Sustainability seems to be the buzzword of agriculture currently, and at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Cattle Industry Convention and Trade Show it was no different.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said everyone has a different definition what sustainability is about. For him it includes the environment, social and economic aspects. Perdue spoke during the Feb. 5 opening general session in San Antonio, Texas.
“We’re talking to a group of people out here that are conservationists. They’re not going to poison their land,” Perdue said. “They make their livelihood off the land.”
Environmental sustainability leads to social sustainability, and morally, farmers and ranchers have an obligation to help provide safe, affordable, accessible food.
“These folks do a good job at that,” Perdue said.
For sustainability to work, the economic aspect is also needed. Agricultural producers need to be able to make a living.
“We love farming. We love ranching. We love growing and producing stuff,” Perdue said. “But we’ve still got to feed the kids, right? You’ve got to make a living.”
Recently, Perdue was in Europe, and sustainability was discussed there, and he felt strongly if growers are constrained by rules and regulations like farmers there are, there could be significant ramifications. Agriculture would become more difficult if farmers and ranchers couldn’t use modern techniques for modern farming. They’re eventually going to be choked out. Farmers could become uncompetitive worldwide, he said.
“In the United States, we have demonstrated that productivity is the real key for economic, environmental and social sustainability,” he said. “These folks here along with their colleagues all across the country—we have increased agricultural production 400% over the last 90 years, with 10% less land and doing it with a less(er) price than we’ve ever had.”
Recent trade wins with Japan and China, have helped solidify the market for now for beef producers. And NCBA President Jennifer Houston said beef producers have such a great story to tell, and need somewhere to tell it. Japan is one example.
“They’re a huge consumer, a huge lover of our U.S. beef,” Perdue said. “What we’ve done with Japan obviously is open that market up again, in a bilateral relationship. We’ve got a designated quota there that is not going to be subject to that higher tariff. We’re going to be treated like other beef producers.”
Perdue is just as excited to get U.S. beef back into China, despite the most recent trade disruption.
“I think we’ll see that market grow and the phase one agreement, I think it’s a big deal there,” he said.
It’s an enforceable deal with “big numbers” that have to be met and enforced in a unilaterally enforceable way.
“But the big deal is we got those non tariff barriers on beef removed,” Perdue said. “The age restriction, and the maximum residue levels restricted of veterinary drugs.”
Perdue hopes “we can do better” when it comes to trade deals, not only with China, but Canada, Mexico and Japan.
Sign up for HPJ Insights
Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.
“I felt like we had become too dependent on the Chinese market in many ways,” Perdue said. “More so in crops and beans than beef, but when you lose a big market like that—we won’t have to spread out where we feed the world.”
Going into 2020, Perdue realizes how hard agriculture is.
“Farming’s never a piece of cake,” he said. “We know these folks out here know it, it’s always going to be a challenge. But we deal with pretty resilient people as well.”
Perdue is hopeful for the beef industry, despite cattle numbers being down a little bit.
“We think the demand being driven by that—these deals from Japan and China will help grow demand internationally,” he said. “Our domestic demand is really strong.”
Wholesale prices rose in 2019, despite the “Labor Day perfect storm” when the Holcomb, Kansas, packing plant burned. Consequently, packers learned from the event and were able to increase efficiencies to help get the displaced cattle through the chain.
“We were obviously looking into that. I want to make sure people are playing fair, and they’re being treated fair in that regard,” Perdue said. “I’m bullish on agriculture in general.”
Perdue shared his love for a “big juicy ribeye” and despite the challenges cattlemen face, he believes times are positive, and American agriculture is doing the best it can. For example, American families compared to those in other developed countries spend considerably less than those in France.
“France is a pretty developed country. They’ve got some good farms,” Perdue said. “But their food costs per family is about 13% of their disposable budget. In the United States, for food at home, we spend about 6% of our disposable budget.”
With a population of more than 330 million people in the U.S., that adds up to roughly $830 billion.
“That’s the story we ought to be proud to tell,” Perdue said. “You want to be able to proudly tell everybody that story. Productivity leaves a smaller, lower footprint environmentally. That means we’re making progress.”
Farmers get blamed for more environmental issues, because they “sit behind the farm gate” and don’t tell their story as often. Many believe its private conversations and not something everyone needs to know.
“We got to have advocates. We got to get out and tell a story that we don’t have anything to be ashamed about the most important, healthy, wholesome food supply in the world,” Perdue said.
When questioned by Houston about his thoughts on fake meat and its future in the food supply, Perdue admitted he’d tried it.
“I know what my preference is,” Perdue said. “I’ll take a good old juicy meat burger any day of the week, but—consumers will decide, ultimately. We don’t have anything to fear.”
People link their meat choice based on ethical feelings or animal welfare feelings, Perdue said. They’ve been around for a while and are not using beef anyway.
“I don’t think a lot are worried about that,” he said. “I think we’ve just got to continue to do what we all do. What we know how to do best. That’s good, strong environmental control. We’ve got to control the product.”
Perdue ended by saying he’s going to use his megaphone to start talking about what the productivity of the American farmer has done for the American consumer, and that is how it’s all taken for granted. Especially since the president is concerned about the trade deficit.
“Why do we have an $800 billion trade deficit?” Perdue said. “Because American farmers and ranchers have made food so affordable. So we take it for granted.”
Traders can spend money elsewhere, and it’s “kind of” created an affluence in America because there’s not a food problem.
“And we haven’t had for a long time,” Perdue said. “We’ve got an awesome responsibility and moral responsibility for providing food, fiber and fuel for the world.”
That’s going to be accomplished with modern technology, new breeding techniques and give people clarity about the kind of science that’s being used.
“I think there are issues that were important within the White House right now for new breeding techniques, to again, get us some clarity about using the kind of science we know—based on sound science, using all those tools, new breeding techniques, as well as other kind of mobile technology tools that make for good safe, wholesome product,” Perdue said. “Where we can fulfill that social obligation.”
Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].