A Perspective on World Food Supply

A week ago, I went to Atlanta to the International Poultry Exposition.  It was massive, with an official attendance of over 20, 500 patrons and 895 exhibitors.  As a laying hen vet, it is an ideal spot to hook up with researchers, breeding experts, other vets and people who have “been there and done that” since before I was born.  I’m willing to bet that if a fact has ever been known about a chicken, someone in that room knew it. 

Because of the concentration of expertise, it was a great forum for a meeting entitled “The Future of the American Egg Industry”.  Although egg farming in Canada is somewhat different, there was a lot that I thought I could learn from the speakers, so I put my quest for loot at the booths, and sat in on some serious stuff. 

The first speaker was Jeff Simmons, the president of Elanco, the animal health arm of Eli Lily.  This guy sits at the head table of a company that in 2008 had revenues of over $20 Billion.  He is in a position to know a lot about international agricultural issues.  He is also a professional speaker….extremely engaging and REALLY passionate.  His message boiled down to the fact that in 50 years, we will need 100% more food to feed the planet.  70% of that increase will need to come from increased efficiencies….we need to produce twice as much food, without using any more water for agriculture.  He quoted a UN statement that the most important therapeutic substance for the future will be nutritious food.  I have seen references to this in newspapers recently, as well.

Mr. Simmons practiced what he preached.  He told stories about fasting for 72 hours, then flying into a slum in Rwanda and living on the street for a week.  He said that unless you are truly hungry, you cannot appreciate the importance of accessable, affordable food to people in that position in the world.  And, according to numbers he used in his presentation, about 60% of people on earth are unsure where their next meal is coming from.  And it’s not just in the 3rd world (although mostly).  1 in 5 kids in the US eat 2 meals or less per day (not by choice), 2/5 in England, and 1/7 in France.  Without “Food for school” programs, he said that number would be much higher.

His opinion is that technology is the key.  He is confident that human ingenuity and knowledge will develop ways to improve efficiencies and yields at a pace to keep up with need.  Crops that will grow in drier soils, higher yielding strains, disease resistance, faster growing chickens, more efficient laying hens, more milk per acre of grass, more digestible grains, higher starch levels in corn, etc, etc, etc.  These improvements will involve all types of science, from genetic modifications, hydrology, microbiology and intensive housing of animals.  He feels that there is no alternative to this type of evolution for the vast majority of agriculture on earth.

He also discussed his opinion on consumers.  He said that 95% of people are food buyers, 4% are lifestyle buyers, and 1% are fringe groups.  He describes the groups as this: food buyers are mainly concerned with taste, cost, nutrition and safety.  Lifestyle buyers are concerned about specialty qualities ….luxury/gourmet, organic/local, self-grown, etc….he said we are all lifestyle buyers for certain things (think of the premium people pay for THEIR brand of beer, or their Starbucks, or that Ethiopian coffee, even if they buy most of their groceries based on price).  The fringe group are a minority who are trying to change the way food is produced.  He feels that the difference between lifestyle buyers and fringe is that lifestyle buyers want to INCREASE choice….they don’t care if other people buy “buck-a-beer” brands, as long as there is micro-brew available too…..fringe groups want types of food to be removed from the grocery store, and consumers to have less choice.

I found Mr. Simmons to be incredibly engaging, and his ideas are persuasive.  I spend quite a bit of time considering opinions of people who want to increase the base cost of food to meet a priority they have….animal welfare concerns, organic production, local food, etc, etc.  All of these increase the cost of food…..I was fascinated to hear the “other side of the story” from someone who has a great perspective on world food concerns.  I believe that all the concerns are valid, but this talk gives some perspective on the issue.  If nothing else, it is something to think about.

Mike the Chicken Vet

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2 responses to “A Perspective on World Food Supply

  1. Interesting reading. Having been in the big chicken industry and now I am back in the small farm side, it is my opinion that the healthy food that brings good health and wellness to people will be raised in peoples gardens, small farms and supply small groups of people with food. The big industry may prevent starvation, but won’t provide great nutrition to the consumer.

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