Steve Nelson

Evolution of Technology, Society Views, Will Test Agriculture

This month’s cover story about protein being grown in a lab is a stark reminder that the world is constantly changing. For just a second, think about what our great grandfathers, who only knew farming with horses and mules, must have thought when they saw their first tractor. Or how about John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert. They invented the first digital computer in 1946. It occupied roughly 1,800 square feet and weighed almost 50 tons. Would they have believed that within the next 70 years that the computing power of their 50-ton monster could be scaled down into a smart phone that would fit into their pocket? My point is that things are constantly changing. We don’t always know what’s around the corner, particularly as it relates to technology and its application to our world.

The idea of growing protein on a mass scale in a lab may seem impossible today, but we never know what tomorrow holds. Similarly, society’s views on the role of animals is changing. Just recently the Omaha World Herald reported on a new research project at the University of Nebraska that will focus on dog psychology and behavior to help try to answer the question “what is your dog thinking”. That’s a long way from the animal science classes I remember at the University. Future generations who lack the direct connection to production agriculture are likely to struggle as to why one animal sits on our lap and another on our plate. It’s one of the reasons investments are being made in lab grown protein. It’s also one of the reasons current and future generations of agriculture producers have their work cut out for them. It’s critical that we not only work to connect with consumers, but that we work to fill evolving markets.

I had the chance to see some of this first hand recently at an open house event at Walnut Range Farms near Alma, Nebraska. Walnut Range was started by Forrest and Jessica Swanson along with their daughter Piper. They’re fifth and sixth generation farmers and ranchers, and a young couple who have launched a direct-to-market grass fed beef and heritage breed pork operation. While they’re working to fill a market, you need only visit their website to see they know the importance of reaching out to consumers in relatable ways by sharing their story and their values, and in the process building their brand.

It’s a similar type of brand building that agriculture and beef producers are fighting for right now when it comes to lab produced protein. Beef producers have invested millions of dollars to ensure that when people hear the words “beef” they think “its what’s for dinner” and picture a cowboy and sizzling steak on the grill. To allow products grown in a lab to use similar terminology weakens the brand. It’s the reason the American Farm Bureau adopted policy initiated by Farm Bureau members in Nebraska to prohibit commonly recognized “meat” terms in the labeling and advertising of all lab-grown and plant-based alternatives.

At the end of the day the old saying is true – the consumer is always right. With that in mind it’s up to us in agriculture to connect with consumers while continuing to provide high-quality products that fill the demands of the various markets that exist. It’s also our responsibility to continue to protect the investments we’ve made in our brands, in a world that is in a constant state of change.

Until Next Time,

Steve Nelson