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Simmons: Reinvention could help animal ag beat a 'credibility crisis'

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Some might say the biggest challenge of the agricultural industry is simply communicating with consumers. At the recent Agri-Biosciences Innovation Summit in Indianapolis, Elanco President Jeff Simmons dissected the problem and offered solutions on a conceptual level.

“Today, I think we have a credibility crisis,” he began, in a presentation titled “Courageous Leadership is Critical to Innovation,” adding, “this is the reality. And I think, candidly, as I looked at this, I asked myself, when did we lose our trust in science? We live in a post-truth world – we seek our social media echoes to kind of reinforce our beliefs.”

Reality is the first “R” in Simmons’ 3-R motto, the others being reinvention and recipe. Science, he said, is under attack in a time where it is never more needed, if one considers the results of some consumer surveys. Only 14 percent of consumers believe genetically modified (GMO) goods are safe, while, according to science, he said GMO food is 100 percent safe.

“These ‘alternative facts’ – Facebook, fake news, whatever you want to call it – they suddenly become truth,” Simmons said. “In agriculture, this is a big deal. Today we’re battling non-GMOs and glyphosate with our friends in Europe.

“Whether it’s the anti-vaccination deal on the human side or it’s climate change on the plant side, we live in an era today where alternative facts and fake news are both viewed in the same way as peer-reviewed research papers and recognized experts.”

When it comes to marketing claims on food products, the list does not stop at non-GMO – no irradiation, hormone-free, cage-free, no gestation stalls, slow-growing, antibiotic-free and vaccine free are all labels seen consistently in grocery stores. Simmons said companies must stop eliminating innovation for short-term marketing, because “the animal loses, environment loses and consumer loses.”

As of 2016, 18 percent of new food and beverages have a non-GMO claim on their package, 15 percent claim organic and 12 percent call their product “natural.” As a consequence of anti-science beliefs, Simmons said the poultry industry, for example, was hit hard: With half of the industry now antibiotic-free, premiums have dropped by more than half and more broilers are needed to meet demand because mortality among birds is up for the first time in recorded history.

A bigger challenge than feeding the world, he said, is getting through this current post-truth reality. Yet, he is optimistic and confident animal agriculture can turn this into an opportunity through reinvention of leaders.

“I believe there is no one food segment that will have a greater impact in the future – even over pharmaceuticals – than animal protein,” Simmons said. “With meat, milk and eggs, we could potentially alleviate problems such as the obesity epidemic, the aging population, bone development and muscle mass; there’s data there.”

 He believes the reinvention of agriculture marketing and communication lies in courageous leaders. Complacency and different sectors of the industry staying in their own “silos” without effort to collaborate are things he thinks inhibit innovation, along with being overly sensitive to political correctness.

Instead, he suggests “bold and courageous” leaders promote collaboration and have just a little bit of restlessness – that is, have competitiveness and work with a sense of urgency.

“Elanco is going to bring 40 new recruits in from 25 land grant universities this year, and I will tell you the first question we’re asking is, ‘Why do you do what you do?’” he said. “Purpose matters. People won’t follow you without purpose.”

The final piece in Simmons’ puzzle to improve animal agriculture’s credibility crisis is “recipe,” or taking in all information and forming a plan. He said among consumer surveys and focus groups, the biggest concern is health. Based on that, the recipe Elanco has come up with is “One Health.”

That is, animal agriculture strives to produce the healthiest and most efficient animals, which are critical to healthy people and a healthy planet. He said Elanco is also committed to using innovation to produce the healthiest animals, give people the nutrition to be their healthiest and continue to find ways to lessen ag’s impact on the environment, to improve the health of the planet.

“This is a complex issue,” Simmons said. “It's ultimately about One Health – human health, animal health and the health of our planet are all inextricably linked. Without all three, the entire system is compromised.

“Sick animals also jeopardize the safety, availability and affordability of our food, as well as expend precious natural resources. Human health requires healthy, productive animals."

Positive labels such as “more protein,” “better taste,” “more sustainable” and “more economical” could be key to turning things around. Simmons concluded with a goal for what he believes the new message of positivity in animal agriculture should be: “Make ‘yes’ the new ‘no.’”