When you listen to economic futurist Lowell Catlett, PhD, you can’t help but be inspired.

Speaking to over 1,000 attendees at the 2013 Cattlemen’s College, sponsored by Zoetis, at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association meeting in Tampa this morning, Catlett did not disappoint.

Delivering the keynote address, the regent’s professor in agricultural economics, agricultural business and extension economics at New Mexico State University, Catlett had the crowd both laughing one minute and in serious thought the next as he talked about where we’ve been, where we are and the boundless potential of where we, in agriculture, can be in the future.

Catlett said the United States has been through many ups and downs and economic turns and twists. “During the first energy crisis years ago gasoline doubled from 32 cents to 64 cents and we had people crying that the economy was going to go into a standstill,” he said.

“But in recent history when gas got to $4 a gallon, most Americans shrugged their shoulders and still kept their Hummers. We managed through it. And we get our jobs done.”

In the 1980s Catlett said it was worrisome to many that “all manufacturing was moving to Japan, all of the biggest world banks were Japanese and our great America would be gone.” Not true, he explained.

“Only one of the 10 largest banks now is Japanese. America manufactures more things today than at any time in history and we manufacture more things than anyone in the world. No matter what gets thrown at us, we get up and go to work.” Catlett relates that to growing up on a ranch in Texas when things didn’t always go his way. “My dad used to say ‘when you’re done whining, the cows still need to be fed’. We are resilient.”

Changing world

Now in its 20th year, Cattlemen’s College, which takes places immediately prior to NCBA’s opening events, offers a wide range of informative, one of a kind hands-on workshops and classes designed for cattle operations of every size and sector, and cattlemen and cattlewomen of all ages.  

“When Cattlemen’s College started we didn’t talk about carbon sequestration, climate change or market price of corn like we do now, and in the next 20 years we’ll talk about different things than these,” Catlett said. “We get through these changes. The resilience of the human spirit is incredible as we experience different crises and changes.”

Catlett said the beef industry is strategically placed to grow and we have to think about that growth. “Seven billion people live on this planet, and one billion live a good life. They can demand natural or organic or free range or traceable products.” Another billion is on their way there.

One more billion, he said, has come out of abject poverty to a better standard of living. “They want beef. And per capita consumption is increasing. In the last five years we saw over 300 million Chinese wanting beef. They want to have a higher quality and standard of life.” The remaining four billion, said Catlett, still struggle just to maintain a living.

Catlett noted that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, working on eradicating health problems in Africa and other places with subsistence living, found out the health of a people is intricately tied to farming and raising of cattle and living an agricultural life.

“They found an interesting statistic -- slightly more than half of those farmers are female. If the women farmers are given the same access to credit and inputs as men, they are 30% more productive. You will then have a whole bunch of those four billion people who will want more beef.”

Catlett said the world is rising in income and quality of life. “It may not happen in our lifetime, but that that demand will come. And that is phenomenal.”

Technology will “blow off the doors”

Catlett spoke about the future technology will play in agriculture and food production. “We have a whole generation raised on a cell phone. What started as something to transmit a voice has become silent -- 85% of all use is for something that doesn’t use a voice such as text, email and photos. We didn’t forecast those uses when it was developed.” He said in 2004 when cameras were added to phones, camera giant Kodak, which developed the digital camera, didn’t get in on it and later filed for bankruptcy.

The lesson is taking advantage of those trends, he said. “The demand for beef knows no bounds. If you don’t do it, someone will. Apple was a minor player in the computer market, but it took over the cell phone industry.”

Catlett said the advent of apps for phones is changing the world. “We have the technology for a simple app to do a blood test. Will that be used in veterinary medicine? We have apps that can analyze a skin tumor or scan a fingerprint and send your heart rate to your doctor. The manifestations of what we are going to be able to do with this will blow your doors off. Applications are portable and will change human diagnostics and animal health, the likes of which you can only dream of.”

Open source software can create apps that can pinpoint weather via GPS and transmit it realtime. “Think how that could help forecast to the hour when to cut hay or harvest crops,” he said.

“If you can monitor herd health through different apps, transmit animal health data and could potentially stave off an infectious disease, don’t you think people would be interested in that? You are going to get paid for things you are giving away now in ways you’ve never dreamed possible.”

Catlett said embracing technology and responding to current and future needs will continue to help American agriculture, and beef producers, maintain their vital role in world food production.