On September 22 I found myself sitting onstage at a food conference in Sacramento with six others on a “Sustainable Protein Panel.” Early into our dialogue, anti-meat protestors jumped onto the stage holding signs reading, “It’s not food, it’s violence.” and began shouting. Like me, you must wonder how I got myself into this situation.
My wife Karen and I were asked to attend Farm Tank by several National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) staff members this past August. They also asked if I would represent the beef community as a panelist on the Protein Panel. As Farm Tank was to take place in “trendy” California and then in other U.S. cities, NCBA believed it important for beef producers to participate (NCBA works as a contractor to the Beef Check-Off on behalf of U.S. beef and dairymen who pay into the beef promotion check-off with each animal sale.). I had never heard of Farm Tank, but agreed to participate, as I believe it is important to inform people about our beef community as much as possible.
Farm Tank is a program of Food Tank, a non-profit organization with the stated premise: “Our food system is broken. Some people don’t have enough food, while others are eating too much. There’s only one way to fix this problem – and it starts with you and me.” Food Tank states, it works to “offer solutions and environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger, obesity, and poverty by creating a network of connections and information for all of us to consume and share.”
Looking out at the audience of about 400, I saw primarily millennials representing non-profit organizations and small and organic farming advocates. They are well-educated, articulate, and passionate. While I identified a few “mainstream” ranchers and farmers in attendance, I would guess the majority have had little exposure to the realities of production agriculture. The conference theme so far – co-hosted by Visit Sacramento, California Farm-to-Fork Program, and numerous sponsors – seemed to be “sustainable agriculture” and “rebuilding the broken agriculture system.”
I’ve found “sustainable” means different things to different people. It seems that to this audience, “sustainable” means small, often organic, and local food production and distribution. It includes sociological goals for farm workers, food waste, and the hungry. To them, modern production agriculture is perceived as “industrial factory farming” and bad for our food system. Many of their opinions about agriculture stem from limited experience and knowledge about the practices of the majority of farmers, ranchers, food processors, or allied industry.
The Protein Panel moderator was Tom Philpott, Food and Ag Correspondent for Mother Jones magazine, “a politically progressive American magazine reporting on politics, the environment, human rights, and culture.” My fellow panelists included a freshwater fish raiser, a heritage chicken grower, a Stanford global food researcher, a vegetarian grass-fed rancher, and a meatless diet advocate from Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). I had my work cut out for me.
After the protestors were removed by security, we did make some progress toward a more complete dialogue about beef production. For example, there was general acknowledgement that small and local food production makes food much more expensive, which of course places extra financial burden on the lower-income consumers. I was able to express my opinion that turning back the clock in farming practices isn’t going to feed the population now, nor that of 2050 when we need to produce 50% more food.
We pointed out that due to technological advances beef producers today produce the same amount of beef that we did in the mid-1970’s with 30 million fewer head of cattle. Consequently, not only have beef producers significantly reduced the environmental impact of beef production, we continue to provide a safe, affordable, and consistent product of high-quality protein year-round.
In addition, we informed the audience that beef cattle graze millions of acres of rangelands and provide a nutritious protein from land that arguably needs to be grazed and otherwise would not produce food for humans. We made it clear that our ruminant animals utilize diverse food processing by-products, diverting them from the waste stream and into food production. California’s beef and dairy cattle consume over a million tons of almond hulls each year, keeping them from landfills.
As California Rangeland Trust has pointed out since its founding, these rangelands also provide our communities with open space, watersheds, wildlife habitats, and other environmental benefits. There are many ways modern beef production is good for the environment. But there are huge gaps of understanding about what, how, and why we producers do what we do.
Many California Rangeland Trust board members are already participating in public education. Barbara and Dan O’Connell, Darrell and Callie Wood, Michelle and Steve McDonald, Karen and Scott Stone, Abbie and Mark Nelson, and others have hosted ranch tours or made presentations to diverse audiences. California Rangeland Trust’s own “Where Your Food Grows and Grazes,” sponsored by Raley’s and AT&T, is a field trip program that brings kids to working ranches.
As ranchers and California Rangeland Trust leaders, we appreciate and participate however we can with the consumer outreach efforts of organizations such as California Beef Council, American National Cattle Women, Certified Angus Beef, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Environmental Stewardship Award Program, and numerous others.
We have a big job to do. Those in the audience today, and millions more, just don’t know what they don’t know. There is a huge spotlight on agriculture and Cattlemen and our allies need to continue taking advantage of these opportunities to inform the general public about our way of life. The need to support and participate in these educational programs is great. It’s up to us to convince these well-educated, articulate, passionate food activists that our food system isn’t broken after all. It’s up to us to communicate the benefits of modern beef production because no one is going to do it for us.
The different perspectives, experiences, and agendas of the panelists, the interruption by the protestors, and even the premise of Farm Tank itself, did not prevent us from having an agreeable, productive discussion regarding modern beef production. And that, I think, is encouraging.
Beef producers today produce the same amount of beef that we did in the mid-1970’s with 30 million fewer head of cattle.
First published in the November 2016 issue of California Cattlemen’s Magazine