Farmers grapple with how to respond to new meat alternatives

    Cattle in snow (NTV News)

    Ranchers care for their cattle in good weather and bad. On her farm, Hilary Maricle says she tries to remember who the consumer is.

    “All of us as a farmer, need to be someone's farmer,” she said.

    Now, high tech food companies are racing to bring new alternatives to the grocery store, saying they can deliver the taste of meat without what they see as harmful effects of livestock production.

    “Conventional production and slaughter practices are inhumane, unsafe, and environmentally destructive,” said Elizabeth Holtz of the Animal Legal Defense Fund as a recent hearing by the USDA and FDA.

    Nebraska Farm Bureau members are hashing out their position on these new products developed from animal tissue in a lab.

    Part of that is what agency should regulate it, the other is what to call it.

    Farm Bureau’s Director of National Affairs Jordan Dux said, “We are very nervous about what words are being used. Words matter. When you have an industry talking about clean meat, there's obviously a dirty side and that's what they're trying to brand us as. We need to work through this, what we call this, how it's regulated, that's the conversation we're trying to have right now.”

    As consumers look for alternatives, it could create opportunities for farmers who grow things like peas that can be used in plant-based products.

    “There are benefits to farmers, there are benefits to younger producers, anyone else who wants to be involved, there's a market there. We're not trying to say any of this stuff is bad, we're not trying to say any of this stuff can't be produced and consumed, but again we want to protect titles and names our producers have paid for,” Dux said.

    However, when it comes specifically to meat sourced from a lab, farmers think consumers will continue to buy traditional products from the farm.

    Maricle said, “There's going to be a huge cost differential, so I really think the lab meat is going to hit a very small niche market.”

    And while she thinks it will be a small market, she thinks those in the business of raising livestock need to tell their story.

    “We just need to get out there and make sure people understand the value of our protein products we are growing to put on people's plates,” she said.

    On the regulatory side, both the Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration are involved. Congress has not acted on the issue.

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