My View From The Country

Science Vs. Perception Is The Industry Struggle

Modern ag is under attack. It’s time for producers to step up.

If there was anything the media debacle over “pink slime” taught the industry it was that we have to take a hard look at issue management and be more proactive in our response to such issues. It also raises the philosophical debate about whether or not good science or public perception is more important.

Realizing that consumer perception is in the end the final arbitrator, regardless of what good science may say, the tough thing is that it becomes a slippery slope if we give up profitable technologies to reduce risk. In the end, we’ll just eventually find ourselves in a position of being uncompetitive.

There’s also a realization that modern agriculture is under attack and it’s important to defend our ability to feed a growing world as efficiently as possible. Currently, the major issues are around feed additives, hormones and antibiotics. However, the real issue is whether we can create a new issue management model that allows the industry to proactively deal with such issues in order to prevent another debacle like the pink slime issue which we are dealing with today.

Of course, it doesn’t help when USDA appears to work against such an effort. This week the existence of an internal USDA newsletter, dated July 23 and extolling the benefit of Meatless Monday, was revealed. Called the “Greening Headquarters Update,” the newsletter was an update on green efforts within the agency.

The item that caught the industry’s attention was one calling on employees to get involved in Meatless Mondays in the USDA cafeteria. Here’s the item:

“The USDA Headquarters Food Operations are a high-profile opportunity to demonstrate USDA’s commitment to USDA mission and initiatives. In addition to the many USDA employees who come to our cafeterias, thousands of tourists and visitors also come to our cafeterias each month. Currently, a Selection Panel is reviewing food service contractor submissions. Once the review is completed, the panel will make a recommendation to the Source Selection Authority that will make the final decision.

“The new contract, which should be awarded later this year, calls for our cafeterias to become models for healthy eating and ‘sustainable’ operations. The new Food Service Contract encouraged the use of food and beverage items that are fresh and locally grown or otherwise made or procured in the closest possible proximity to Washington, D.C., and the preparation of meals that contribute to a balanced diet and contain the fewest possible additives.

By sourcing locally and sustainably grown food, our program will help support sustainable food systems as a way of contributing to the vitality, environmental sustainability, and quality of life in the region. In addition to the food and beverages, the “back of the house” operations will also support USDA missions, including waste reduction programs (conservation of natural resources) and the use of environmentally preferable products including products that are certified BioPreferred (http://www.biopreferred.gov). So soon, you should be seeing some interesting changes in our cafeterias!

“One simple way to reduce your environmental impact while dining at our cafeterias is to participate in the ‘Meatless Monday’ initiative. This international effort, as the name implies, encourages people not to eat meat on Mondays. Meatless Monday is an initiative of The Monday Campaign Inc. in association with the John Hopkins School of Public Health.

“How will going meatless one day of the week help the environment? The production of meat, especially beef (and dairy as well), has a large environmental impact. According to the U.N., animal agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gases and climate change. It also wastes resources. It takes 7,000 kg of grain to make 1,000 kg of beef. In addition, beef production requires a lot of water, fertilizer, fossil fuels, and pesticides. In addition, there are many health concerns related to the excessive consumption of meat.

“While a vegetarian diet could have a beneficial impact on a person’s health and the environment, many people are not ready to make that commitment. Because Meatless Monday involves only one day a week, it is a small change that could produce big results.

“Did you notice that our cafeterias have tasty meatless options? So you can really help yourself and the environment while having a good vegetarian meal!

“Did you know that the cafeterias use local honey? It is wild- flower honey from Shipman, VA. Some people believe that local honey can help reduce your allergies. Because honey contains a variety of the same pollen spores that give allergy sufferers so much trouble when flowers and grasses are in bloom, people speculate that, eaten regularly, the honey gradually vaccinates the body against allergens.”

NCBA responds

Upon learning of USDA’s support for Meatless Monday on Wednesday afternoon, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association dashed off a release condemning the position, which spurred frantic social media activity. Within a few hours, USDA countered, claiming the comments in the newsletter hadn’t receive proper clearance and stating that the agency does not endorse the Meatless Monday initiative.

Of course, USDA’s retraction doesn’t say anything about the other points raised in the newsletter item, which also work against a positive perception about what is sustainable cattle production.

Discuss this Blog Entry 6

John R. Dykers, Jr. (not verified)
on Jul 27, 2012

Perception versus observation. Belief vs science.
I was chairman of the Thursday Morning Intellectual Society, our continuing education forum at Chatham Hospital in Siler City, NC, and we met every other Thursday for 35 years and had world renowned scientists from UNC, Duke, Wake Forest, ECU, many other local specialty centers and guests from all over the country and from overseas. No matter how erudite the guest might be, we could ask, "Why?" 2 or 3 times and the guest would have to say, "I believe." So even the best science has its limitations, BUT, public policy should be made on the basis of the best we know! The inherent limit on our knowledge should never be used as an excuse NOT to try to learn all we can. That means don't let our belief system keep us from learning.

Rex Peterson (not verified)
on Jul 27, 2012

"7000 kg grain to produce 1000 kg beef"
Can we do anything about the misinformation in the USDA? Most feed yards do a much better conversion rate for just a portion of the animals life...the rest is forage.

In addition, the UN Report so often quoted in snippets actually recommends wider use of the US beef production practices as the best means to reduce greenhouse gas production.

Heber Hammon (not verified)
on Jul 27, 2012

I sent a letter today to the Senators from Arizona. In it, I asked about what is the mission of USDA. To promote agriculture? With this and the IPSA rule that would define any sale of individual animals on farm or on site as a retail pet store, I am beginning to worry. Perhaps USDA hasn't had enough to do what with this drought and all the lost crops, now we can have them police pet stores. And by, defining domestic animals as pets, we all become retail pet stores. So are all you guys turning away the 4-H kids and FFA? Seems every livestock project my kids have done turns into a pet. Now Meatless Mondays? This memo is pretty definite no matter how much spin or damage control you put on it. Lord, help us.

on Jul 29, 2012

Fire'em

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jul 30, 2012

The Livestock Industry will move forward if and only if it stops with the attitude and arrogance it has displayed over the last twenty years. The answer of "we know best" or "it cannot be done any other way" is not acceptable to the public. I am frequently censored because of my posts, so if you are still reading this, great. When the drug manufacturers provide over 60% of the research budgets for the nations veterinary schools, the possibility of alternatives to the daily use of antibiotics and hormones is remote. If they control the immunity and vaccine work, how can the producer be assured of getting economical and cost effective information? While the general public can understand food safety issues, it is silly to expect them to accept the belief that it cannot be done any other way. The pink slime issue came down to one important fact! The Industry was making three cents a pound profit by using it. The public heard nothing else after that! The Industry was willing to do this and had for over twenty years for THREE CENTS profit! I have been doing research in Livestock Production for over forty years! I am "an insider" so to speak. But I also see and hear what is being said and am open minded enough to know WE have a problem. Almost twenty BILLION DOLLARS is being left on the table with just reproductive inefficiency, in the Beef and Dairy Industry's.

M Williams (not verified)
on Jul 31, 2012

Regarding the UN's assertion that animal agriculture is a major contributor to climate change I direct you to an excellent body of work out of UC Davis. It certainly clears the air.

From: Maurice E. Pitesky, Kimberly R. Stackhouse, and Frank M. Mitloehner, Clearing the Air: Livestock’s Contribution to Climate Change. In Donald Sparks, editor: Advances in Agronomy, Vol. 103, Burlington: Academic Press, 2009, pp. 1-40. ISBN: 978-0-12-374819-5
© Copyright 2009 Elsevier Inc.
Academic Press.

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What's My View From The Country?

As a fulltime rancher, opinion contributor Troy Marshall brings a unique perspective on how consumer and political trends affect livestock production.

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Troy Marshall

Troy Marshall is a multi-generational rancher who grew up in Wheatland, WY, and obtained an Equine Science/Animal Science degree from Colorado State University where he competed on both the livestock...

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