Collaboration needed across food chain, protein experts say

The Animal Agriculture Alliance hosted another pre-summit webinar, “Coming Together Along the Food Chain: Opportunities for Enhanced Collaboration” during late April.

Their panelists included Karen Christensen, senior director, animal well-being, Tyson Foods; Banks Baker, director, new product marketing, Genus PIC; and Dallas Hockman, vice president, industry relations, National Pork Producers Council.

Christensen said as part of enhanced collaboration throughout the food chain, she recognizes the pressure of animal welfare and where it’s coming from as well as how to leverage that to drive continuous improvement.

“I think all of us know that consumers are more interested, but at the same time less connected to where their food comes from, than ever before,” she said. “I think that as they continue to ask great questions about how the animals that end up on their plate are raised.”

Producers owe it to consumers to engage in those important conversations—not necessarily the specific details about production practices or the everyday details.

“But I think that consumers really want to know that their values are represented in the values of the food company or the finished products that they are purchasing and engaged with,” she said.

Uncertainty in the supply chain is making the conversation even more difficult, Christensen said. She believes there is some pressure from non-governmental organizations—using the customer interest in where food comes from to drive their agendas, not only about welfare but also removing animal protein from the center of the plate.

“Unfortunately, the pressure here isn’t going to stop as we continue to drive continuous improvement and welfare, but it’s going to continue to be pushed until the agenda of removing all of that animal protein is there,” she said, adding that this wouldn’t actually improve animal welfare.

Christensen believes there is more than one path to good animal welfare, and it’s important for consumers to be better educated to participate in these important conversations about animal welfare and what good animal welfare looks like.

“I think the other thing that’s really important for all of us to understand is that welfare is not an isolated issue,” she said. “We really have to take the holistic approach to this very complicated subject because there are so many other issues that cannot be separated from animal welfare.”

Sustainability is often included in environmental impacts, food insecurity, food availability and affordability conversations.

Christensen doesn’t want animal welfare to be compromised when taking a holistic approach, but said there needs to be a win in all of those topics.

“That’s going to take a lot of creative efforts, a lot of research and a lot of knowledge to make sure that we truly are winning in the welfare front, winning in the environmental front and winning in the food availability and food insecurity front,” she said. “We have a much more difficult road ahead of us than just focusing on one particular issue.”

A path to good animal welfare is definitely achievable, Christensen believes.

If the focus shifts to key welfare indictors or the outcomes that can be measured and managed, that provides customers and consumers with the assurance that animals under our care truly lead a good life. For example, on the poultry side, Christensen asked what types of key welfare indicators would help drive this message and assure people who are operating in the food supply chain and those animals coming from them meet expectations of consumers.

“And that’s a terrific story to be able to tell,” she said.

Key welfare indicators include paw health—which give a great indication of the environment the animals were raised in. Wing damage or transportation livability tells a lot about the human animal interaction, as does cull verification.

“I think is also important to make sure that any animal that isn’t going to thrive in its environment is immediately taken care of properly and humanely,” she said.

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Environmental impacts must also be considered, including measuring litter quality and air quality and making sure those basic requirements of animals are met and documented so that can be shared with people in the supply chain.

“As a matter of fact, we are starting to see the more of an interest in key welfare indicators,” Christensen said. “Customers are starting to talk about indicators that they would like to have reported to them on a regular basis and I’m excited to see that move.”

Producers need to share positive messages about what they consider good welfare to be and to look like.

“There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done, but making sure that the ultimate consumer understands that the values of the food companies, the producers, the restaurants, the grocery stores—all facets of the supply chain—hold those same values about animal care is really important,” she said. “And I think it’s also very important that we all together focus on continuous improvement in animal welfare.”

Swine side

Baker with the Pig Improvement Company, a global animal genetics and biotechnology improvement company, discussed the pressures of the food service and retail companies face and how they’re being addressed. As a former employee with McDonald’s, Baker focused on protein sustainability.

Baker is starting to see food brands facing more protest messaging with over simplified and negative press coverage, and it typically aligns with some type of external activist organization’s campaign.

“Companies received a lot of pressure but topics of interest tend to currently to center around livestock production, protein sales and climate change,” Baker said. Regarding social media messaging, he said, “It really seems like it’s easier to create outrage than it is to inspire positivity and change.”

There’s pressure being applied in other ways, and investors and shareholders are starting to question animal welfare and sustainability.

“Shareholder pressure isn’t just about meeting an external demand; these investors are engaging because they’re concerned with the long-term viability of businesses that a warming climate faces,” Baker said.

Costco has an open and outstanding shareholder proposal regarding setting climate action targets. Baker recently read an article that stated shareholder proposals on greenhouse gas emissions rose to an average of around 59% last year, and compared to 25% in 2017, according to the nonprofit Sustainable Investment Institute.

Many companies and corporations are responding and are being very productive, Baker pointed out. The science-based target initiative, or SBTI, is becoming the de facto standard for setting corporate climate action goals. Companies work with SBTI to create and register their climate reduction targets that align with the Paris Climate Accord.

“With this effort, we’ve seen over a 1,000 companies and 50 sectors—sectors that are working with the SBTI to set science-based targets,” Baker said. “And of course included in that are some of the largest food brands and agricultural companies in the world. But we’re also seeing a lot of movement on the government side.”

The protein industry response, in Baker’s opinion, is an impressive lead in supporting the climate goals made upstream.

“They’re making climate targets and setting ambitions of their own and support the food service and retail company,” he said. “The pork industry committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40%. The beef industry committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2040. And the U.S. dairy industry committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050.”

This is a “really significant movement” and great progress is being made.

“As we talked about collaboration, it can happen across the entire value chain, that having industry segments like this, I think are very good. It’d be very supportive,” Baker said.

There’s also been a rise in the carbon markets, with new entrants every month.

“I feel that carbon markets can help incentivize the change to more climate positive, climate smart agricultural production,” he said. “Global demand for carbon credits is projected to increase 15-fold from 2020 levels to be worth upwards of $50 billion by 2030. And that’s a pretty incredible increase.”

Baker said protein companies have also made some ambitious statements, goals and programs. Investments from major packers and processors—Tyson and Cargill—have climate change goals and are working to implement programs to help them achieve them.

Baker touched on regenerative agriculture, and a lot of programs and solutions are being funded. Renewable energy and methane digesters tend to get a lot of attention, but nothing is as hot as regenerative ag.

“These are multimillion dollar investments and companies are looking at these as more than a way to just reduce carbon,” Baker said. “They understand that as farmers and ranchers utilize specific growing practices and build their soil carbon, they become more resilient to a warming climate. And that in turn makes their supply chains more resilient.”

Baker said from his past experience, “companies are already feeling the pressure that climate change puts in their sourcing goals in their supply chain, especially in a supply chain (that) is becoming more constrained just due to the natural issues that we’re dealing with currently.”

At PIC, Baker focuses on the role that genetic improvements play in a sustainable food system. New genetic improvement technologies available to him like gene editing can help solve problems before they even exist.

“At PIC we’re working on a pig that is resistant to the PRRS virus. PRRS is a globally devastating disease,” he said. “It causes animal suffering and costs approximately $2.5 billion a year in just the U.S. and EU alone.”

The benefits of such a technology are large and provide value across the supply chain, including improvement to animal welfare and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Now, this certainly isn’t to say that regenerative agriculture and all the other innovative interventions that so many of us are working on and investing in aren’t important,” he said. “They all are important and they’re all going to play a role in helping the industry and the world address climate change utilizing agriculture.”

Marketplace challenges

Hockman focused on what the National Pork Producers Council is doing to engage with the marketplace. NPPC is a trade organization that represents America’s pork producers. The organization has spent a significant amount of time fighting against undue regulation and works to remedy challenges in the marketplace. He said brands, channels and policy are the categories that are playing a bigger role of influencing consumers in the marketplace.

He said that although less than 2% of the population is engaged in agriculture and producing food, people without that experience may still become decision makers. Some people do have a good understanding where their food comes from.

“We’ve done a great job of raising our product but a poor job of raising our voice and talking to our key influencers, in this case about how it is that we go about producing a product and the overall commitment that we have—also having shared values and doing what’s right,” Hockman said.

The past couple of years have been a significant challenge to the supply chain, and COVID-19 hit the pork industry hard with regard to packing plant capacity, producer challenges, the threat of African swine fever and ultimately the impact of the food chain.

“Many of the consumers for the first time in their life were faced with the challenge of going to the grocery store and not being able to buy product,” he said.

Even though there’s been recovery, there are still issues in the supply chain.

“We see higher priced protein categories as well as availability,” Hockman said. “It provides a great opportunity for us to be in there talking with them, relatively speaking to all of the steps that are necessary to assure a safe, abundant food supply going forward.”

NPPC has been working on a number of programs to help with the supply chain for producer and others involved in the industry. In the past 10 years they’ve tried to reach out to their shareholders.

For these companies, there’s no simple solution and they’re being challenged on a variety of different areas.

“On one side, animal welfare issues, the other sustainability and what’s being done, at the same time trying to balance the effort of the supply chain management and the impact that these have,” Hockman said. “And then ultimately dealing with the overall brand reputation in the marketplace and as well with their shareholders.”

NPPC’s job is to make sure they understand the pork industry’s commitment is on all the components involved in the last 18 months.

“It’s been very critical to make sure that we help them to better understand these decisions that possibly be made,” he said. “What the impact that that’s going to have on the supply chain so it’s a great opportunity for us I think, in regard to that.”

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Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].