What’s more socially responsible than making safe, affordable, abundant food a global reality? Nothing! That’s why a growing number of poultry producers are joining with other food producers to push a vision of agriculture that’s up to this challenge.
The challenge facing food producers is formidable. The number one disease in the world is hunger, according to the World Health Organization. Without the intervention of sustainable technology to increase food production, world hunger will grow dramatically in the next 50 years.
There are more than 7 billion people on the globe today, with 6.3 million more being added monthly. In the year 2050, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the world population will need 100 percent more food than is produced today, and 70 percent of this food must come from efficiency-improving technology.
Social responsibility in food production
In advocating what is needed to feed the world’s growing population, food producers are also fighting to reclaim the mantle of social responsibility, which has been lost in the minds of some consumers in developed countries, where a vocal group of consumers advocate small-scale, low-tech agriculture that produces local, organic or gourmet food.
The two views of the role of food agriculture couldn’t be in starker contrast. As 3 billion people struggle to move into the middle class in emerging economies of the world, the demand for animal proteins – meat, poultry and milk – is rising. What’s more, hidden hunger in developed economies, including the U.S. and Europe, affects between 25 percent and 40 percent of people. Poultry producers recognize that they will need to help double food production while keeping the environmental footprint the same as today.
Activism by food producers necessary
Elanco President Jeff Simmons, whose company is a division of Eli Lilly & Company, is one of the voices urging activism in food production agriculture. Speaking at the National Turkey Federation convention, he described a turning point in his perspective, which occurred during his participation in Harvard’s Private and Public Scientific and Academic Consumer Policy Group.
“I had a bell-ringing moment sitting in a meeting room with about 200 people, over half of whom were not supportive of traditional agriculture. A lot of people in the room did not think that eating meat was a good thing. Looking around the room I realized that they had something that I did not have. The issue for them was very personal. It is something they will speak out about, even when they don’t have a lot of information. They are convicted and believe that their voice matters and that they can have an influence.
“I am in a position, like all of you, to speak out, and it is time to speak out,” he said. “We are at an important stage in what is the most critical issue in the next 50 years – producing safe, abundant, affordable food.”
Technology helps close the productivity gap in food production
Simmons pointed to the conclusions of public authorities, including the World Health Organization and the Gates Foundation, that efficiency-enhancing technologies are essential to meeting the world’s future food needs.
“It comes back to farms all over the world. We need to increase their productivity. Technology leads to efficiency, which leads to affordability, which reduces poverty and allows more people to come to the table,” he said.
He quoted Bill Gates who wrote in the Gates Foundation newsletter, “When farmers increase their productivity, nutrition is improved and hunger and poverty are reduced.”
Moving into the middle class
“Three billion people are trying to move into the middle class in emerging economies, driving an increased demand for meat. It isn’t our job to determine for 3 billion people who are living on grass and vegetables and rice today their desire to get their child an egg or a piece of meat or a glass of milk. It is our job to deliver on this demand. Yes, there is an economic opportunity, but there is a bigger moral responsibility.”
Simmons pointed to China as an example of a developing economy where people have aspirations for better diets. Like in other developing countries, China wants more animal proteins. Dairy products are just one example. It would take four more U.S. dairy industries to provide the Chinese with half as much calcium as Americans consume.
Technology enables three food rights
“Sometimes, the issues of hunger and food affordability get shoved under the rug. I think this is an opportunity to bring them out. And it is critical that we do so,” he said.
“Today, the consumer corner is where the best traction is gained for the importance of having safe, affordable, abundant food and for the importance of the role of technology in achieving those goals,” he added.
He said access to safe, proven, efficiency-enhancing technology enables three rights:
1. Food: A basic human right
2. Choice: A consumer right
3. Sustainability: Environmentally right
Getting outside the science corner in the food debate
More than sound reasoning and science will be needed to defend food production and the technologies needed to meet the hunger challenge. Poultry producers must join with other food producers in debating aspects that many have avoided discussing in the past. These include the economic, environmental, moral and consumer dimensions, as well as science.
“In 21 years working at Elanco, I was told that we need to stay in the science corner. But there are four other corners of the debate. I believe we have to get out of our comfortable corner, and go to all five corners,” Simmons said.
“The moral and human aspects are real,” he continued. “Hunger is the world’s number one health problem. It kills more people than war, AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined, resulting in about 25,000 deaths per day.
“It’s our job to produce affordable food in an environmentally friendly way with the same amount of resources being used today.”
A moment of reflection about hunger in Kenya
Simmons spent five days in Nairobi, Kenya, in the largest slum in the world not long ago. “Standing on a hill overlooking the slum that stretched as far as the eye could see, it was simply indescribable, and I said, ‘This is wrong.’ But one of the Kenyan leaders who was with us looked at me so calmly and said, ‘Jeff, this is a dollar a day living.’ This is the lifestyle of almost one out of four people in the world. Two dollars a day takes it up to between 40 percent and 45 percent of the world’s population.
“‘Right now in the U.S. and Europe, one out of four tables in America and Europe are struggling to put food on the table. Jeff, more people in the world live with food as an issue than those who don’t.’ And then he turned and said in a very somber, quiet African way, ‘But those who don’t live with hunger as an issue hold the solution for those who do.’”
Do food consumers want technology?
According to an Elanco-sponsored international consumer attitudes survey of research from 28 studies, 26 countries and 97,000-plus consumers:
- 95 percent are "food buyers" – people seeking taste, cost and nutrition in food
- 4 percent are "lifestyle buyers" – demanding food that is luxury, gourmet, organic, locally produced or from gardens
- 1 percent are "fringe" – people who are trying to change the majority choice
The issue is that a small minority of people – perhaps 1 percent or less – have decided they feel so strongly in their positions that they are going to take choice out of the system. That could include changing the way animals are raised or the way food is labeled because of their strong opinions.
What about those people on the fringe, who insist that all agriculture must be low-tech and local? Simmons referred to the view of Nestle Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, who said, “You have to be rational. There’s no way you can support life on earth if you go straight from farm to table.”
Simmons concluded, “There is a fringe that food producers need to be very careful with. I am not concerned about the 4 percent who are lifestyle buyers. I am concerned about the 1 percent on the fringe.”
Avoid overreacting to the fringe on food
“You don’t need to overreact to those consumers who want niche products, unless they cross over the line and try to take choice out of the system,” Simmons said.
His presentation at the National Turkey Federation convention included playing Chipotle’s TV commercial, with lyrics sung by Willie Nelson, which extols the goodness of low-tech agriculture. Chipotle described the commercial as follows, “The film ... depicts the life of a farmer as he slowly turns his family farm into an industrial animal factory before seeing the errors of his ways and opting for a more sustainable future. Both the film and the soundtrack were commissioned by Chipotle to emphasize the importance of developing a sustainable food system.”
Simmons said, “Chipotle’s alternative for food production is great for the 1 percent of consumers who want organic food. And food producers will keep looking for opportunities to serve that market. But that is not the way, ultimately. We have to be rational. There is no way to support life on earth if food production is straight from the farm to the table. It sounds good. It is good. But it is an alternative that is a privilege. We also have to think of the world’s food supply.”
Overreacting to the fringe can impact both brands and consumer choice, Simmons noted. He cited a case involving Campbell’s Soup. “In February, Campbell’s Soup reduced sodium to a level lower than the standards and lost significant market share in six months time.
“When people buy traditional Campbell’s Soup, there is an expectation about taste, cost and nutrition. The company quickly found that the majority was not looking for how the company responded with its sodium content. While Campbell’s continued to offer low-sodium soup, it went back and added sodium to the standards, but not below, on its major label soup,” he said.
Economic reality presents opportunity in food debate
Simmons views the economic recession of the last four years as an opportunity for food producers to make the case for safe, affordable, abundant food. The recession, he said, has “brought more logic back into the food chain.”
“Don’t think about food production policy in terms of influencing 7 billion people. Think about influencing 500 people. It is important to influence the people who are most important in shaping public policy,” he said.
It is up to everybody involved in food production to be an activist for feeding the globe in a sustainable way, he said. “If our employees get asked by Aunt Betty on the plane about what they do, are they on the offense or defense? Make sure that the people inside your company have pride in what they do.
“My challenge to all of you is that we have a moral responsibility. Sometimes, the issues of hunger and food affordability get shoved under the rug. I think this is an opportunity to bring them out. And it is critical that we do so,” he said.