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Dr. Chris Ashworth, keynote speaker, delivers his address Tuesday to an audience during the Animal Science Conference at the MinnWest Tech Campus in Willmar. Tribune photo by Gary Miller
Dr. Chris Ashworth, keynote speaker, delivers his address Tuesday to an audience during the Animal Science Conference at the MinnWest Tech Campus in Willmar. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

Animal science conference wrangles with food production challenges, opportunities

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Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR — Animal agriculture stands in an enviable but challenging position, where world population growth equals higher demand for meat, milk and eggs, but where increasing regulation and consumer expectations may limit the industry’s ability to produce meat, milk and eggs to feed a hungry world.

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“We are moving into an age when the next wars will be over food,” Chris Ashworth, chairman of the Animal Agriculture Alliance and technical service veterinarian for Elanco Animal Health, told the audience Tuesday at the third annual Animal Science Conference at the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar.

Ashworth cited a white paper prepared by Elanco president Jeff Simmons, including that by 2050 the expected 9 billion in the world will require 100 percent more food, with 70 percent of that food coming from efficiency-improving technology.

“Technology is a vital ingredient in making food safe, abundant and affordable,” Ashworth said during his keynote speech at the conference.

The annual conference brings together animal science experts, producers and food industry representatives to discuss trends and engage in networking. There were various expert presenters throughout the day, and discussion panels with producers. Global demand for food was a key topic.

Hunger is very real in most of the world, with 3 billion of the current 7.2 billion world population attempting to move into the emerging middle class and seeking to add protein to their diet and where instability in food availability may very well lead to riots and uprisings. In contrast, hunger is more hidden, but still very real in the U.S. and developed countries, with one in five American children facing hunger issues.

The developed world’s perceived issues with technology, especially how technological advancements relate to the production of their food, is what causes world leaders in food and agriculture to have concern, Ashworth said.

“If you read the popular press, you are led to believe that consumers don’t want technology at all, except in their cell phones,” he said.

An international consumer survey conducted by The Nielsen Company in 2010, reviewing 28 studies from 26 countries involving 97,000 consumers, shows a much different picture, with 95 percent of consumers choosing food products from modern, conventional agriculture with taste, cost and nutrition as their leading concerns.

In contrast, only 4 percent are “lifestyle” buyers who pursue luxury or gourmet products and organic and local foods. The study identified the remaining buyers as “fringe” buyers supporting food bans, propositions and restrictions.

“We cannot let a small fringe speak for the rest of us,” Ashworth said. “It is really important that you and I have choices in food.”

Ashworth used an interesting statistic to illustrate his point: there are about 350 Whole Foods stores in the country, gaining significant press coverage and social media buzz for marketing organic foods. In contrast, there are 21,000 Dollar General stores in the nation, not getting much press at all, but the company is the second highest seller of gallon containers of milk in the country.

Daniel Thomson, director of the Beef Cattle Institute at Kansas State University, implored producers to educate consumers on where their food comes from, as consumers are now four to six generations away from family connection to agriculture and food animals.

“We have to have people understand that when we put the bull in the pasture with the cows, our intent is to produce food,” he said during his presentation Tuesday.

Farmers have to ask themselves core questions of well they care for animals and how they can show that care to consumers. Animal welfare, caring for the well-being of animals by feeding and caring for them in the best way possible, needs to be a passion for producers.

“It is a tragedy if you think animal welfare is checking boxes” on an audit form, he said.

Thomson used several pieces of research to show that producers are producing safe food, with very small amounts of hormones and antibiotic residue. There is Iowa State research that shows 2 to 3 nanograms of estrogen in beef steak. By comparison, a woman who isn’t pregnant has 513,000 nanograms in her body. The study also found that men have 136,000 nanograms of estrogen in their bodies.

Another piece of research shows that 99 to 100 percent of beef, pork and poultry carcasses are free of antibiotic residue. “We have to get the word out that we have been using antibiotics judiciously,” Thomson said.

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