A panel of three distinguished speakers represented the most significant innovation at the 2008 Alltech Symposium. David Byrne, Former EU Commissioner for Health & Consumer Protection; Mike Johanns, Former USDA Secretary of Agriculture; and Osler Desouzart, an industry consultant and retired executive from Brazil, shared their opinions on aspects of agriculture answering questions posed by the Chairperson Aidan Connelly, VP of Alltech Inc, the sponsors of the Program.
An instantaneous electronic polling installation allowed the 1600 attendees to register their responses to issues which were considered by the panel. The audience represented a cross section of international intensive agriculture with 33 percent from North America, 21 percent from Latin America, 29 percent from Europe and the remainder from Asia and Africa. The demographic included 20 percent nutritionists, 26 percent production managers, 22 percent in sales and 9 percent veterinarians with the remainder in regulatory affairs and academia.
The median responses of the attendees to the significant questions posed represent current realities facing the livestock industries worldwide. A total of 64 percent of responders considered that biofuel production would increase production costs by 30 percent or more. Over 65 percent considered that the activities of NGOs opposed to animal agriculture were overtly destructive with 14 percent classified as "illegal.”
Approximately 64 percent regarded restrictions on pollution and compliance with environmental regulations as increasing production costs in excess of 20 percent.
Responses by the participants were informative in relation to the questions posed at the outset of the program. These related to the ability of organized commercial agriculture to feed an additional 2.5 million population, mainly in Asia and Africa. Johanns and Desouzart were overtly optimistic but were not able to suggest mechanisms or procedures to achieve this objective. Merely stating that feed conversion of broilers will be "1.4 in 10 years" is just not good enough. Unrealistic targets for future production as advanced by Desouzart are not necessarily achievable especially with the prospect of global warming. The quaint reminiscences of Johanns regarding an increase in corn yields from his family farm might not be relevant to Asia. There was no substantiation for his forecast of a 40 percent escalation in yield from dryland corn using new cultivars.
On the subject of the conflict between preservation of the environment and increased agricultural output Desouzart holds that rainforest is not being destroyed to plant soybeans and corn and in any event Brazil could take the attitude "that its our rainforest anyway and the industrial world is doing the polluting" Despite the fact that 72 percent of the attendees voted that more efficiency would be the path to increased supply of food and profitability for producers, Johanns took the position of a parochial politician that off-farm income and small scale niche organic farming would benefit his constituency. A position considered viable by only 5 percent of the attendees.
Without question David Byrne stood head and shoulders above his two colleagues showing breadth of vision, experienced counsel and diplomacy gained in his distinguished career of public service. He advocated establishing policies based on sound science, establishing consumer confidence in innovative products such as GMO grains. Citing his involvement with the aftermath of BSE he opined that it was necessary for the consuming public to appreciate that in a crisis "someone is in charge and that there is a workable plan for resolution" Science in his opinion is critical to advancing food production but policy should not be relegated to legislators and regulators. Informed scientists must articulate facts and risks to consumers and complete transparency is critical to acceptance of innovations.
The positions of the three panelists can best be encapsulated by their pre-stated "sound bites" Johanns considered biofuels to be the "Renaissance of the American Farm.” Desouzart holds that "Environmental degradation is justified to avoid starvation" Byrne espouses programs that engender "consumer confidence."