A PADDOCK filled with grass and cattle versus silver tanks filled with microbes – which is the more appealing farm of the future?
While the answer may seem pretty straight forward to anyone involved in livestock production, consumers with little first hand knowledge of agriculture are increasingly being told the latter is the more desirable option, as Dr Rod Polkinghorne explained to the digital Livestock 2020 forum hosted by the Southern Australian Livestock Research Council last week.
A recent report presented several confronting conclusions as facts, he said, including that demand for red meat will collapse by 70 percent by 2030, and the entire livestock agriculture industry will effectively be bankrupt by 2035, based largely on the idea that food produced in silver tanks is more efficient than livestock production.
“But before you get too upset about that, we should also look at the disclaimer that basically says everything there is not fact, it is just the opinion of the authors and the authors of course are funded by some very large food corporations, individuals and so on,” he said.
“It is all about money – if we can disrupt agriculture and replace a few million ordinary farmers with a few mega corporations and control the whole food market, what a business opportunity.”
The red meat industry will have to be on its game in its communication with consumers, Dr Polkinghorne said, as the ‘natural product versus Frankenstein food’ debate intensifies.
“You wouldn’t think it would be too hard to sell the idea that a nice paddock of grass and a happy cow would look a bit better than a bunch of tanks owned by a couple of mega corporations,” he said.
It might sound like an easy sell, but ensuring consumers with little connection to agriculture get the message is no straight forward task.
Two presenters at last Wednesday’s forum offered slightly contrasting but equally thought-provoking views on the subject.
Farmers armed with facts and science
Dr Polkinghorne felt the industry needs to use a science and fact based approach to communicating with consumers.
“We are going to have to communicate real facts and communicate really simply, the reality of rumen agriculture is extraordinary and a positive massive environmental contribution.
“We’re being painted into this corner because it happens to suit some agendas, a lot of really well-meaning people who are not aware of the facts are easily engaged, but we do need to get it up that we’re upgrading a non-human product (cellulose) into a really nutrient dense human food and we have got a critical role (to play) in global food security.”
Asked what he thought the best method would be to bust some of the myths being perpetuated against livestock production, Dr Polkinghorne suggested the best strategy would be to use farmers themselves to communicate science and facts.
“I think it would be incredibly useful if every producer had access to some really simple distilled down facts,” he said.
“They don’t have to understand every ounce of the science, but it would be good to have the one word rejoinder.
“Farming is ruining the planet – well no it’s not, here is the link to go back to some solid data on it, but here is the 15 words too that actually describe it and encapsulate it.
“Because I don’t think anyone will represent our interests better than actual farmers themselves, that is where the passion is.
‘We have to build on really strong science, there is a huge amount of that happening globally, and we have to be aware of the some of the agendas out there that are driving the other side.
“But I think for one thing I would try to empower the average farmer.”
‘Show, don’t tell’
Earlier in the proceedings Meat & Livestock Australia’s Consumer Insights Manager Emma Gillingham offered another view in response to an audience question on how the industry could best approach the challenge reducing confusion for consumers on the health and benefits of red meat.
“In some ways for a lot of consumers you’re not going to win that rational argument,” she said.
“If you present them with a lot of data and information around how red meat is healthy some will understand and acknowledge that, and others wont.
“So rather than trying to go on the defensive and saying ‘no, red meat actually is healthy’, it is more around how you show that to consumers.
“What we have seen that is quite effective is recipe inspirations for example. We have found through our consumer research that by presenting those meal options with other healthy ingredients and the role that red meat plays with the other meal components is a way of showing consumers without telling them.
“So it is a sort of ‘show, don’t tell’ approach – the more they see of those ideas and those meals and think okay that is something I could make, and with a bit of guidance around the portion size and the role that red meat can pay alongside other proteins is really going to be the more effective way of getting that message across to consumers.”
Research she presented during the forum showed that Australian red meat remains in a very strong position with consumers despite some of the current price pressures and forces working to undermine it.
Beef and land are still highly popular proteins on the plates of Australian households with 95 percent of Australians buying beef and 76pc buying lamb.
Growing populations mean there will need to be a 69 percent increase in the amount of food calories produced to meet needs of the global population by 2050.
She said there are four major interconnected trends in particular that are likely to impact future red meat consumption patterns – Sustainability and the environment; Total health and wellbeing; Convenience and Increasingly connected consumers.
In particular consumers are focusing on products that are “healthy for me and healthy for the world”.
She said consumer research showed that the majority fo consumers do feel positively about the red meat industry and feel good about the Australian beef and sheep industries.
Generally consumers also thought farmers were doing all they can to look after the environment and reduce their environmental impact.
“So there is an opportunity to continue to maintain that positive perception in consumer’s minds,” she said.
“That means we can help tell red meat’s story from paddock to plate and help ensure the community understands the contribution that the industry makes.”
One growth area witnessed in supermarkets that is aligned with the total health and wellbeing trend has been significant growth in the number of “high protein” products being promoted.
Consumer research indicated that while some consumers saw plant-based meat substitutes as a healthy option and better for the environment, they were not universally appealing, with one in three consumers saying they would not be willing to try them.
Compared to the 96pc of households that are buying beef, only 13pc of households across Australia indicated they had purchased plant-based meat substitute products in the past year.