percent of their income on food. “Food in this country is virtually free. Food is cheap, and around everywhere, and we eat a lot of it. That is why 34 percent of the adult population in this country is considered obese,” he said.
What really bothers Thomson is the amount of food that U.S. consumers throw away, which amounts to about a third. “At Kansas State, we measured the amount of food thrown away at the college dining service. It amounted to one-fourth pound at breakfast, one-third pound at lunch, and one-half pound at dinner. Basically, we are throwing away a pound of prepared food every day. So 14,000 students living in the dorms throw away $70,000 of food each day,” he said.
“Nobody today cares about food prices in the U.S., because it is so cheap,” he said. “We overproduce and over-consume, so people just throw it away. A lot of countries can’t do that.”
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at email@example.com. ❖
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