Many of our readers will know Temple Grandin as the Colorado State University Animal Science Professor who despite (or perhaps because of) her autism has had a hand in designing livestock facilities around the world, working with corporations such as McDonald’s, Chipotle and Whole Foods. She has appeared on Larry King Live, 60 Minutes, a TED Talk, and was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential people.
Taking to the stage, Dr. Grandin decided that the world had had enough of her “Improving Cattle Stockmanship 2nd Edition” presentation and instead delivered a wide-ranging, very entertaining and largely off-the-cuff presentation that moved through a number of topics that perhaps can be best described as exploring the theme of unintended consequences.
The first was in relation to “bad becoming normal.” Often, when we set out to solve a problem, we focus too narrowly and end up with unanticipated results. Think genetic selection or breed for a single trait. Examples she gave include the “Rapist Roosters” that Grandin spoke of in her book “Animals in Translation,” where breeding programs intended to select for larger breasts and white meat resulted in hyper-aggressive roosters with poor courtship skills. A more benign example involves how, as a result of selecting cattle for docility, the industry has dialed back the fear response to the extent that we are now able to observe a much wider range of emotions in cattle (such as curiosity).
From this, she expressed two frustrations: 1) while a lot of great research is being done, genetic and otherwise, to improve the livestock industry, unfortunately much of it is done privately and thus proprietary, and can result in said unintended consequences spreading when they should be contained; and 2) very positive results are prevented from wider adoption when they would benefit animals and people. As an aside, Grandin also noted the prevalence of the myopic expectation that advances in genetics, engineering, and/or equipment will solve our problems when in fact they account for only half of the solution. The other half falls to us; it is management that must step forward to solve the other half.
Grandin’s second overarching theme was that “big is fragile,” which has led society to worry about sustainability. Locally-sourced food is comforting because deep down on a psychological level, we know that big is fragile and we wonder what will happen to us if “the Walmart truck doesn’t arrive.”. Local, sustainable food provides security.
And finally, we should be careful of what we wish for. The future holds all sorts of potential but we need to step into it with our eyes wide open: CRISPR technology that allows us to select for “no horns” may, as in the roosters example, select for something that looks similar but results in unintended consequences; a) synthetic meat may provide a “humane” alternative to livestock production but b) it’s probably a GMO, c) may require huge energy inputs to achieve, and d) as a monoculture grown in vats, holds enormous potential for diseases to flourish during production.
Stepping forward isn’t bad in and of itself but we should be careful about how we do it and what we wish for. Bad becomes normal… and big is fragile!