It’s time for the beef industry to speak up and explain itself to its detractors and the people who don’t understand it.
“I become very frustrated when I see media and activists attacking the global beef industry,” Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs and sustainability with JBS USA, said at last month’s Canadian Beef Industry Conference.
“When you look at North America, we have the most efficient, genetically superior herd in the world. We have the most efficient modern facilities and our product is enjoyed around the world unlike any other. But we’re constantly under attack.”
But that makes the push for sustainable beef “an incredible opportunity for all of us involved in beef production,” he said.
“We have made incredible gains — whether it be in environmental, social, or economic principle — but we’re often attacked when it comes to sustainability,” said Bruett, who sits on the board of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef as well as its global and U.S. sister organizations.
“I can stand up here and say this because I’m a board member of all these roundtables. You (in Canada) are making the most advancements when it comes to sustainable beef today,” he said to thunderous applause.
But that doesn’t mean the Canadian industry doesn’t have obstacles to overcome.
First, it needs to stop infighting.
“Too often, we like to juxtapose organic versus natural versus conventional and confuse consumers,” said Bruett. “I think it’s very important that Canadian agriculture celebrate its diverse forms.”
Second, Canada needs to maintain its research capacity.
“In the United States, we have effectively starved research and extension when it comes to agriculture. We need to reverse that trend,” he said.
There also needs to be more partnership, collaboration, and education in the sector, especially when it comes to retailers and food-service companies.
“Though we are not integrated like poultry or pork, it’s important that we have virtual integration and a co-operation so we can send those price signals and understand the impacts that these decisions are having on our cow-calf producers,” he said.
Strong trade relationships are another priority, he added.
“As population grows in these developing countries, we must have access to these consumers. They love the beef we produce in North America. We must have access to these markets for our industry to thrive.”
Bruett also spoke out about GM labelling on food products.
“This is causing confusion because products like pepperoni pizza can be given GMO codes. This creates more and more consumer confusion.”
He also challenged his audience to “be more aggressive” in defending their products and their values.
“We need to work on this branding and this image of our industry — celebrate who we are and take those activists head on,” he said. “These activists are not producing anything but noise. We’re producing food. We’re feeding people.”
Bruett showed some aggression of his own in defending conventional production, saying “it would be irresponsible and immoral to roll back those (production) gains simply to meet the demands of very wealthy consumers in North America and Europe.”
Consumers need to know that modern farming techniques are required to feed a hungry planet and also that they produce wholesome food, he said.
“Many of us know there is no nutritional difference between conventional and organic but increasingly, we have consumers who don’t,” he said.
The beef industry needs to engage marketers and companies, or the activists and marketers will define the industry, he added.
“This is your problem. The people who are communicating what agriculture is, and its values, to the consumer aren’t necessarily agriculturalists. This is our job as an industry and we aren’t doing a very good job of it.”
Sustainability needs to become the norm and a given, just like food safety.
“A consumer should not have to make a sustainable choice in a supermarket,” said Bruett. “All products should be sustainable. We need to look at this in a competitive fashion so that everyone in the Canadian beef industry can have this wonderful sustainable halo.”