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We are all China

What lessons can be drawn from the current situation in China in order to face future pork production threats beyond health issues?

Wednesday 29 May 2019 (2 months 23 days ago)
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Let’s take a break from ASF market impact saturation and consider for a moment the broader implications emerging for global pork production which China is currently teaching us. Similar lessons are coming to many pork producing countries in the relatively near future which will likely be on par with what our Chinese colleagues are currently facing down. Mitigating the full consequences of what’s coming will require you to be much more deeply steeped in innovation as a fundamental characteristic of your business.

Innovation, literally “subsumed in the newness”, is the process of constantly producing the next solution before you are flattened by the collapse caused by the inadequacy of the present. Most people cannot get there and stay there because the conventional wisdom about nearly everything has a death grip promising short-term risk reduction that is too compelling. Yet to succeed in the future, you will discover that embracing innovation as a foundation principle will be an absolute requirement because the pace of change is set to quicken dramatically.

If you really get what happened in China, you know it is not first about lax bio-security, even though bio-security is critical, not only at the farm level but at the regional and national level too. Consider this case as a manifestation of technological “leap frogging” that went terribly wrong. Developing countries have had tremendous success at completely bypassing some of the technological phases of development which are integral to the path taken by developed countries like the EU and US. This is known as technological leapfrogging.

Watch your children or young nieces and nephews maneuver around a smartphone or tablet and consider what you were doing at their age. They won’t be needing those spare pocket notepads you picked up at the booth at the trade show or those little stick up calendars. They will also pass on your 35mm camera, a house phone, calculator (much less your old slide-rule HA!). You’re getting the picture I assume? Will robotics soon simply eliminate labor-intensive development phases that persisted for over two centuries in industrialized countries like the EU and USA? Of course, they will.

Given the insights above, if you were going to construct, almost from scratch, a modern pork production system on a mega-scale and at a rapid pace like China is attempting, would you transplant the current European and US pork production systems atop a bubbling cauldron of dramatic change bursting out throughout the country?

Consider the historical emergence in the US and the EU of swine specialized veterinary care and consulting. The presence of diagnostic labs, governmental oversight in weights and measures, pollution control and manure nutrient utilization rather than disposal as the objective. Consider new site permitting as the end-product of a multi-attribute evaluation by an interdisciplinary team of engineers and community planners with enough time to minimize a host of future problems. Add the development of roadways capable of transporting large groups of animals by lorry, modern harvesting plants and safe food distribution up the market chain to the final consumer and price transparency between markets etc. The US and EU production systems were uniquely shaped by the conjoint development of a myriad of support systems unique to their settings and not yet present in modern China (because there was no need for them). Robust systems here were fragile there.

So while Chinese data analysts at pork farms are well ahead of the EU and the US in the use of artificial intelligence methods to manage pork production, their systems have this fully bloomed Achilles heel that negates these contributions. Speaking of Achilles heels, what is your current thinking about how to compete when “clean meat”, a cell cultured substitute for what you do, develops the right flavor, texture and sensory attributes, sustainability features, global resource renewability advantages, low cost, and dramatic health improvement impacts that upend your plans for an ever growing export market? If your first thought is striving to lower your cost of production to remain competitive your heel will soon feel the pain. Investments by the big food companies in this technology are surging and governments are getting ready to mandate it at significant levels in schools, militaries, federal and state cafeterias, fast foods etc. Our current systems are built on a conventional wisdom foundation that will not support them soon. Begin to embrace innovation because at the end of the day, we are all China.

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