Thursday, March 22, 2012

What price cheap food? Or “Do we want legless cows and featherless chooks?

Modern agriculture is grounded on the belief that the primary objective of the industry is to produce as much food and fibre as possible for the least cost.

These twin goals have long shaped agricultural research.  But with evidence that food is wasted in developed countries, that food security is a now accepted as a major global issue,  and issues of environmental degradation and health problems such as obesity, we need to define what it is that we want contemporary agriculture to do.  Social media abound with comment, much ill-founded on food and food security issues. At the same time we see heightened interests in food and cooking, and in urban agriculture/vegetable growing.  There is a sense we are missing the big picture.

Is modern agriculture about producing cheap food? What other values might apply to agriculture, such as preserving landscape and countryside? Can we change the profitability of the system? What should the drivers be for a new agriculture?

Engaging in public debate on these issues and acknowledging their complexity will help define the shape of future agricultural research and our farm and food systems.

I was reminded that none of this is new when I came across a recent paper by David Fraser, an animal welfare researcher at the University of British Columbia.  This paper reminded me of two earlier contributions of David’s:
  • Fraser D (1999) Animal ethics and animal welfare science: bridging the two cultures.  Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 65: 171-189, and
  • Fraser D (2001) The “New Perception” of animal agriculture: legless cows, featherless chickens and a need for genuine analysis.  Journal of Animal Science 79: 634-6411

The second title relates to an often cited quote in animal welfare literature about a (disputed) claim by an animal geneticist that his organisation was attempting to ‘breed animals without legs and chickens without feathers’.

The quote highlights, however, concern felt in some quarters over the direction of modern agriculture. While gene technology is poised to deliver many benefits to agriculture in the fight against disease, reduced environmental impact and enhanced food nutrition and quality, it could fancifully be argued that the technology might one day be equally capable of delivering a legless cow. Nowhere in modern agriculture is the polarisation of different viewpoints on the direction of animal agriculture more evident than in the fields of gene technology and animal welfare.

In these debates and others, such as the growing divide between production and sustainability science, a far better analysis is required of complex issues in order to answer the questions of what we want agriculture to do.

David Fraser describes the polarised views on modern agriculture in terms of the ‘new perception’ and the ‘neotraditional portrayal’. In the new perception, agriculture is regarded as detrimental to animal welfare, controlled by large corporations, motivated by profit, causing world hunger, producing unhealthy food and harmful to the environment.

At the other end of the spectrum, Fraser defines the neotraditional portrayal of the industry as beneficial to animal welfare, mainly controlled by families and individuals, motivated by traditional animal care values that lead to profit, augmenting world food supplies, producing safe and nutritious food and not harmful (often beneficial) to the environment.  Literature from both ends of the spectrum tends to provide information that supports one of these polarised viewpoints while often failing to acknowledge the complexity of the debate, or attempting to establish a middle-ground.

Research undertaken by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington indicates that the demand for animal protein will double within 20 years. This demand is been propelled by urbanisation and increased income, particularly in the developing world.

However, if we are going to increase livestock production, for example, to double protein production, major changes will be required in how we produce our product. If we increase per animal productivity two or three fold, then we would also have to reduce environmental impact by a similar amount.  While this may be technically possible within a reasonably short timeframe, is this what we want agriculture to do? How do we want to use the resource?

The agricultural production sector is often criticised for not meeting the triple bottom line (social, economic and environmental) yet by the same token we, in the developed world vote in the supermarkets for cheaper food.  This not only challenges the viability of farming, it also means that much of what we do as societies is at cross purposes.

Will consumers accept the harvesting of native species, such as the Red or Grey kangaroo in countries like Australia, as an ecologically sustainable source of meat?

Should we be paying more for food and consuming less?

Rather than seeing beef just as a staple in the food system, could our mindset change so that we also think of beef as producing zinc and iron that can be injected into diets at critical times in human development – for example, in early childhood for brain development and early teenage years to combat iron deficiency. (Zinc and iron deficiencies appear to be two major nutritional issues in both the developed and developing worlds.)  In doing so, we change the whole value proposition for meat, and better returns to producers, and enhanced benefits to consumers.

These are challenging questions, questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” but must be debated vigorously by a range of stakeholders in the public arena.

Consumer confidence in science has been shaken in recent times by issues relating to food safety and diseases, such as bird flu.  In order to avoid misrepresentation, scientists have at times been reluctant to acknowledge any potential risk to food safety for fear that such an admission will distort the debate. Yet, with uncertainty comes awareness and planning for any potential unforeseen consequences.

Risks can be managed effectively without raising public concern if potential risks to the food chain are acknowledged and a system of surveillance, monitoring and detection put in place that enable quick remedial action to address any problems that may arise.

Scientists should not be isolating ourselves from controversy because the technical complexity of issues we are dealing with in the community now is such that we need to participate in the public debate.  Nor should other members of the community ignore the requirement to engage openly and responsibly in that debate.

Undoubtedly, we need more simultaneous research at all levels – from sub-cellular to ecological – in order to develop a greater understanding of issues at the boundaries of science and social and community impacts.  

We need to public debate too.  An informed debate and based on genuine analysis.


  1. Shaun,

    Appreciate your thoughts on what really are the goals from modern agriculture and how short-sighted most people have become.

    Your ideas deserve an international debate at the right forum !

    Thanks once again for putting up the other side of the coin which is usually missed out because we are buzy polishing the other side

    With Warm Regards !

  2. Shaun,
    I can imagine some individuals and companies envisioning legless cows and such as progress. I am not sure mainstream agriculture will get there, but they are certainly laying a foundation to continually narrow their perspective and the value of ag. It seems ironic that non-ag peoples are trying to convince ag that they provide a broader portfolio of values than just food and ag is holding them back saying that food is the only value they want or can supply.

  3. Thanks Tim.

    It can go both ways. I find many farmers trying to represent a broader view of agriculture rather than just food production, but facing enormous pressures for the broader (non-ag) community to do it fpr prices that do not reflect true costs (the present milk markets in the UK and Australia are an example. Ther are differences between corporate and family operations to. In the meantime we need a much broader public discussion and understanding of the true impacts of agriculture (and the built environment too.) Not easy to see answers if we don't ask enough questions.

    Again, thanks for taking time to comments. Best wishes