Executives participating in a panel at the National Chicken Council’s annual meeting put their collective finger on what is undoubtedly the greatest challenge facing the poultry industry. Conventional agriculture, especially animal agriculture, is in danger of losing its social contract – the intangible but essential public support needed to be able to profitably serve society through food production.
Simply put, people no longer understand or appreciate conventional agriculture, and they not only take affordable food for granted but increasingly don’t support agriculture-friendly public policies.
Grassroots connection with agriculture missing
Tyson Foods CEO Donnie Smith said a new generation of consumers, lawmakers and regulators has little understanding or appreciation of conventional agriculture. He said this will pose greater and greater problems for the industry, which needs to educate society about the value of agriculture and vigorously defend farmers.
“There are inner city kids, for example, who don’t know that ham is a pork product. And now that most people in the U.S. are a generation or two off the farm, we are fast losing our appreciation of the value of conventional agriculture. When there are members of Congress who say the answer to feeding America is a home garden, we have a real problem.”
Global food needs, U.S. policies in conflict
The poultry industry, along with the rest of conventional agriculture, is, in fact, at the center of the conflict in global food demand and policies which threaten to shrink supply and drive up food costs.
Claxton Poultry president Jerry Lane pointed to the challenge of U.S. policies that mandate the use of increasing amounts of corn for the production of ethanol for fuel. And industry consultant Dr. Paul Aho projects that these policies will help push corn prices to $12 a bushel by 2050.
Ironically, lawmakers, regulators and consumers in the U.S. are able to support these positions because of the high standard of living afforded, at least in part, by cheap food. But this could come to an end at a time when agriculture’s social contract is sorely needed by both producers and consumers of poultry and other foodstuffs. Food demand projected under the medium UN population projection would require a near doubling of agricultural output from 2000 to 2050.
Efficiencies needed to produce affordable food
Efficiency is the key to meeting this challenge, according to the executives at the NCC meeting, and scientists with the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) agree.
The authors of “Agricultural Productivity Strategies for the Future: Addressing U.S. and Global Challenges” write, “Complacency is unwarranted given the many warning signs of tighter future agricultural supply-demand balance, rising real food prices and the increasing role of agriculture in meeting energy needs.” They stress the need for greater efficiency in agricultural production, as well as increased public and private investment in research and education.
Speaking about the poultry industry’s role, Pilgrim’s Pride CEO Don Jackson said, “I think that the biggest contribution that we can make is to continue to drive efficiencies and reduce costs in our industry. That provides availability of food to all segments of society. That’s where this industry came from and that’s what it has provided for the last 50 years and I think in the long run is still our contribution to feeding the world.”
Global trade’s role in feeding people
Mike Roberts, president, food products business, Perdue Farms, stressed the need for involvement of U.S. poultry companies in global trade. Scientists with CAST point to the opportunity for consumers around the world as well. They say trade liberalization would add between $12 billion and $155 billion to world incomes.
Rebuilding poultry’s social contract
There’s work to do in rebuilding the poultry industry’s social contract with the American people. In doing so the industry must meaningfully address issues such as sustainability, animal welfare and food safety. The public will have to support conventional agriculture if the industry is to profitably meet the world’s food needs in the twenty-first century.