Pretty much every author, pundit or commentator who opines on the future, will eventually toss around the phrase “a paradigm shift.” But what does that mean? Here’s what it doesn’t mean: With regard to production methods, it doesn’t mean merely changing tactics, or implementing a few novel ideas, or even committing to investments in pilot projects involving emerging technologies.

Rather, a paradigm shift involves a conscious reinvention of the basic principles and priorities that govern not just what, but why decisions are made socially, politically and commercially.

Here’s an example I can relate from personal experience.

Back in the Prehistoric Age of the 1970s, before streaming video, smartphone technology, wireless Internet — heck, before FM radio, for godsakes — I had the “career opportunity” to spend several years working for a forestry company that had contracted with USDA to conduct reforestation, aka, tree- planting, on a number of clearcuts in western Oregon.

To access the upper slopes of these units, it was necessary to hike through the low-lying acreage, which had been logged off years earlier in the 1950s. It seemed shocking to me that we had to navigate around and/or clamber over dozens and dozens of huge fir and cedar logs neatly bucked into 16- and 24-foot lengths. Some of these logs were six or even eight feet in diameter, and even though the trees had been felled decades earlier, many were still relatively intact.

I asked the project inspector, “How come all these logs were left behind?” He replied offhandedly, “Oh, they probably had checks (cracks) or pitch rings, and so they only took the prime logs.”

Talk about waste: Clearcut an entire stand of timber, then take only the top third of the logs? It would be unconscionable today. Every one of those abandoned logs would find some use, if not as high-end lumber then as raw materials for plywood, chipboard or even bark mulch. These days, no timber outfit or sawmill operator would leave those logs lying on the forest floor. It would be insane, not to mention financially devastating.

But in the immediate post-war era, timber in the Pacific Northwest seemed limitless, so who cared if a bunch of less desirable logs were left on the ground? There’s another timber stand to be clearcut the next hill over.

A question of priorities

It took many years, but both commercially and ecologically, the paradigm about the use of timber resources slowly shifted. Not only was money being lost, but it was eventually deemed irresponsible to cut down trees, buck them into logs, then leaving them behind. That was a waste of what was now understood as a resource that, although renewable over the long term, was very finite, indeed.

Efficiency, rather than selectivity, became the governing paradigm in the logging industry.

I’d argue that a similar paradigm shift need to accelerate in animal agriculture.

There are a fair number of innovations and techno-fixes in place to deal with manure management; there are experimental efforts to develop better grazing management schemes; and many producers and operators have invested in ways to better manage inputs and by-products.

However, until the prevailing paradigm is that every single aspect of breeding, feeding and management needs to be fully optimized; until every single rancher producer or feeder has localized systems to capture energy, to recycle water and to aggressively conserve and utilize land, feed, and every other resource to its maximum efficiency, not only are profits being bypassed, but the public’s perception of the industry will continue to skew negatively.

Without an industrywide shift in values and actions that prioritize a wholesale commitment to efficiency and sustainability, the average unaware, disconnected urban resident will continue to view livestock production the way I looked at the loggers way back when ago: an industry that wastes too much, that isn’t environmentally conscious, and that appears not to care that, like trees, rangeland, feed stuffs and energy inputs are not unlimited resources. 

 

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.