Experts discussed a number of issues impacted by the current emphasis on the triple bottom line of “people, planet, profit,” during Alltech’s 26th Animal Health and Nutrition Symposium. The 3rd annual event ended Tuesday and covered key topics including public education, addressing global hunger, confronting criticism within the industry, and the movement to buy local products.

Moderated by Alltech’s Vice President, Aidan Connolly, panelists were; Patrick Wall, former chairman of the management board of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Trent Loos, a radio, print and agribusiness commentator in the US, Osler Desouzart, a consultant from Brazil and Gordon Butland, director of G&S Agri Consultants in Thailand. The symposium attracted more than 1,500 delegates representing top global agribusiness firms. See the discussion online at Alltech.

The first issue discussed related to a definition of sustainability, a buzzword meaning different things to producers, regulatory agencies and mega-retailers. The Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to satisfy their requirements.” Recent surveys have demonstrated that the benefits apparently derived from sustainability in agriculture were unclear to respondents. It was evident that a financial incentive must exist in addition to an ethical motivation to implement sustainability. Producers of agricultural products and livestock are concerned about cost, in contrast to companies that are concerned about brand image and perception as they interface with consumers.

The panel was divided over the question of whether green production is a fad or a new reality. The fact that Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Federation have functioned for more than 40 years suggest green is not a fad and the concept should be incorporated into strategic planning, especially over the long term.

The panel emphasized that profitability is not the sole driver of corporate activity. Institutional ethics, food safety and environmental compliance are all-important considerations. In some cases when dealing with multi-national retailers, factors other than cost are critical to maintaining a long-term business relationship.

The potential impact of the FAO report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” published in 2007, was considered. Flaws in the publication which accused livestock producers of generating a significant proportion of greenhouse gasses have degraded the image of the FAO. This message has resonated among politicians and NGOs and it has provided ammunition with which to oppose intensive livestock production.

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The responsibility of the food industry in promoting obesity, especially among children, has been laid at the doorstep of intensive agriculture. It was the impression of the panel that blame should be distributed among media for promoting food; governments for failing to establish rational policies for nutrition of its citizens; the education system for not providing accurate information to consumers; and individuals who will not take responsibility for their health and that of their children.

Distrust of food producers and governments appears to be growing. Each food borne outbreak erodes confidence in the inspection system. In some nations, supermarkets are generating a higher level of public confidence than regulatory authorities. It is apparent that consumers can lose confidence in a category of food, illustrated by rejection of beef following reports of emerging BSE. There appears to be a constant rotation among food categories, including protein sources and produce, depending on the extent of publicity accorded the most recent outbreak. A significant concern is the release of analytical data relating to pesticide and chemical contamination. Analytical capability is exceeding the rate at which information can be assimilated and evaluated. Reports of a contaminant results in degradation of brand image and rejection of a commodity no matter how infinitesimal or insignificant the toxicity or clinical effect.

The panel confirmed that traceability is a component of a food safety management system, but traceability per se does not guarantee freedom from harm. Offshoots of the concept of traceability include local food, which is emerging as the new organic.

The panel distilled three areas of concern for all food producing enterprizes:

  • All food producers are effectively in the health business
  • Food safety and ethical production systems must be integral to the culture of all agribusiness companies
  • Trade is an expanding concept that relates to both the developing nations, which produce commodities, and to major exporters with integral integrator-contractor relationships such as exist in the EU, U.S. and Brazil.