It appears everywhere industries are being upended by the rise of “disruptive technology.” Our ability to harness all manner of technological change and the “Internet of things” is changing the way we communicate, work, shop, manage our home, travel and recreate. It is also impacting how consumers are making choices about their food.
Agriculture has been at the forefront of adopting technology for decades. We raise crops and livestock much differently now than we ever thought possible. Satellite technology has made us more precise and efficient, new plant varieties have allowed for increased mechanization and lower pesticide and fertilizer application all while providing higher yields. We raise livestock that exhibit more desirable traits and productivity through the adoption of selective breeding and increasingly better genetics through AI. We can also track animals, crops, and commodities in real-time.
But now, with the rise of plant-based and cell-cultured protein products, we are faced with our own form of disruptive technology that makes us uncomfortable. The rise of plant-based proteins meant to mimic the taste and texture of meat and the growing of meat cells cultured in labs gives us pause. It is not the technology that concerns us. We have adopted new technologies in our production practices for decades and even these new technologies have the potential to provide benefits for agriculture.
What is concerning to us is yet an additional product in the seemingly endless stream of marketing which will be used as an attack to vilify conventional agriculture to gain market share. What we have all seen is an endless attack on the current production systems that are the bedrock of the safest and most abundant food supply the world has ever known.
We are already seeing it related to these new plant and cell-based protein products. Just a few examples include Meatless Monday’s, cow farts causing climate change, dietary recommendations that promote more plant-based diets (which are more propaganda than sound science), advertisements for humane meat, clean meat, etc. These attacks on our current production systems are not just a war between two brands, they are attacks on the bedrock of the safest and most abundant food supply in the world. Worse, for agricultural producers, they are an attack on our livelihoods, our lifestyle and our reputation as stewards of our precious natural resources.
The question is…. How will we respond to the latest attack? We clearly need to ensure that these new products are clearly labeled, and consumers know what they are buying. However, if we stop there we will have won the battle and lost the war. As the current marketing suggests, labeling these products will be seen by their proponents as a benefit, not a detriment. They will use those labels to advertise their products as the superior alternative at the expense of the current products on the market. They will say that they are safer, cleaner, have a lower carbon footprint and use less water to produce. We will need to think beyond the labels and fight marketing with marketing.
The good news is that we can benefit from other trends over the last several years. Our beef producers are the natural, traditional and minimally processed alternative to these products. Why would you want a product grown in a lab when you can have a product that is grown on the land by real people. We also have the benefit of iconic history and the advantage of showing our products in a natural setting. I don’t know about you, but a herd of cattle on the range is much more appealing than a grouping of cells in a Petrie dish. We also have the benefit of a segment of the public who is much more interested in where their food comes from and how it is produced…. we need to tell them.
Editor's Note: This editorial originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Arizona Agriculture, Arizona Farm Bureau's monthly publication.