U.S. agriculture holds strong, but has room for improvement in global markets
With international beef trade topping concerns for many, and with many new trade agreements recently forged, the position of the United States and North America in the global marketplace is strong, but there are opportunities available to improve trade relationships further.
To analyze the position of the U.S. in global markets, Rod Bowling of AgriFood Solutions International and Mike Smith of Harris Ranch looked at environment and sustainability, product availability, food safety, foreign animal disease, traceability and labor concerns.
A trading unit
In looking at global markets, Bowling says he views North America as three cooperating countries, rather than competitors.
“I don’t see Canada and Mexico as the opposition,” comments Bowling. “They are part of our trading unit. We do more important exports with those two countries than any of the others in the world.”
Bowling adds that it is important for the U.S. to build and maintain a strong relationship with Mexico and Canada.
“Water is the next oil, in my opinion,” says Bowling. “Our biggest challenge, as far as environment and sustainability, is probably water.”
Bowling says water use is significant in packing plants, citing that a large packing plant may use 2 million gallons of water each day.
“We’ve used irrigation and packinghouse water like there was no end, and I think it is incumbent upon us to work things out so we can recycle the water in all of ag – not just in the packing plants,” he says, noting that operations must be careful to also have clean water sources.
Despite water use, packing plants and the beef industry have been able to maintain an adequate beef supply.
“We have made some dramatic improvements in genetics and the way we feed cattle, and we have been able to keep a fairly consistent supply,” says Smith. “My concern is whether we can continue to make sure we have enough product to sell.”
He notes that the developing countries are seeing an increase in disposable income, and meeting the protein needs of those countries may become more difficult.
Food safety standpoint
Bowling also criticizes the U.S. tendency to move away from Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HAACP) measures in food safety, saying that current testing strategies would only identify the presence of significant contamination.
“We are struggling to manage E. coli O157:H7, and the government is stepping up to include another six strains,” he says. “If we can’t manage one, how are we going to manage seven?”
To solve food safety concerns, Bowling suggests returning to HAACP and moving away from measurement techniques.
“We can’t sample enough to find the pathogens. We need to use the interventions as they were intended and use testing as it was intended,” he explains. “From a food safety standpoint, I would give the U.S. higher marks than the rest of the world, but we have challenges.”
Diseases and traceability
The potential for foreign animal diseases to enter the U.S. could decimate export markets, according to Bowling, who states that, 10 years after BSE hit in 2003, the country is only now beginning to recover in terms of credibility, adding that he is concerned the event didn’t trigger more conversations regarding traceability.
“It was a sentinel event, and we didn’t make it through and get a good traceability system,” he says.
Smith also comments on traceability, saying, “For some reason, producers in the U.S. have the inability to make the decision that we need a traceability system.”
He continues, “We sit down and have meetings, discuss and argue over and over. When we ask the USDA to get involved, we cut their legs out from underneath them. It boggles my mind, and I think we are way behind the ball in terms of developing a traceability system.”
Bowling notes that without a system of traceability, locating disease origins would be difficult, if not impossible, in the event of an outbreak. “My biggest fear from a foreign animal disease standpoint is foot-and-mouth disease (FMD).”
Bowling remarks that FMD hasn’t been seen in the U.S. since 1929, and if it emerges again, he sees a large challenge in getting the disease out again, particularly in feral hog and wildlife populations.
“FMD is 100 percent infective – if the animal is exposed they will get it, and it can travel up to eight miles in the air,” Bowling explains. “My fear is that we would never get our export credibility back if foot-and-mouth disease came in.”
He notes that an outbreak would be costly as well, mentioning an outbreak in the United Kingdom cost $8 billion.
“It’s a problem and I think we need to go beyond where we are with APHIS now,” he says. “I also think we need to try to find a genetic solution to FMD.”
Smith also says, “I do think we have some protection relative to animal disease, but the question is how good are they?”
Smith also says the presence of an adequate labor force to run operations is dwindling and provides an additional challenge for agriculture.
“I know that there are bright, aggressive young individuals out there,” says Smith, adding that, for agriculture, some production knowledge is necessary. “Young people who want to get involved should work in internship programs and make sure they gain some background knowledge as far as how and why we traditionally do things.”
He also says being realistic is important for young people entering the workforce. “It seems like they want to make $60,000, get three weeks of vacation a year, and expect to move rapidly within the organization. That expectation isn’t realistic.”
Particularly in the ag industry, Smith says finding reliable, capable labor can be tough.
Opportunities in the U.S. are abundant, however and Smith says to young people in agriculture, “The world is your oyster, and the opportunities are there.”
Bowling and Smith presented at the 2012 International Livestock Congress on Jan. 10. Saige Albert is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.