THE head of one of the world’s largest animal health companies has a simple message for Australian livestock industries: abandon political correctness in the debate over the importance of technology in helping meet growing demand for safe, nutritious and affordable food.
Jeff Simmons (pictured) is global president of Elanco Animal Health, which produces a catalogue of productivity enhancement products across the beef, pork, chicken and sheepmeat sectors. Elanco records annual sales of more than $2 billion in 75 countries.
He spoke last week to a capacity audience at a lunch hosted by the Queensland Rural Press Club in Brisbane.
His address suggested than more efficient food production can help end world hunger, lower food costs, protect consumer rights and safeguard natural resources. Achieving this, however, will require protecting the rights of the entire food chain to use new and existing technologies while sustaining consumer choice.
Mr Simmons is actively engaged in the global debate on the need for food security, the global demands on flood protein and how technology can help deliver affordable, safe and abundant food for a rapidly growing world population. He is currently on an eight week tour across the world visiting 25 countries to share his views
“One of our biggest problems is that we, as part of the food value chain, spend a lot of time talking to people who actually support us, rather than the people who really need to hear us,” he told the Brisbane audience.
He said over the next 50 years, the world needed 100 percent more food, and 70 pc of that growth had to come via efficiency-enhancing technologies – effectively, ‘innovation’.
Mr Simmons said his views on the topic reached a cathartic turning point when he attended a leadership workshop as part of a food and agriculture conference at Harvard University in 2008.
“In the first hour I heard comments like ‘beef causes cancer’, ‘we’ve got to move more people away from eating meet’, ‘we have to get rid of any technology,’ ‘we need more free-range animals,’ ‘we need to put more controls in place, and let our governments run our food chain’.”
“My blood started to boil, but I also started watching what these people were doing, and how they were going about their business. They were articulate; they knew their story; and in 30 seconds, could stand up and effectively communicate exactly how they felt. They were convincing.”
“It didn’t matter that they were dead-wrong, but they actually believed what they were saying. And they thought what they were saying and doing could make a difference,” Mr Simmons said.
“They didn’t care about political correctness. That’s the criteria that the food industry needs to work to – believing, being articulate, standing up and not being politically-correct in responding to such claims.”
Mr Simmons said food, agriculture, animal production and technology was coming into a window of opportunity, where it had to speak-up and abandon political correctness in getting its message across to the broader community.
“We have to do something here. This is critical. We’re making a lot of progress, but it’s the communicators and the leaders in animal production that can make the difference.”
Mr Simmons chose three important numbers to illustrate his views on agriculture’s approach to feeding the world. Those numbers were 3, 60, and 1.5.
“We have three billion people worldwide moving from poverty into the middle class. There will be more people joining the middle class over the next five years than at any time in the history of man,” he said.
The first thing consumers did when they moved from poverty to middle class was change their diet, consuming more meat-based protein, moving from rice and beans to meat, eggs and milk.
“In Australia’s case, it is sitting with some of the most abundant resources needed to feed the region where the biggest proportion of these new middle class consumers will be located: Asia,” he said.
The second of his three chosen numbers was 60, referring to the global need for 60 percent more meat, milk and eggs.
Animal protein demand growth was exponential, and was happening in markets of all sizes, in all regions.
Mr Simmons’ third important number was 1.5.
“Jason Clay, head of the World Wildlife Fund, one of the most outspoken people on the environment, says we are living on a planet-and-a-half. By August 27 each year, we’ve used up all the resources we are supposed to use in the course of a year, and after that, we’re on overtime.”
“The clear message is that whatever you believe about climate change and other matters, we must do it, with less,” he said.
“So there are three billion people entering middle class, requiring 60 percent more meat, milk and eggs – but the world has to do that with less resources.”
Mr Simmons used his own company, Elanco to illustrate one of the current challenges facing agriculture.
“In my company, there are four divisional presidents in the field of human pharmaceuticals: Diabetes, Cancer, Alzheimer’s and Auto-immune diseases. Then there’s my division, Animal Health.”
“First of all, more people across the world die of malnutrition (25,000 each day) than those four diseases. And secondly, we know our solution, while they do not, yet.”
The other side of the equation was not just a food volume challenge, but a food quality challenge, which animal protein could help correct.
“Diabetes is one of the biggest epidemics on the world. We need to start replacing softdrinks in diets with milk. We need to take some of the sugar out of the diet and replace it with beef and eggs. This nutrition story is part of the next green-field for our industry in the debate, and we need to partner closely with nutritionists in this message,” Mr Simmons said.
He highlighted, also, the need to “protect the tradition of food.”
“Californians four years ago ticked a box that said, “let’s raise chickens outside. That sounded good in a ballot box on a Tuesday night. Four years later, California went from being a net exporter of eggs to a net importer – mostly cheaper eggs from Mexico.”
“We have to protect the tradition of food, and it has many faces. It’s not just hunger – I call it food security.”
Mr Simmons said there were three ways to solve the ‘3, 60, 1.5’ numbers problem he highlighted earlier.
The first was innovation. “The industry has enough innovation in pipelines round the world to feed ten billion people,” he said. “We can do this now, through innovative practices, genetics and products.”
“The second is choice. For those voters in California that were convinced to vote for free-range eggs, I say I don’t mind if you personally want to buy free-range eggs, but don’t take choice away, by making it a policy. Let farmers be regulated by science, not by activists. We need to change that.”
The third part of Mr Simmons solution was trade.
“Trade is important. Meat, milk and eggs must move (based on relative efficiency and comparative advantage), and every time I’m in a country that ‘shouldn’t be feeding itself’ (like Dubai, Puerto Rico or Morocco) where production of these proteins is difficult, – I can’t help but think it’s not good for the environment.”
We need to make meat, milk and eggs move, and do it in this next ten years more than ever.”
Six corners to the new game
Mr Simmons described six ‘corners’ he saw as part of the new game in efficiently feeding a changing world.
He listed these as:
- Science – “Outcomes must be science-based”
- Consumers – “Keeping the consumer interest in focus”
- Animal well-being – “Considering the well-being of the animal”
- Ethical – “The right thing to do in food and agriculture”
- Sustainability – “Limited or negative impacts”, and
- Economics – “Shared opportunity for all players.”
“We (Elanco, animal health companies and the livestock industries) as innovation people, screwed up a lot over the past two decades in our approach to this,” Mr Simmons said.
“We sat in the corner and pushed it as ‘it’s safe’, ‘it’s backed by good science’ and ‘its carrying the right regulatory approvals’. But instead we have to address these issues using all six corners.
“Science remains important, but so too are consumers, the moral corner and the others. The sustainability and environmental story are front-of-mind among the big global retailers.”
But the six-corner topic of greatest interest around the world was the consumer, he said. To engage effectively with the consumer, agriculture had to move with a changing world, replacing ‘headlines’ with ‘media mentions’; ‘aided’ questions with ‘unaided’ questions; and ‘call inquiries’ with consumer questions.
“Consumer spending is how we find out what consumers really want,” Mr Simmons said.
“Any time I sit down with a retailer or large food service company like a McDonald’s, I push them to tell me about the media mentions or unaided questions, not what people on call lines are telling them: call lines are for complainers.”
“Get out the purchase cards, because money matters, and that captures the real consumer sentiment.”
Mr Simmons said organic food sales went backwards for the first time in Europe last year.
“Some 25 to 30pc of European consumers say they want organics, but at store level, sales are only at low single digits. Unaided questions about consumer spending is how we find out what consumers really want.”
He used global statistics on internet ‘conversations’ to illustrate just how small issues like antibiotics were, in the context of overall meat, milk and poultry discussion.
“Globally across the entire world in January, there were 68,000 mentions of antibiotics on the internet. On a relative basis, it is a very small conversation, when in just a single day, global meat conversations on the internet topped 27 billion. It’s less than a quarter of one percent.
“You sit down and show that to a major supermarket retailer like Walmart, and it starts to put things into perspective. It’s why the greatest tool for agriculture in jumping into the conversation is the internet and social media.”
“We’ve seen more change of opinion among major retailers in the past 12 months with this type of information than we have seen in 60 years as a company.”
While there was 1pc of global consumers who wanted something different, and were prepared to pay for it, 99pc of consumers were still focussed on just three things – taste, cost and nutrition, Mr Simmons said.
He suggested Australia had to ‘lead the world’ in the challenge of producing another 43pc more beef by 2050, given current population and economic changes.
“There’s a couple of ways we can do it. We can add an extra 710 million head of cattle and buffalo to existing herds, and continue to use only the farming practices we have today.”
“Or we can do something different. The global average to grow a steer out to slaughter weight is five years. But using the right innovation, we have to pick up three years, and turn that into a two-year cycle to reach slaughter weights.
This is why we have to step into the battle and have conversations with those people who say, ‘Let’s take technology away’. We can actually have no more animals and give the world 60 percent more protein that we do today, using technology.”
Mr Simmons closed with his response to the claim that ‘meat isn’t needed.’
“More and more studies are being done around the world, proving the significance of animal-based proteins in diets for cognitive skills,” he said
Like many others, this study (see graphic) of children in Kenya over the course of five school semesters, showed a sharp rise in learning and test scores when their diets were supplemented with meat.
“We have to use information like this to span the gap to defend the importance of animal-based protein in children’s diets.”
Sheep Central’s questions to Jeff Simmons
During questiontime, Beef Central asked Mr Simmons what impact, if any, current pockets of consumer resistance against commonly used livestock productivity drivers like antibiotics, HGPs, ionophores and beta agonists were having on Elanco’s appetite for livestock R&D investment. Secondly, we asked whether there was anything coming down the innovation pipeline that could tick both boxes – enhancing productivity, while satisfying those individuals that held concerns over current productivity tools.
“GREAT question,” he said.
“When I started with Elanco, we had four people working in corporate affairs. Today, we have over 250,” he said. “They are there to help free-up trade, market access, to free-up retailers, food service and shape policy. That is the world we’re in.”
“What I can say today is that there is more technology access today than there was one year ago. Why? Because there are a lot of countries out there that need these productivity tools, and are approving them. But there’s actually a lot more new technology coming in. We hear a lot about bans and changes, but net technology is greater now than it was just a year ago.”
“Pipelines? We know we have to make it easier for producers. So using traditional antibiotics as an example, for growth promotion, it may be OK thinking for the 1970s, but it’s not now.”
“We’re looking at alternatives like proteins – for example, we have a product which will be coming to Australia called a catylated protein that stimulates the animal’s immune system during mastitis which means a dairy farmer does not need antibiotics. Vaccines can do similar things, and we are working with enzymes and other proteins in spaces where we think we can fill this gap.”
“We need a little time, so we need to continue to defend what we currently have, but we plan to continue with this opportunity.”
“We’re spending more on innovation today that we ever have. Why did Elanco acquire Novartis? It was to acquire capabilities for the next era, and we remain optimistic for the future.”