Commentary: Bye bye 2012

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It’s almost mandatory for columnists to crank out a “What a Year It Was!” column as a finale each time we prepare to flip the calendar. I’ll spare you that obligatory slog through news you’ve already endured and instead offer a single word I believe will occupy a prominent place in both news coverage and industry messaging in 2013.

That singularity parallels trends elsewhere.

For example: In the fitness industry, the word is “intensity.” More and more research—coupled with real-world experience—is showing that the best results in strength training, endurance training and even body shaping all derive from shorter, harder, more intensive workouts. Not everyone’s overjoyed to learn that, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that if your idea of exercise is reading a magazine while you leisurely pedal a stationary cycle machine, you’re not going to get the results you want.

In education, the word is “outcomes.” Rather than such metrics as graduation rates (though important), or new technologies or even teacher credentialing, the primary tool for measuring academic success is how well students perform on core curricula and standardized tests. Again, everybody’s not happy about it, but that’s also a development rapidly reaching consensus.

In food production, I believe the single most important descriptor in both media coverage and industry messaging in 2013 will be “sustainability.” That’s certainly not a new concept, nor are other industry-specific buzzwords; they tend to rise to the top of the list by a process of attrition.

However, in animal agriculture, defining and communicating what sustainability is all about will be ultra-important. Why? Three reasons, in ascending order of importance.

First, there is no clear and universally accepted definition of sustainability, or sustainable. Like “natural,” sustainable is what anyone wants it to be, and unfortunately, production agriculture has too often let activist groups with agendas do the defining.

That needs to change, so that debates over policies and positioning can be conducted on a level playing field.

Second, the issue of animal welfare is an emotional one. From sad-eyed puppies used by animal rights groups to fund-raise for ag-related campaigns—such as eliminating gestation stalls—to doctored videos intended to shock the public, virtually all of such messaging surrounding is driven by the gut reactions people and politicians have to imagery and feelings. Facts rarely enter the discussion.

Show a photo of chickens in a cage, no matter how clean and spacious, and while producers see efficiency and welfare, much of the public sees barbarity and abuse. No amount of scientific data nor economic analysis is going to change that, and the reality is that industry is fighting the battle to win over people’s perceptions from late in the game and several touchdowns behind.

But that’s not true of the other critical issue confronting producers and their industry allies, and that is the growing conflict over the environmental impact of meat and poultry production. Increasingly, activists are gaining ground with the argument that raising beef or producing pork consumes far too many resources, wastes excessive amounts of water and energy and end up contributing disproportionately to the specter of global warming.

That is an argument based on facts and driven by data—however suspect—and thus vulnerable to a counter-argument fueled by stronger, more credible data. That’s where sustainability enters the picture.

No food product, no food crop can be produced without inputs: land, water, energy and other resources. Yet somehow, anti-industry activists have been able to buffalo both media members and policymakers with the idea that eliminating meat and the nutrition it represents would result in a straightforward subtraction of all the above-named resources and inputs required to raise livestock and process various animal foods. Rarely is mention made that substituting corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, seafood—whatever—for red meat and poultry in the world’s diet would consume enormous additional resources of energy, land, water and fossil fuels. And yet such a switch, despite its environmental cost, would not provide humanity with superior nutrition.

Moreover, and this is the key point, the world does not have those additional resources available to convert all of animal agriculture’s nutritional contributions to alternative plant-based sources. Such a transformation in the face of continuing global population growth would be decidedly unsustainable.

That’s a fact, and it’s one that industry ought to focus on communicating during 2013 and beyond.

Happy (sustainable) New Year.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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mr reality    
united states  |  January, 02, 2013 at 10:23 AM

Great article Bye Bye 2012. Hopefully the environmentalists read it and agree to do their part to become educated and less emotional in how they operate and litigate. It would be nice if the world focused on research based facts and less on emotional unrealistic ideals. Economic, environmental and animal focused Sustainability should become a common ground where environmental groups, farmers, researchers and ranchers face real issues with real data to create REAL solutions. The world is not a perfect place. Continued engagement in "battles of will" in the American courtroom has only made things worse.

Everett, Wash.  |  January, 02, 2013 at 11:02 AM

Couldn't agree more. Litigation has its place, but it's become the primary tool for environmentalists to advance their agenda, and injunctions and other overly broad court rulings that put legislative mandates on hold, or re-interpret their impact, are, at best, an imperfect way to effect change. I truly believe that the industry has a powerful message of sustainability to "sell" to the public and to policymakers. Granted, it won't be easy to re-orient the conventional wisdom that organic, grass-fed, free-range and all the other labels out there in the marketplace are more sustainable options, but with a relentless focus on the facts as they relate to the use of our limited resources of energy, land, water and other inputs, I have confidence it can be done.

South Dakota  |  January, 02, 2013 at 01:04 PM

What do you mean that animal rights videos are "doctored"? How so? Obviously they cut it to highlight the most egregious abuse but I've never seen a case where they staged an abusive event or used deceptive editing. Do you have any actual examples of this occurring?

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