Temple Grandin made a stop in Wichita to address the National Farmers Union, using her remarks to touch on livestock disease resistance and other far-reaching ideas.

Just days after parts of two counties in southeast Kansas were placed under quarantine to contain the spread of highly contagious bird flu, Colorado State University animal scientist Temple Grandin made a stop in Wichita to address the National Farmers Union, using her remarks to touch on livestock disease resistance and other far-reaching ideas.

The poultry outbreak affecting at least three states carries echoes of last year’s problems with porcine epidemic diarrhea, or PED, which wiped out nearly 20 percent of the U.S. hog industry almost overnight. (Neither situation is considered a threat to human health.) Grandin said the bird flu outbreak was most likely due to droppings from Canadian geese migrating overhead and downplayed any role increasingly concentrated livestock production systems might have.

“It’s a factor, but it isn’t quite that simple,” she said.

In her prepared remarks, she explained her thoughts further by saying, “Big is not bad, it’s fragile. Deep down inside we know that, and I think it has something to do with all of this interest in buying local.”

Size and concentration aside, she said animal agriculture should take recent disease outbreaks as a wakeup call.

“We have some worries now,” she said. “We better breed some resistance into these animals even if we have to give up some production. We’ve got to think about what’s the optimal thing to do. We’ve got to worry about the root causes of our problems.”

She pointed to the dairy industry, which is increasingly plagued with structural and fertility defects due to single-trait selection for high milk production. The resulting offspring are vulnerable to what she called “biological overload.”

“Lameness in the dairy industry has gotten worse in the last five years, not better,” she said.

Overall, however, she felt like the livestock industry was making progress on animal welfare standards and awareness. “What I’m seeing is that the bad videos are not as bad,” she said. She was referring to undercover videos released to the public by activist groups that seem to show those doing the filming are having a harder time finding incriminating footage and trained animal scientists are having an easier time discounting their concerns.

Animal welfare recommendations, such as guidelines she developed in conjunction with the North American Meat Institute, should focus on “real practical type of stuff” that can be easily implemented into animal welfare programs of any size, she said.

As evidence of her broad appeal, Grandin made her remarks to NFU less than four months after she was invited to speak at the national convention of the American Farm Bureau, the country’s largest general farm organization, where she was awarded a Distinguished Service Award.

Many in the audience expressed enthusiasm for Grandin and her work.

Steve Wright, a farmer from Madison, Missouri, said she made thought-provoking points on disease resistance and the value of genetic diversity. “Are we narrowing our gene pool too much?” he wondered. “Are we breeding our animals to be weaker when now nobody wants us to use antibiotics in meat production?”

Consumers need a healthy respect for science, he said, but farmers also need to be willing to ask tough questions and insist that the science they rely on is thorough and judicious.

Grandin’s observations went beyond agriculture and consumer perception to include insights on the modern educational system.

She tied a general lack of knowledge about where food comes from to bigger shifts in American culture. She noted that roughly a third of today’s kids have never been on a farm.

“Consumers are totally removed from the world of practical things,” she said. “There’s a huge shortage of people in the skilled trades.”

She also said education is becoming too abstract and not enough hands-on. She gave the hypothetical example of a student at Harvard whose sole focus is getting a job at Goldman Sachs.

“We need to be getting kids into real things. A lot of kids aren’t getting exposed to enough stuff,” she said. “In order to find out what they are interested in, they have to be exposed to it.”

In her case, her first introduction to cattle came in high school, which led to a trail-blazing career as an animal scientist that shattered barriers for both women and those with autism while advancing the livestock industry. Grandin said she had concerns about the prevalence of personal electronics, saying today’s youngsters no longer know what it means to “Google” information because they are growing up “lost inside the Internet.”

On a brighter note, she credited 3-D printing as one example of technology that moves people from the virtual world to the real one, forming a constructive bridge between the two.