Dr. Mark Lyons – Climate, Collaboration and Challenging the Negative Narrative
For the past year, Dr. Mark Lyons, president and CEO of Alltech, has led his multinational company through a global pandemic while maintaining an optimistic focus on the future. Join us as he provides his unique insights from the helm, including the significance of sustainability, countering negative perceptions of agriculture with science and why collaboration is crucial to creating a Planet of Plenty.
The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Dr. Mark Lyons hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Tom: I'm Tom Martin, and I'm joined by Dr. Mark Lyons, president and CEO of Alltech. Greetings, Dr. Lyons.
Mark: Great to be with you.
Tom: Mark, if you would, first, share with us a little bit of your background and how those experiences that you've had in your career are informing how you lead a company in a culture that has such a global reach.
Mark: Absolutely. I had the great privilege to not only, I think, have a very extraordinary, dynamic father but have the opportunity to work with him, and that really started from a very early age. He, for some reason, didn't believe very much in holidays or vacations, and so he really saw the opportunity, often, to bring me with him and for me to be able to go and visit places and travel and experience things that he was doing. So, I was able to grow up very much with a global view. Obviously, our family coming over to Ireland — that was the first stop, anyway, going over to see family. Then, typically, I'd be able to travel on to continental Europe with him and experience that.
That formed, I think, a lot of the interests I had. Obviously, I had an interest in science — science, of course being primary in what we do as a company, but also in his family. That was his first interest, but he didn't stop there. He moved on quickly, obviously, to the business side. For my part, I think, I became very interested in comparative politics and the way that different cultures work around the world. I was able to explore those in my education, along with the science. That part — up to, I think, coming into Alltech — was very much looking at the world from a global perspective and trying to understand it at that individual level, where you have that opportunity to travel, especially being able to meet people and understand how they view the world and the experience that they have.
As I came into Alltech, I initially started on the production side. The idea was to really get to know the business from the inside. I was able to complete my Ph.D. at the same time focused in, of course, what is the core of Alltech: fermentation. Then, I transitioned more into the management and the sales side, having worked in Latin America, then up in North America and then over to China, where I lived for six years before coming back here in 2018.
Tom: You, and your father before you, have spoken often about sustainability and the relationship between agriculture and the environment and sustainability. That word, “sustainability,” is used an awful lot these days. How do you define it?
Mark: I think people get very caught up and concerned with definitions. I think, in a lot of regards, when I talk to people, I say, “Define it for yourself. What is it that this means?” I think, even in these last 12 months, this word has really grown. Now, I've been thinking about it — and, I think, in a much broader sense. Of course, we always think about environmental sustainability. That's a core element of it. But I think, right now, especially through so many challenges of COVID, we have to think about the communities that are involved, the individuals, the economic aspects of sustainability. We've fallen in love with, to a certain degree, technology and technology companies that come in and talk about disruption and “isn't this exciting?” and fast growth. But at the same time, we also need to look at the wake behind them and what that ends up costing society overall.
So, when we speak about sustainability, we really say that we need to think about if this new technology coming out is going to, overall, benefit society. Is it going to sustainably improve our health? Are these things really better for society or not? I think that's what it's all about. I think the sustainability mission is that: It's a journey. It's not a destination. It's all about: How can we do things that provide for today and make sure that we do have enough for today, but we also know that we have enough for tomorrow? To me, it's not about eliminating; it's about creating, and it's about making sure that we are focused on innovation and new ideas.
Tom: Is there a distinction between local and global sustainability, or do they intersect?
Mark: I think they intersect, but I think they're distinct. I think we have to reflect on this. Of course, being Irish, I'll tell you a story, and I'll tell you a story about the home country, as it were.
Ireland is an extraordinary environment. You have this protected Ireland temperates; the temperature never really gets too warm, for sure, but it also doesn't get too cold. It'd be very rare in Ireland to see snow. It's a place that, of course, is full of greenery. It's full of different shades of green. It's a highly productive agricultural economy and highly productive agricultural land. But if you looked at Ireland today, and if you polled Irish consumers, they would say, “To be able to achieve our environmental sustainability goals, we need to reduce the amount of agricultural outputs we have.”
When you think about that from a global perspective, that's a crazy idea. This is a place that is highly efficient. You have pasture-based systems. You've got other types of systems, lots of different ways of thinking about things. They've got a lot of concern, I think — just as you find in most places in the world — the farmers and agriculturalists are always looking at ways to eliminate waste and improve productivity. Their asset is their land, but yet, in Ireland, that would be the big push, would be: How do we reduce? I think, if that's the approach we take, I think we run the risk of a disimproving the global perspective on sustainability, where we may end up producing the type of dairy products that Ireland is so productive in or beef in countries that are not as productive.
I think we find a little bit of the same here. We use a lot of lands and a lot of inputs — especially on the ruminant side, on dairy and beef — that really couldn't be used for something else, and yet, sometimes, we're thinking about things very much on values that we find, perhaps, on a Google search or in a set of tables. We're not thinking about the actual individual producer and what that is doing to them. It's important to keep those two aspects in mind. Local sustainability is also very important, but there's this huge amount of data and a huge amount of information we need to pull in to really make sure that we're making the best decision.
Tom: It's been only in recent years that the world seems to have begun to fully grasp the reality of climate change and pressures on the world food supply. What are your main concerns about climate and food — where we are today, and where we may be going?
Mark: It's a great question. What's interesting about it is I studied climate change. I studied environmental science in college, and the science at that stage was clear. Again, you would speak with a climate scientist or you speak to the broader scientific community, and there really wasn't any disagreement. It's really been something that it took the acceptance from society and then, of course, the acceptance politically to maybe say, “This is something — we really need to bring about a change.”
It's crazy. When you think about this country, the Clean Air Act was passed by a Republican president, George Bush, Sr., and that was something that you would not anticipate when you think of the world that we're in today. That gives you an idea, in such a short amount of time, of how things got a little bit off.
I think, now, we see a lot more of the outcomes, and I think there are a lot more concerns — whether it's permafrost thawing in Siberia and the potential methane emissions that could create and how that could be a process that we can't turn around, or people being concerned about erratic weather. If I speak to the lady, I stayed over with in Germany years and years ago as a kid — it used to snow in the winter, and it doesn't snow there anymore. So, I think, in Western Europe, there's a real realization, because they see it every winter. They see a change.
I think that acceptance has come about from a broader perspective. Also, I think the change in the role of companies has really brought about this change. I guess, as I look forward, I just think that this is a moment where, if we don't make the change that we need to make fast enough, it ends up being an out-of-control scenario. Having said that, I would be very optimistic. When I look at the improvements that our industry, in agriculture, has made over the last 30, 40, 50 years, it's extraordinary how we are producing far more with less. If you start to look at that trajectory and you realize that we have become much more sustainable over this period of time without necessarily putting a focus on that — the focus probably was on reducing costs, but the outcome was an improvement in sustainability — imagine what we're going to be able to achieve now, with so much more technology coming into the sector and a different way of thinking.
My concern, honestly, is not so much on the change within the agriculture sector. I think the impact of agriculture on climate change is over-emphasized. I think it's the industry that can change and adapt quickly. My bigger concern is our reliance on fossil fuels and how we will bring about that change, particularly standing here in Kentucky, doesn't disadvantage those who may be energy producers today. How do we make sure that innovation does rest in locations, perhaps, that are high energy producers today and create new jobs and create new opportunities?
Tom: We've had some pretty powerful dynamics in play, especially in this recent year: COVID-19, the increasing drive toward sustainability and a rising sense of imperative behind climate change. I'm just wondering how all those things have, perhaps, changed your business.
Mark: Yeah. I think, over the last three years, we're just, at this time of year, thinking about my father, who passed away three years ago. We went through a big cultural change within the company. We had been building and growing the company, and, of course, that was a big shock, losing him. I think, for our business, the story that started three years ago, in a certain regard, prepared us, in some odd way, for this challenge of the last 12 months.
COVID has obviously impacted all aspects of all businesses and supply chains. It's made everything so difficult. We're very much a relationship business. We're a business that likes to be in the office. We like to be together. We like to be with our customers. That's what drives us. "Make a friend" was the message my father was always sharing with us — that we were to go out and foster relationships. That has been a big challenge, but I think that the cultural closeness that was created over the last three years — as we reflected on the loss that we had and thought a lot about what we talk about a lot, the “founder's mentality,” the objective and the way that my father thought and how we could continue to replicate that and grow — that concept got us ready.
We've stayed very close. I could tell you — as I'm sure you would hear from many other executives — I think this time of the pandemic, it almost takes more energy. We travel less, but we're talking to people, probably, even more. I think the responsibility of senior management, but particularly the CEO, has changed. I believe — and I think this was the case before for our good CEOs — but the CEO should not be responsible for just the bottom line or top line or those types of results. You have the CFO. You have the COO. The CEO is there to make sure that you maximize the most important asset of any company, which is people, and making sure that those individuals, I think, in this period of time, not only are productive but also healthy, and that's making sure that we can protect them from COVID and put those policies in place and make sure that works but, also, their mental health when we are separated.
I think that aspect has been a big shift. We've adopted all the technology possible, but I would quickly say that I think it's a poor second to being in-person. We look forward to being together again. But really, I think that both of these thoughts — the COVID challenge and then the sustainability, which has really accelerated, I think, in terms of urgency over the last 12 months — is something that it's probably positioned the company instead of a lot of the things we talk about. We've been talking about this “Working Together for Planet of PlentyTM” mission now for over two years. I think that has really moved from being “some idea that Mark has” to, really, something that is driving our business. In every single conversation we have, people are bringing it up in new ways. I think that goes together with that realization that sustainability is something that's here to stay.
Tom: I know that part of the growth that you mentioned a moment ago includes the acquisition of the Environmental Services Company, E-CO2, to provide advice, tools and services to help farmers measure and improve their environmental performance. With the rise of the European Green Deal and the United States' renewed commitment to climate action, over 70% of the global economy has now set or is intending to set targets to reach net zero emissions. Do you sense that E-CO2's moment has arrived?
Mark: It's interesting. Before we called it the Alltech ONE Ideas Conference, it was the Symposium, and we had the symposium where one of the themes was “niche to mainstream.” I went and found the book the other day, and here it was, from the late '90s — here was my father saying that these ideas that Alltech had were becoming mainstream. Of course, we look, now, forward, and it was probably 20 years later when that was true.
I think E-CO2 is actually that type of a story. This was something that was niche. It was something aspirational. I think it was these number of retailers in the U.K. who said, “We've got to put plans in place so that we can make sure that we know what the environmental impact of farming is and of our products on the shelf.” That was where the business began. It was actually founded by a farmer, which I think makes it highly relevant. It was always built from that perspective and then came into the Alltech fold about eight years ago. It was something that was focused there. We thought, “Maybe there's an opportunity to go global in the future, but it’s very much a British business.” Now, over the last 12 months, it has truly gone global.
So, as we build out our what we call now Planet of Plenty partnerships — so, working with customers, helping them with their sustainability journey — E-CO2 plays a critical role in that. We can explain what the environmental foot-printing is, what the greenhouse gas emissions are. We could talk about ways to reduce those, then, as we bring in the Alltech colleagues and look at the nutrition and different technologies that can be utilized or different farming practices. It's a critical aspect, because if we don't measure it, it doesn't get done. So, we've got to make sure that we have that ability to measure the science in it and provide the data behind to track things.
When you're able to put a dashboard in front of somebody and say, "This is what we've done in terms of your environmental footprint" and, actually, you overlay on top of that the economics, you can quickly see that the two can go together very easily and that environmental sustainability or improvements around that can very much mean economic sustainability as well.
Tom: I mentioned the EU Green Deal, which is driven by the aim of the European Union to become the world's first climate-neutral bloc by 2050. I'm wondering: What is your view of that initiative?
Mark: Well, I think it's something that I'm very positive about. I think it is a good move. There are a lot of different initiatives there. There's a lot of thinking about cities and the way that cities are going to operate, especially — COVID, again, is challenging us on that. It really is top of mind. When you think about consumers in the U.S., I think there are some people who would reflect on those elements. In Europe, it's very much a situation that people are thinking about the environment in a much more serious way. They also see this as an opportunity for leadership for the European Union. This is an area, this is a topic, that Europe has always been leading on. To make that type of a goal, that this is something they can pull together and achieve — I think that aspect is very positive.
One concern I would have is they have a farm-to-fork program. This program, when you look at who is running it, it's very much led by some medical doctors, some human nutritionists, but it's not really looking at things from a pure or a full-chain approach. That's something that has been a little bit of a concern for us. Does agriculture or even the agri-food industry have a seat at the table?
I also think that there are a lot of very well-minded intended ideas. I think the question is going to be: How are they going to be implemented at the member-state level and then at that very local level? How do we make sure that we don't have unintended consequences? Which I think every government, when they go out and create these types of programs, has to look at and make sure that we are really achieving the best, exactly as you were describing earlier, asking earlier, this global-local question. If the EU puts so many constraints on the producers within the market, how does that then respond to imports? How are you going to hold imported products to the same levels, and how is that all going to be balanced out?
I think the phasing of this process is going to be a critical element. We're really pushing our teams to get very engaged and help to really achieve that implementation of this type of initiative and make sure that we take all the stakeholders into account when we're making the decisions that we need to make.
Tom: You mentioned the importance of being aware of anticipating unintended consequences. Here's one: reducing the use of farming inputs, fertilizer, pesticides. It's been going on for many years; machinery, mapping, measurement systems have all become more efficient. But are there risks that reducing the use of those inputs could potentially lead to a reduction in food output?
Mark: Certainly. I think, again, when you think of that global-local element, we've got to think about that aspect. We don't want to become so focused on reducing the environmental impact that we're not looking at the total production. We're often pushing people to say, “What is the production we have per unit of milk, per unit of bushel of corn?” or whatever the metric is, because that's really what we need to be looking for. We are in a situation, as a global planet, as a global community, where we do have malnourishment. We do have a huge amount of countries that are going to be left in a position post-COVID that is even less food-secure than they were before. So how do we make sure that we keep that productivity and realize that that's a big part of what we need to be doing as well?
Having said that, I think that there are different technologies. The soil science area is fascinating. We think about the microbiome of the soil and what we're able to achieve there — maybe changing some of these inputs, fertilizers, pesticides, and moving towards a more holistic approach and regenerative agriculture. I think these are areas that we can keep that productivity and add the efficiency but also keep the outputs. Those are the types of areas that we're really trying to put a focus on and highlight on as we look at Planet of Plenty and as we look at our Alltech ONE Ideas Conference coming up. Those are the types of stories we're looking to focus on.
Tom: I think we often talk about achieving the goal of net zero emissions in aspirational terms, as something off in the future, but I'm wondering if we don't now have the affordable technology to achieve net zero.
Mark: Yeah. I think that, from a lot of what I've looked at, those initial steps — I think we can make some big reductions, but when getting to net zero, I think those last steps are going to be the most costly. We're going to need to look at the things that are simple and easier to do. There are a lot of technologies, particularly when it comes to energy, that are becoming more and more affordable that can help us to make those first steps, but I think that last piece is really where it will be a little bit more challenged.
For me, I suppose we've always been ones that have said — if we think of the Chinese context, “the journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step,” it's the type of thing that we have to make those first steps. And typically, once we create those frameworks and start to say, “These are the KPIs or the outcomes that we want to achieve,” I think that will lead people in the right places. So, we're really trying to push our colleagues and encourage our customers to be trying out new things, trying out technologies. That's where a lot of our interest comes in, on that ag-tech area, the aggregation of technology, so that we can start to see what works and what doesn't.
We have to try things differently in different places. It's one of the things I love about my job, is how diverse the agricultural sector is. I think it is going to be something that will take some time to get there, but if we don't get started, we'll simply be analyzing this to death and we'll never really get there. I think there is a lot there, and so many of the technologies, they do help us to lower costs. That's one of the great things about, I think, especially the American agriculture sector. So much is really created around the improvements and the productivity, and nobody's having something subsidized. They're really having to go out and sell their idea and implement it because it's giving that return on investment.
Tom: Earlier, when we were talking about the EU and the Green Deal initiative, you expressed the hope that agriculture would have a seat at the table in those discussions. I'm wondering about one aspect: carbon capture and carbon sequestration. Is that a science that is agriculture's role, and should that be a part of that conversation?
Mark: Yeah. There's a lot in terms of, I think, people thinking about carbon farming and these types of things. I think we have to look at it as, maybe, an element that could be incorporated in different agricultural systems. One of our Planet of Plenty videos is actually an example of silvopasture, which is a mixed-use system where you have the land, you've got crops, you've got trees growing and you have, in this case, beef cattle in the same environment.
I think that's a great example of, really, what this whole system is. We are in this biogenic cycle, especially in the ruminant side. There's a lot of focus on methane production and a lot of confusion about it and a lot of, I think, misinformation when you really look at the fact that the methane is staying with us for a short period of time: ten years. It is a potent greenhouse gas, but it also breaks down quickly. Also, everything that the animals are eating, the CO2 that ends up going back into the crops, is what created the plants that they consume, so it is a cycle. I think it's something that, as we become more and more efficient, as we probably have smaller dairy herds and smaller beef herds — which is something that has been a longstanding trend already — you can actually see how the overall environmental impact is reduced, too.
I think that there are some of these technologies that can come in. I think it will become an element of agriculture. People are going to look at their farms, at their operations, and say, “Let's add this aspect in,” whether that's methane digesters and trying to create energy out of materials already produced or, indeed, pure carbon capture plays that are going to be involved, and looking at some of those ways that you can mix things up. I think it's an exciting area. Again, it creates another income stream, a new income stream, for producers.
Tom: Let's stay with that theme of methane for just a moment. In an article on its online news page, the United Nations states that, and I'm quoting here, "Livestock produce significant levels of methane, a greenhouse gas, and these could be reduced drastically if we eat less meat and more plant-based foods." Here, again, the signs are promising, such as the rising popularity of plant-based meats now being sold in major international fast-food chains. Do you envision a large-scale consumer shift to plant-based meats? How should the beef and dairy industries be positioning around the prospect of an increasing market presence of these meat alternatives?
Mark: I think it's interesting. We've noticed, over a number of years, that the UN does like to come out with these statements, and we're not really sure which part of the UN they come from, because you do have such, obviously, a broad array of individuals, but you also have them living in a certain demographic and a certain geography in the world, and they sit in a certain place in society. There's been a massive amount of money made with plant-based meats already, and a lot of them have been quite speculative, a lot on the banking side — those that launched the IPOs, et cetera. There are a lot of people looking at this area as a big moneymaker for the future.
I think, if you step back and you look at the science, both in terms of the environmental side, I think there are some questions in terms of the claims being made — claims that, I would say, in more established industries, will be difficult to make. Then, on the human health side, the science there is also a little bit dubious.
So, we think that it's definitely going to be a trend. It's an area that has gotten the attraction of people. It's an area that people are interested in. It's catchy, and there's been a ton of marketing money put into it. But actually, when you look at the numbers, the growth actually has been miniscule compared to the overall protein market. That has been quite interesting to note, particularly during COVID. When you look at the percentages of increase for plant-based protein, it seems dramatic and astounding. When you look at the growth, the small percentage growth that took place more in the animal proteins, that actually dwarfs the growth that took place, on a real-volume basis, of plant-based.
We are a world that needs more protein. At Alltech, we don't have an issue of that being insect protein or that being plant-based proteins. But to a large degree, we've had a lot of these types of products in the past that have been far less processed. Again, based on my time in Asia, there's a lot of plant-based proteins that are out there and traditional ways of producing food, and I think coming at this thinking that this is some amazing technology and not thinking, again, about sustainability in a broader way — of what takes place in communities that were producing these products, of what takes place in the environment if we remove animals. Animals are critical to the soil health of our planet. If we remove them from the system, we're going to see a lot more deleterious effects. A world without cows, a world without animals, it's not a world I want to be in, and it is a world that we need to have to be able to make sure that we achieve what we need to.
As an environmentalist, I think one of my biggest concerns with this area is that we may have a population, we may have consumers who think they're genuinely doing the right thing by changing their diet, but in reality, we're actually not solving the climate issue, which is really being driven by fossil fuel usage.
Tom: That's really interesting. Can you expand on that a little bit? Why is it wrong to think that way?
Mark: I think it's because we're not looking at the whole system. We're not looking at the fact that agriculture produces, yes, greenhouse gases, but it also, as a primary function, captures carbon. Our food production system is actually pretty efficient, and it's getting more and more efficient. If we all stopped eating meat, we do not save the planet, if you want to say it that way. We do not stop climate change. This is one area where I do think diets will change. Diets will change in a lot of different ways. I think we're learning more and more about how our individual diets need to change throughout our lives. There are certain times we probably need more protein and times we need less. Also, it depends on our individual behaviors and lifestyle.
I think that, to me, it simply comes down to the fact that if we do not remove ourselves from fossil fuel usage and we continue to put more new carbon into the environment, that is really what's driving the change. The carbon that is being put into the atmosphere by animals in agriculture is carbon that we sequester with the crops that we grow. I think looking at that in that regard and realizing — can we improve yet further? Absolutely, we will, but that's not the area that I think we should be focused on. Those are the areas that concern me when I see statements like that from the UN, where I think that they're taking their eye off the ball and perhaps being, sometimes, misled to lead us down a path that may not achieve what we need to.
Tom: It's projected that, by 2050, ten billion people will inhabit this planet, and that means making room for feeding and sheltering another two billion people in less than 30 years. Can world population growth at that pace be sustained, even as we're also dealing with climate change?
Mark: Yeah, I think it absolutely can. I think a lot of it does have to come back to the fact that we do need to make changes. This has to be based on continued improvements. I don't think that this is something where this is a done deal that we can achieve this, but I do think, if we continue to focus on innovations and new technologies, it does give us that sense that the next 30 years really are going to be the most critical.
This is a time where we've got to make sure that we, I think — particularly in a time where we're not necessarily our most connected globally — we need to realize that we do need to be thinking as one world. A lot of this growth is going to be taking place in Asia. It's going to be taking place in Africa. It's going to be taking place, therefore, in places that we need to make sure that we are partnering with. A lot of what we're trying to do — we're operating in markets around the world as we connect with entrepreneurs. We help them to grow their businesses and, in a large degree, bring them the technology and the ideas and, sometimes, just the inspiration that they need to move those businesses forward. Those are going to be the people who build and have got a nutritional base for that protein that's required, the food that's needed for that growing population and, at the same time, grow those economies.
I think the fact is, when you speak to people in that position, they clearly see climate change as part of the environment that they're in, and they realize that this is something that they have to be thinking about. But I think, when we look back over the history of humankind, we've had situations such as this before where it was stated that we couldn't sustain our populations, and we've always achieved that. We have a lot of changes, of course, too, in more developed countries where, obviously, the population growth is slower. So, when I look at it in terms of the speed of growth, I think we're in a position now that this can be managed, I think, to a large degree. I think we're going to need some of those new people coming in, young people with new ideas, and they're going to be a big part of us helping us to achieve what needs to be done.
Tom: At the beginning of the year, we spoke to a few experts about their insights and expectations for agriculture and food in 2021 and beyond. Some talked about the impact COVID-19 has had on the food chain; others talked about new regulations, innovations, emerging technologies. What big themes and big trends currently capture your attention?
Mark: I think we spoke about a number that, really, at the onset of COVID, we could already see were going to be challenged. One of those was this whole idea of supply chains. Suddenly, when you have a disruption like COVID, your supply chain is thrown into chaos. You've got to not just understand and trust your suppliers — you also need to understand and trust your customers and make sure that those systems can work and be fluid and adapt to shocks. That was a big theme that we saw.
Another big theme has been health. Everybody is, of course, far more concerned about their health than they were before. I think that is changing our diets, and that really should be one of the major drivers for our, of course, dietary decisions.
I think another element, of course, that we've seen over the last year has been very much around inclusion and, I think empathy — companies needing to make sure that they're thinking about all stakeholders and all elements and how they're having a positive impact there.
Those have been, I think, big elements. One that's come forward to us also that I think is a little bit new actually goes back to your question around the growing population. If you think about how much food is wasted in our world, that, in and of itself, could have an extraordinary impact on all of these elements: on feeding the planet, on the environmental impacts and, really, on just having a better environment that we're living in. If you consider all food waste, that would actually represent 8% of greenhouse gases that are produced in the world — it would be the third-largest country, if it was a country, in terms of greenhouse gas production. This is an area which, again, is almost a pre-competitive area. How do we, as an entire food system, reduce that? We know that a lot of it is happening, obviously, a little bit through food production at that farm level, through transportation, through spoilage, maybe, in the retail side or waste in restaurants, or it's happening in our own homes. So, what are the types of things that we can work together on and, again, very much on a local level to reduce that? I think that could have a huge impact on us feeding that global population.
That's a real trend. I think it's starting to move. I think this is going to be a big area of focus, and it's one that we within Alltech are talking about. We're going to be exploring some of that starting in May and then growing out over the next few years to think about how we can reduce that food waste.
Tom: You mentioned supply chain disruptions, and that makes me curious. Has your company, Alltech, experienced problems due to supply chain disruptions?
Mark: Well, I think there was certainly a heightened focus on this area. Again, it goes back to that element we always talk about: making a friend — and we normally are thinking about that being a customer, but it also goes with our suppliers. We have to make sure that we have good relationships with them. Thankfully, we really did.
I think that there have been disruptions for our industry. Alltech, I think we're in a very good position. We have over 100 production facilities around the world. That gives us a lot of flexibility. It gives us options. If one facility has an issue, we can supply from another facility. I think that optionality helped us.
We also immediately, at the start of COVID, stated that safety was the number-one focus, and we wanted to take care of the health of our colleagues, our customers and our communities. Those were our three Cs. I didn't realize it at the time, but that really set the tone and made sure that everybody understood our operational capabilities and our ability to keep our own people safe, our customers safe. It was the critical thing, and so we've been able to maintain operations all the way through COVID. We haven't had those disruptions. We also have been able to have that flexibility of supply, having different suppliers, having deep relationships with those suppliers that have really helped us.
Tom: Back to looking at trends, I'm wondering: What trends are actually, in real time, transforming the future of food and feed?
Mark: I think, with the trends, I do think that the sustainability one is probably the thing that's changing the fastest. We're seeing it in Europe very quickly, but we also see, now, a trend here where, if you go into a Panera, you can see a “cool eats” menu. You can see what might be better for the planet. You can see the same types of ideas being explored in Chipotle. Other companies are looking at that as well.
Those types of messages are kind of a new fad. I think that quickly behind the fad needs to come the data and the story backing it up. That's something that I think we all need to be aware of. I don't think our industry is yet quite as focused on that as maybe we need to be. We've been thinking about: how did that shift, maybe, take place, and how quickly will it occur?
The other elements, though, might come back to this health idea. I think there's a lot of focus on: How can we produce foods that are better for our health, that are more enriched, that are health-enhancing? We've been able to show that, through some of our programs, we're not only reducing the reliance on antibiotics and food production but that we're actually reversing antibiotic resistance in bacteria and systems in and around those farms. That isn't an impact just for the production of that food but may be, also, an impact for the health of the people who work on those facilities.
That's an element — health, overall, and a focus on health — that, through this time of so much loss and so much grief, maybe is a silver lining or a benefit, that we're going to be more focused on our health and also, maybe, start to look at nutrition and our diets as a way to improve our health as opposed to constantly thinking that it's going to be a medical intervention that overcomes that challenge. I think that might be a big trend. When we look back in ten years, we'll say, “Wow, that was a moment when that aspect of our society changed.”
Tom: The idea of carbon counting is pretty new to a lot of people. Do you see the day coming when carbon counting will have a place right there on the menu alongside calorie counting?
Mark: Yeah. As I mentioned with the Panera idea and, I think, Chipotle — I think Chipotle is taking it a little bit further. They're almost saying, “You're having this burrito. What's the impact on the environment that this burrito had?” I don't know if they've got it totally dialed in yet, but they're seeing that as a clever way to differentiate themselves vis-à-vis their competitors.
We've noted that one in five millennials would say that they would change their diet to improve the planet's health. That's a pretty staggering number. I think that you could see, certainly, the case that this is the next thing, the next fad that comes along: “I'm not just thinking about how many calories I had today. I'm thinking about, actually, ‘What was the impact I had on the environment?’”
I think, within the European context, it's even going further. People are already changing what they're doing in terms of how they're traveling, where they're willing to travel, what types of jobs they will take because of the distance they will travel. I think the dietary aspect of that is just going to be a part of it, and that's going to be something that I think we'll probably see play out in a number of different ways. Diets have already been shifting, probably, away from beef more to pork or maybe poultry products over a number of years. Aquaculture is growing, and maybe that's going to play a bigger role, as well, as people start to think about those things. That's where we have to make sure — and I think our customers need to make sure they're getting out and telling the story and are accurately able to demonstrate and provide the metrics of what the actual environmental impact is of their food.
When you look at a steak in a restaurant, it's not exactly going to be totally clear what the environmental impact is of that. Every single producer has a different way of producing. I think that's where we've got to get to what we're really explaining: “As a producer, this is what I'm doing, and this is what makes me different to, maybe, somebody else.” I think those elements are going to be really speeding up in major trends that are going to impact our producers over the next five years.
Tom: Earlier, you mentioned the mantra that your father carried with him throughout his life and career and, now, you are carrying with you. It's simple: it's “make friends.” How does collaboration fall into elevating the agri-food sector, the whole sector?
Mark: You know, it is an industry, and he used to like to say this: He had a colleague early on who said to him, "Pearse, isn't this great? We travel around, we talk to great people, and they pay us for it." It always stuck with me, where I genuinely would say agriculture is one of those sectors that is made up of great people. I think anytime you're involved with animals, it somehow makes you a better human being. I think that they're very much people who care about each other, who care about their communities, who are there doing the right things, maybe, because they work outside, because they work on the soil, because they work with animals. For us, I think, when you have that type of mindset, I think that's the mindset that helps you realize you depend on your neighbor. You depend on that person coming down the farm drive and, maybe, giving you some insights or ideas or providing you with a technology. Collaboration is somewhat second nature within our industry.
I think, within our company, when you start out as a small startup, in a way, and grow, and you've got to go and do things a little bit differently — and I remember my father saying this to me: "Mark, I had to go and do it myself because I didn't have anybody else. But you, you'll have the opportunity to work with lots of people because of what has been built, because of what we've achieved” — and because of where, I think, the world is.
I think that the world is in a position for collaboration. It's been something that we've really all seen as a major growth driver for the future. It sits in a very important place. When we talk about Planet of Plenty, I would say the words in front of that that are even more important: "Working together." Working together is a clear signal. We are open to work with people. We're open to discuss ideas. I think that was always his way. He loved to have people come and visit, to sit around and talk about ideas. Many times, there was nothing related to business at all. It was simply, "How can I help you? How can my people help you? How does this have that impact?" And that positive impact makes that difference that we want to make in the world.
As I mentioned before, I think, three years ago, we really reflected deeply on that, and we said, “That is our mission. That's our purpose as a company.” It suddenly went from being a Pearse Lyons idea that he encouraged his colleagues to take on to, suddenly, everybody's idea. I think that's been, really, one of the most exciting things over the past few years. I guess that's what they always say: Great leaders make more leaders, and I think that's what he achieved.
Tom: Alltech's work in Haiti comes immediately to mind — the Haitian coffee product. What new business models might be created following that Planet of Plenty mission statement?
Mark: I think one of the elements that we've been talking about that goes back to that trend of trust. There are transactional relationships, and those are critical to businesses and very important. That's a lot of what our businesses operate, but partnership is something different. Partnerships, I think, really are going to be the future. We are now moving into a phase where we've had a few dozen companies that we are working with, different markets that have been success stories focused on this Planet of Plenty collaboration. I think that's a new business model. That's a way of saying, “What are the aspects that you're working on? What's the big goal you have as a company? How can we help you to achieve that?” And equally, in many regards, those customers also may be companies that are helping Alltech with our own objectives.
So, the mutually aligned goals, the idea that this isn't just about one sales order; it's about a much longer-term relationship. Companies that are saying to us, "Can we work with you on multi-year projects and deals?" That's a new business model that's pretty exciting that I think has come out of this message, because a lot of people are saying, "We love the Planet of Plenty idea. We want to be a part of it. How do we do that?" So we've created that framework.
It's interesting because some of the framework and some of the ideas of this actually came from something that might seem not so aligned and something that took place now ten and a half years ago, which was the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Within that, we created feed partners, and those feed partners were customers of Alltech, and we help them with their marketing. We help them with their IT. We help them with whatever they needed, and I think we're able to replicate that now — maybe in an even more meaningful way in terms of some of these big issues that we're all going to be dealing with globally in the Planet of Plenty partnerships.
That's a concept I'm very excited about. What's been great is, as I said before, it's gone from being an idea to really something that our local markets are embracing. I was on a call today with Asia, Latin America, North America. In each of those calls, people were talking about a company that they had a connection with, an idea they had about creating a Planet of Plenty partnership. So, it's really taken root within the organization, and it's moving very quickly.
Tom: You have a very big event coming up. In the years before this pandemic forced you to go virtual for 2020, the Alltech ONE Ideas Conference has gathered in one place. You mentioned the Symposium, which is what it was before it was called ONE, and that was here in Lexington, Kentucky. It gave a platform to agri-food expertise, from insights into animal feed and nutrition to developments in CRISPR research from all over the world. In fact, we interviewed many of the people who spoke at those conferences. And I have to tell you, Mark, my head was about to explode at the end of one of those days. The information is incredible.
So, the dates of the virtual conference have been set for this year: May 25–27. This will be the second year that the Alltech ONE Ideas Conference has gone virtual. What are the themes for this year's conference?
Mark: Well, we've taken this and focused back on that Planet of Plenty message. If you look at the logo we have for Planet of Plenty, we have these three leaves. One stands for science, one stands for sustainability and one stands for storytelling. We're going to use those three as the themes of the conference. We've been thinking about this in terms of how these elements are interconnected. There's so much that's taking place, but we have to also be led by that science. At the same time, we can only really communicate, and communicate effectively, if we have that storytelling ability and that ability to connect with people. Those are going to be, on a broader scale, some of the themes.
Some new things that we're doing — we did decide, almost this time last year, to move the conference to a virtual format. We had to make that decision. Our team worked very, very quickly and established a very successful program. We took the conference from an in-person, 3,500-person event to almost 25,000 people on the platform. This year, what we want to do is make sure that we're engaging in a deeper way with that audience and also continuing to grow. We decided to invest in our own platform. We didn't want to work purely with third parties. We now have our own trade show area. We've got our own place that really looks like, almost, the Central Bank Convention Center, and so it's really exciting to see how we're going to be able to utilize that.
The conference will be those three days. If people come through, they'll be able to see some of the different tracks they normally would see by species, perhaps something on general business, on human health, crop science, all those different things that they would see — but they're also going to be able to look at different talks and see, “This one is focused on health and wellness. This one is focused on sustainability. This one is focused on regenerative agriculture, and I want to follow those throughout.” So now, different to a physical conference, it's very easy to be able to listen to a talk, then pop into another section — plus all the information that's on demand so people could come back. I think that might give us all a little bit of a better chance to not get a headache, as you did, and be able to absorb some of the information.
Those are going to be exciting ways that the conference is changing. The other element here is that we're going to open the conference, the trade show area, a little bit early so people will get a chance to go in. They'll be able to experience that and use the environment. I think that'll create the opportunity for more interaction. This platform gives us the chance to have one-on-one meetings but also workshops on certain topics where smaller groups can have a voice. I think, through so much of the past year, when you're looking at the screen and hearing somebody give a talk, that's one thing, but that opportunity for interaction is the key. That's, of course, what makes our conference unique, I think, and really exciting — when we're all able to be in the same place and have those conversations, that makes that impact. That's what we want to make sure that we replicate and what our teams are working on now.
Tom: Well, I must say that it's a delightful headache to have. I'm wondering: Do you hear from people? Do you get feedback about the connections made, ideas hatched, collaborations formed after a conference has occurred?
Mark: Absolutely. It's something that there isn't, certainly, a year that goes by that there aren't many of those collaborations created. We have a lot of people who end up creating businesses together or establishing working relationships at the conference. They can hearken back to that and say, "Well, I met that person at the ONE; I met that person in the President's Club," or whatever the case may be. That's a critical aspect.
I think the networking element is really important. What we want to make sure is that we provide that networking opportunity in this format, and I'll tell you why that's important. Say we have 3,500 people at the physical conference. We probably have three-fold that, so maybe roughly 10,000-plus people who have never been to the conference. But if we're up to 25,000 people, that means there are people for whom this is the conference — the majority of people have experienced it in a virtual format than ever in a physical format. So, this really means that we can connect with anyone at any time. We can engage with those people, as I mentioned — perhaps they are entrepreneurs who are running a business who don't have time to travel or have never had the ability to gain access to this type of information. Also, we now are able to provide them with an opportunity to network with others. I think that's a really exciting thing.
It really goes back to the purpose of the conference. Is it to explore new ideas? Absolutely, but it's also about the relationships that we build along the way and how we can continue, beyond the conference, to have that positive impact. It was something we wanted to do, for a number of years, as a virtual element — and of course, in 2020 we were forced to. It's going to be something that will be with us from here on out. That's the challenge for 2022, is running a physical and a virtual conference as one.
Tom: That's going to be interesting. Is registration already underway? Is it available on the Alltech website?
Mark: Yes. Everything's up there on the website at one.alltech.com. The registration is open. We're looking forward to welcoming so many people back in. We have, of course, continued coverage throughout the year, and that has been another element that we've added with our Alltech ONE Virtual Experience, but we really shifted back into that Alltech ONE Ideas Conference message and the look and feel of that.
I'm really, really excited for this year's program. As I mentioned already, we already have a team, a separate team, working on 2022 — when I think it's going to be even bigger — who are really pushing to think about things in new ways. I mentioned that waste aspect before. That's going to be something that is a big focus. Just one shocking statistic that I learned on food waste is that the average American wastes the same amount of money on food as we are receiving in our stimulus checks — $2,000 of wasted food per American in a country which actually has some of the cheapest food in the world. The volume of that food is also very significant. That's an idea, I think, that we need to focus on and will be an element of this year's program and a much bigger element of next year's.
Tom: Well, something to ponder. Thank you for leaving us with that. That's incredible. Dr. Mark Lyons, president and CEO of Alltech, thank you so much for this almost hour-long conversation. I really appreciate it.
Mark: Yes, thank you for the opportunity. I really enjoyed it as well.
Tom: I'm Tom Martin, and thank you for listening