The former chief executive officer of the country’s largest meat processor appealed to a University of Nebraska-Lincoln audience on Tuesday to speak up for conventional agriculture practices criticized by environmental and health activists.
Donnie Smith retired from Tyson Foods in 2016 and still consults for the Arkansas agribusiness, which has meatpacking plants in Nebraska.
He compared concern over genetically modified food ingredients and large-scale livestock operations to a “War of the Worlds” radio report of Martians, saying misinformation is spreading online.
Removed from the farm, consumers today are “gullible” to what they read on social media and see in documentary-style films that criticize farm practices, Smith said.
“They have no idea how their food gets to their table,” he said.
Smith said the university and farmers themselves should take a role in promoting agriculture technologies such as GMO crops, which he said enable agribusinesses to raise food efficiently and inexpensively through improved tolerance of drought and herbicide.
Nebraska ag students and farmers can use social media, speaking engagements and their own documentaries, he said.
“Teach students to tell the story ... in a way their peer group can understand,” he said.
The evening speech was the second of this season’s Heuermann Lectures. Sponsored by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the lectures include topics in food, agriculture, natural resources, rural communities and immigration.
Tyson, along with other major agribusinesses, has been a target of activists who say the companies need to do more to adopt sustainable practices.
Tyson says it does its part, including conserving water in its manufacturing processes and following federal rules about water discharge.
In a campaign last fall, the Washington, D.C.-based environmental organization Mighty Earth led protests and a petition drive in Omaha and other cities asking Tyson to go further by auditing the farms from which it sources grain.
The group wants Tyson to press those farms to minimize their contribution to water pollution through more careful application of fertilizer, minimal tillage and planting cover crops.
“While Tyson is doing a lot of work to highlight the sustainable practices they’re using, they can’t be a sustainable company until they use grains from sustainable sources,” campaign organizer Michael Greenberg told The World-Herald.
Smith, in his lecture, said farmers do look to conserve natural resources, on which they depend for their livelihood.
“It’s incredibly incumbent upon us to be stewards of the resources we have to provide great, safe, affordable and abundant food.”