Covid-19: Impact on the global feed sector

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Interview: Alltech’s Mark Lyons on the future of agriculture

One year ago Dr Mark Lyons, CEO of Alltech, presented his vision of a Planet of Plenty. A year later he shares his ever evolving thoughts on the future of agriculture with All About Feed. In a time of worldwide disruption he sees challenges but, above all, opportunities. “Change is the only constant and will open up a myriad of possibilities.”

PROFILE: Dr Mark Lyons
Dr Mark Lyons, president and CEO of Alltech grew up in the Alltech business, having travelled with his father, Alltech’s founder, Dr Pearse Lyons, from a young age to visit customers. Based on Alltech’s belief that agriculture has the greatest potential to shape our world’s future, he launched the Planet of Plenty vision in 2019. He has called for collaboration to improve nutrition, human and animal well-being, and the preservation of natural resources.

“Do we want to live on a planet of peril or plenty?”

At the 35th edition of the renowned Alltech One conference in 2019 Mark Lyons started a journey towards a future for his company and – more importantly – a journey which points towards an exciting future for the whole agricultural sector. “Do we want to live on a planet of peril or plenty?” This was the rhetorical question he asked then.

Dr Mark Lyons, CEO of Alltech: "More than ever, I am convinced that the next 30 years are critical to agriculture,” Photo: Alltech
Dr Mark Lyons, CEO of Alltech: "More than ever, I am convinced that the next 30 years are critical to agriculture,” Photo: Alltech

He continued: “We choose to believe in the latter. With upcoming new technologies, improved farm management practices and the ingenuity of mankind, a world of abundance could be ours. There is so much to discover, millions of ideas to chase and apply and, last but not least, stories to tell which show that plants, animals and people can thrive.” 12 months on, hosting the 36th edition of One and the world has changed in many ways. “Even with large parts of the world struggling with the coronavirus, there are no limits and we are full-on in shaping the future of agri-food. More than ever, I am convinced that the next 30 years are critical to agriculture,” says Dr Lyons.

Of course we miss the live interactions and networking possibilities but even that is partly possible...”

Alltech One virtual: Covid-19 prompts move to online

Normally Dr Lyons would have welcomed over 3500 guests to the 36th edition of One in Lexington, Kentucky, but the coronavirus threw a spanner in the works. “Sadly we have no live event this year and even with no lockdown in Kentucky we decided 70 days ago to prepare ourselves for an online One conference. A monumental undertaking which led to a very different experience than we are all used to, but which I am very exited about. The Alltech One virtual experience launched with over 23,000 registrants from over 115 countries – truly mind-boggling. They are being provided with on-demand focus sessions, streaming keynote presentations and live Q&A chats with select speakers.” He continues: “Of course we miss the live interactions and networking possibilities but even that is partly possible with online groups coming together for separate discussions and a drink to toast. Or as our keynote speaker, Cady Coleman, former NASA astronaut and US Air Force colonel stated when she shared her experiences of working in the challenging conditions on the International Space Station: ‘I think the world understands missions in a different way because of this pandemic. Covid-19 has created this need to solve problems together and be on the same mission. People are coming together, helping each other. It’s hopeful.’ I fully agree with that.”

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Removing barriers and connecting people

“With this edition of One we are removing barriers and connecting people. And – other than in our live events – we want to keep the project running for 12 months by adding more presentations, projects and inspiration until the next event in 2021. I do have to say, it feels somewhat strange connecting to an audience from my father’s office, but as he used to tell me: ‘Change is the only constant in life’. When he passed and when my beloved sister passed, I often referred back to his learnings. In all things, we have a choice in responding to difficult times, to change. It is my choice to take action and to be inspired by the great people one has lost and to do what they would have wanted me to do. That is what moved me to envision the Planet of Plenty.

...we didn’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

Planet of Plenty

Last year we launched this ambitious mission. We need not one idea to make the future a better one, we need millions; to learn from each others’ expertise and, above all, communicate our wins. What keeps me up at night is the limited views I see in some companies’ leadership where the focus is only on short term gains for the company and not a win-win scenario for all of us. The key question should be: what can we do together?”

“The Planet of Plenty concept is still in its early days because I believe the next 30 years are most critical to agriculture. We at Alltech have built upon our own past moving beyond our ACE (agriculture, consumer, environment) principle. We, as an industry, are the caretakers of the land, we didn’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. Our mission to improve the health and performance of animals, plants and humans through nutrition and scientific innovation should be the mission of the industry, the world, so to speak. Producing food for billions sustainably and efficiently. And the world is changing; until recently people would ask how much CO2 is emitted with the production of one kilo of chicken meat. With corona in play the question now is if there is a kilo of chicken in the supermarket? For the first time in many generations we are experiencing a shock to our system and are seeing food scarcity. The perspective is changing and this can change the way we present ourselves. We need to respond and create immunity against the shock which Covid-19 has given our society.”

Consumers better understand the food chain

“I am proud that we are in an industry where we are able to tell the farmers’ story. Compelling stories of a pro-active industry in which being on the defensive is a bygone. As an example, we now see a tremendous drop in worldwide CO2 emissions but we are still producing and food is still on the table. The idea that agriculture alone is the problem, is just not true. The opposite is true, agri­culture is the life support for our planet. And with the disruption caused by the coronavirus we see people going to farms to pick up produce when supermarkets are empty. Where price drove our game in the past, now connection to the consumer and trust are becoming far more important. People now understand again how the food chain works and that helps us to get our message across. There is so much opportunity for agriculture on a local level and in society for getting the right food to the right place with the right value.”

Sustainability goals

“The most wonderful thing about the concept of Planet of Plenty is that it is pre-competitive. We can all help to make our industry better for the world and at the same time benefit from doing so. That is what Alltech found out when we signed up to the UN sustainability goals. Because this includes being audited, we asked ourselves what is required. That sharpens your mind and gets everyone involved. Such a process also makes you realise the importance of inclusion in creating innovative and productive teams. Or as our keynote speaker Cady Coleman said: ‘It’s a proven fact that diverse groups are more successful’. We know that inclusion and diversity in our teams is essential and see that women play a critical role in our company and around the world in agriculture.”