Finding the right future in knowledge and technology
Dr. T. Pearse Lyons, president of Alltech, discusses the achievements of his company and how technology will help incorporate growth.
Dr. T. Pearse Lyons obtained his undergraduate degree from the National University of Ireland in Dublin followed by Masters and Doctoral degrees in Biotechnology from the University of Birmingham. He is the recipient of a number of awards for promoting education, exports and for philanthropy.
Egg Industry: Alltech is one of the top-ten ranked animal health companies in the world. Please outline for our readers some of the significant achievements of your company during the past ten years.
TPL: Ten years ago our company did not have a focus on key products. We took a very entrepreneurial approach and we were developing new products at a fast pace. By deciding to focus on what we then called “the big six” we were able to concentrate our resources on six major items. We made investments in R and D and marketing using available financing. This focus undoubtedly allowed us to achieve growth in specific products which met our targets.
EI: Alltech has developed an intensive international market and has been recognized for export promotion. How did you achieve this objective?
TPL: During the past ten years we have optimized our efforts in all areas of the world under the Alltech brand name. During the early stages of the company we had to use distributors to develop a network in each country. Alltech has since established subsidiary companies in each country in which we operate and we brand our products with a single image.
EI: Please share with us your vision regarding the future impact of non-antibiotic Consumer Acceptable Production Enhancers [CAPES] derived from advanced fermentation technology.
TPL: Traceability and food safety are critical regulatory and consumer concerns and will drive our industry in the future. The key question concerns the role of antibiotics? I do not want to get into the scientific validity of whether the use of antibiotics is right or wrong. The fact of the matter is that this is not an issue that the feed industry should be addressing. It is the responsibility of the manufactures of antibiotics. If the consumer decides that they don’t want antibiotics used in the production of their food, then they as the consumer have the perfect right to freedom from antibiotics. The consumer has already spoken in the European Union which has responded by banning a number of antibiotics. Under the precautionary principal if there is any potential for a problem, specific ingredients or additives are disallowed. My vision is that we will see an industry which focuses on improving animal health and reducing the cost of production by using alternatives to antibiotics.
EI: You travel extensively meeting with leaders among the U.S. and international animal production industries. What lessons can we apply to become more efficient and profitable?
TPL: The key is speeding adoption of new technology. We frequently develop new techniques in the U.S. but these are not applied by our domestic industry which is extremely conservative. We have university programs which reflect this approach. By not pursuing valid research addressing alternatives to antibiotics we are falling behind international markets. Two concerns have emerged in the past decade. These are the speed at which research is carried out and the rate of adoption of beneficial alternatives to antibiotics.
EI: Can you provide an example of this reluctance to try new approaches?
TPL: Patented technology now exists based on application of the gene chip to reduce vitamin E levels as currently used in conventional diets for livestock. Why have we allowed ourselves to use excessive levels of vitamin E? Gene expression studies show that antioxidants and co-factors of the inherent cellular protective systems can reduce the dietary requirement for vitamin E. Technology for sparing vitamin E has now been transferred overseas.
EI: We have experienced unprecedented escalation in the cost of grains. Can biotechnology reverse this trend in the future?
TPL: Perhaps in the U.S. we suffer from the fact that we have an abundance of corn and soy as the raw materials of choice. In the future is it not grain that will be our raw material but rather plant fiber in the form of cellulose. We have the technology to break down cellulose. Ten years ago Alltech built a plant in Serdan, Mexico followed more recently by a second plant in the U.S. using solid state fermentation –SSF, which enables plant fiber to be used as an ingredient. No amount of money can drive adoption of new technology. There has to be willingness and a desire on the part of our industry to adopt these innovations.
EI: Sustainability was the theme of the recent 25th Annual Alltech International Animal Health and Nutrition Symposium. How do you envision that U.S. egg producers can contribute to the goal of enhanced sustainability?
TPL: Any industry or sector of that industry must look to the future. To be sustainable we have to not only adapt the latest technology but we have to produce something that is acceptable to the consumer.
EI: How does this apply to the egg industry?
TPL: The American Egg Board and the UEP have done a great job of promoting the benefits of eggs. Now we have to look to other applications. We need to do more to expand the use of eggs, develop new applications for enriched eggs which include selenium, folic acid, vitamin D and other nutrients in shell and derived products. Promotion should be supported by appropriate information and educational programs.
EI: Production efficiency and profitability can be enhanced by application of technology. What do you regard as recent noteworthy contributions to improve performance?
TPL: The gene chip is outstanding in this regard and represents a paradigm shift in our understanding of nutrition. We will redefine nutrition of the layer, broiler, and turkey by identifying the genetic control of metabolic pathways. The second opportunity area for Alltech is the use of cellulose as a raw material. We have committed considerable resources to this area and we have sponsored five doctoral-level programs in 2008 alone. We are also looking at reduction of greenhouse gases. Parallel developments in sustainability might include the use of solar panels and linking production of methane with appropriate waste handling systems that could produce energy.
EI: Your company has invested heavily in R and D and has sponsored extramural studies in a number of academic institutions. Are these endeavors producing a return commensurate with the effort and expenditure involved?
TPL: Teaching and training in academic institutions must be supported by industry. However, bureaucratic restraints and the view that these institutions must now be financially self-sufficient are changing the way industry interacts with universities. We have encountered a lack of urgency and increasing obstacles imposed by university administrators. This has stimulated a greater reliance on internal R and D and research conducted by contract facilities.
EI: As the president and principal shareholder in your company, you have the capability to apply earnings to civic, cultural and educational projects. Would you outline the scope and anticipated benefit from these “social dividends”?
TPL: It’s less a question of social dividends and more a question of doing what is right. What was right a thousand years ago is still right in 2009. People and companies have a social responsibility to give back to the society in which they live. We have to extend a lending hand and provide encouragement to those who are less fortunate. For example, we are currently running a program in Ireland to raise money to build orphanages in South Africa. Social involvement requires responses to the HIV crisis, the tsunami recovery efforts in SE Asia or even Hurricane Katrina in our own nation. Social involvement includes encouraging science education. We continue to support science programs at the elementary, middle and high school levels in addition to universities. This social involvement on one hand helps society but on the other creates a sense of teamwork within the Alltech community. At our recent Symposium we reviewed letters from young scientists, including undergraduates who attended programs sponsored by Alltech. They talked about it being a life-changing experience. This type of response is sufficient reward for doing the right thing.