COVID-19 shocked the food system, whether it was people no longer being able to buy what they wanted in the meat case or the 6 million additional people added to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Jeff Simmons, chief executive officer at Elanco, said there still are opportunities in adversity and believes American agriculture can capitalize on that.
“The challenge is how do we put American agriculture at top of the tide as it rises, when it rises? How do we separate ourselves and not just sustain or survive? The tide will rise; I’m very bullish that American agriculture will be on the top of that tide when it rises,” Simmons said during a discussion of an Ag & Food Policy Summit hosted by Agri-Pulse.
Simmons said the COVID-19 pandemic showed that people want a high-quality product that meets their needs. The next “normal” requires the world to work together and collaborate in a way that “borders need to lessen and movement of food needs to increase,” he said. “COVID must be a catalyst, a once-in-a-century opportunity” to lessen food insecurity and continue to feed the world.
This starts with influence and how the industry communicates what the facts are, whether through policy or trade, to tell the story of each individual category in American agriculture. On the animal side, this is giving consumers what they want as well as giving animals what they need and using fewer environmental resources.
“If we can’t influence and tell our story with science, economics, what consumers want, environment and animal well-being, we’re in trouble,” Simmons said.
Innovation is the bedrock to anything sustainable. “Our biggest problems are solved by innovation. We know science is under some threat. I believe COVID opens the door,” he said in terms of expanding the discussion of science. “In order to have a food-secure world, we are going to need to do it with innovation.” This isn’t just new products but starting to look at the interface of tools available today. “We have to be a shaper of innovation and defender of science,” he said.
Any solution on sustainability must start with profits, and the economics of the farm matter, as that creates sustainable operations. Simmons said there was a breakdown of systems after COVID-19 emerged, including human capital, supply chains and global systems to do things the right way. He said when looking at processing plants, for instance, that were shaken substantially, they fixed issues and even made improvements, such as having in-house medical officers.
Regarding trade, “meat, milk and eggs must travel,” Simmons said. There are places were those products can be grown more efficiently than others, and there’s a great opportunity for American agriculture to unlock those efficiencies.
“Adversity can take a lot of energy out of you,” Simmons said. The tide is going to rise, as history shows. The differentiator will be for agriculture to separate itself and be on the other side in a positive place. “Remember, what you do is important work. American agriculture is important,” he said.