Sirens, horns and shouting surround the 50,000 people who rush through the streets of Times Square in a day, much in contrast to the hum of the feed mill and the whistling of the wind through Wrangler Feedyard in Tulia, Texas. The warm and arid climate that originally brought cattlemen to the Texas Panhandle, stood true at 90 degrees in early October 2016. Cowboys on horseback check the over 40,000 head of cattle while another runs the mill with an iPad.
The world’s population has surpassed the 7 billion mark and is well on its way to reaching 9.5 billion people by 2050. Last year, 9 million people died from hunger, compared to the 1.21 million deaths caused by road accidents, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Paul Defoor, Ph.D., a graduate of Texas Tech and chief operating officer of Cactus Feeders, runs Wrangler Feedyard and nine other yards in Texas and Kansas. Defoor said progress is the only way to improve people’s lives and solve a looming hunger crisis. The agriculture industry has seen tough times before.
“We pulled ourselves up out of the ashes of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and we built the most efficient, safest and productive food production system that the world has ever known,” Defoor said.
Defoor speaks passionately about how technology advancements, such as the plow and kerosene tractor, led to the Dust Bowl. Although that was an extremely difficult time for American agriculture, without the Dust Bowl, soil conservation and other innovations would not have been discovered to create the progressive agricultural systems we have come to know today.
Agriculture has progressed dramatically over the past half century. Twice as much beef is being produced today from the same size herd in 1955, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Defoor said advancements in pharmaceutical, crop and genetic technology, as well as the advent of large feed yards and development of transportation systems, have created the increase in production.
However, demand for high quality protein, such as beef, continues to rise with 3 billion people expected to move into the middle class in the next 30 years, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Centre.
The challenge to meet the demands may not solely lie in the hands of agriculturists such as Defoor. Defoor believes activists, cloaked as the consumer, can sink a society if they are able to convince others that core processes, such as food production, have progressed far enough.
“It’s a classic and not unexpected case of just having things too good,” Defoor said. “A bit of a spoiled brat mindset is really what it amounts to.”
Ross Wilson, president and chief executive officer of Texas Cattle Feeders Association and graduate of Texas Tech, believes agriculturists must take action to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
“We must be very transparent and increase our efforts to communicate to the public about how we produce food,” Wilson said.
Wilson suggests taking action is two-pronged. It consists of communicating why we use certain practices with current innovation. Yet, the beef industry must be open-minded and aggressively pursue new and different technologies that may not look anything like the tools that science has created thus far.
Wilson said antimicrobials, a controversial topic in food production, are an example of why beef producers and agriculture in general might not need to blindly defend what has always been done.
“Some of the production benefits that we’ve enjoyed are a result of better animal care, and antimicrobials are certainly a big part of that,” Wilson said. “At some point in the future, will we need to use antimicrobials, or the same levels of antimicrobials? As science evolves, can we be more targeted?”
Science in the past has contributed to the reduction of global hunger by increasing carcass weight in beef cattle and creating higher yielding crops.
“Science is on our side, but unfortunately, science won’t always win the war,” Wilson said. “We have to be our biggest skeptics.”
Science is on our side, but unfortunately, science won’t always win the war. Ross Wilson
The need to communicate the importance of agriculture in order to meet the demands of the future also greatly hinges on agricultural policy and its influence on trade.
Wilson said the world’s population is increasing its purchasing power. If history is a good barometer then China and other developing countries will want more quality protein such as meat.
Government policies play a sizable role in ensuring that protein has the ability to be exported to booming markets such as China. An extenuating circumstance is how policy relative to food production in the United States could hamper the ability to trade.
“We face several significant challenges though when it comes to the impact of consumer attitudes toward production technology, their impact on policy makers and our ability to produce and export beef,” Wilson said. “All of these are intertwined, not just in animal agriculture but in crop agriculture too.”
Kent Bacus, a Texas Tech graduate and director of international trade and market access at National Cattleman’s Beef Association, stays on top of events all over the world and the potential indirect impact they could have on the beef industry.
Bacus said there are many factors that impact ranchers, feedlots and associations such as NCBA.
“Weather, cattle markets and government interference in the market are our main concerns,” Bacus said. “My focus is finding ways to limit negative government interference in beef trade, whether that is with the U.S. government or the government of an export market.”
Bacus said modern agricultural systems must be utilized by the United States and other countries to meet the demands of the future. The U.S. negotiates for equivalency in safety standards and works to ensure exports are not discriminated against. Often times, other countries won’t embrace the sound science behind the production of food in the U.S.
“Some restrictions are politically-motivated instead of science-based, and they are an unfortunate cost of doing business in those countries,” Bacus said.
Technology restrictions on use of growth promotants, such as beta-agonist, are some of the hurdles the beef industry faces when negotiating trade deals with other countries.
The current political environment threatens to limit the U.S beef industry’s ability to provide other countries access to its nutritious products. Bacus said if the U.S. takes a protectionist approach then it is guaranteed that our export markets will follow in our footsteps. A reduction in foreign market access is likely, which will have a direct hit to our small to mid-sized producers and feedlots.
“The anti-trade rhetoric during this election season and the move toward isolationism is something that may resonate with the electorate, but it could devastate the U.S. beef industry,” Bacus said.
Bacus, Wilson and Defoor are optimistic the people who make up the beef industry will continue to feed the world.
“Few people can say that the people they work for will take care of their animals before they open their gifts on Christmas morning,” Bacus said. “Today, we use less food, less water, and less land to produce more high-quality beef than we produced 40 years ago.”
Wilson said cattleman are some of the most aggressive entrepreneurs you would ever find and are direct in their dealings.
“At the end of the day it’s about improving the standard of living for our people and society,” Defoor said. “That’s really what it is all about.”