All the tools and technologies needed to take animal health to the next level of sustainability are already available, according to several industry experts at the recent Animal AgTech Innovation Summit.

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Technology is readily available to help animal health in its sustainability quest

10:17 AM | September 23, 2020 | Joseph Harvey

All the tools and technologies needed to take animal health to the next level of sustainability are already available, according to several industry experts.

Jeroen Van De Ven – chief operating officer at Allflex Livestock Intelligence – said there is a real sense of urgency across the livestock production industry to improve sustainability and animal welfare. He suggested building consumer trust through technology will go some way to solving this issue.

Speaking at the recent Animal AgTech Innovation Summit, Mr Van De Ven said: "There is no need to wait for new technologies. What we need is collaborations and partnerships to make it happen. That is where the emphasis needs to be. We're looking for the leading companies to stand up, work together and enable this in animal ag."

Allflex is part of Merck Animal Health, which recently purchased IdentiGEN – a leader in DNA-based animal traceability solutions for livestock and aquaculture. One of Merck's goals for its expanding digital technology portfolio is to bring transparency and benefits to stakeholders all along the value chain.

Mr Van De Ven stated: "COVID-19 has shown there is no end-to-end connection in the value stream in anima ag. Farmers get affected by upstream factors they cannot influence and the risks in the food chain are not evenly distributed. There needs to be a balance between the value for the farm and the value for the food chain or consumers. Ultimately, there needs to be a better distribution of the risks.

”The solution starts with better transparency. We need to have end-to-end traceability in animal agriculture to really allow the value distribution to happen across the chain. Traceability ultimately enables trust in food.”

Johan De Meulemeester – global technical director at Merck Animal Health Intelligence – said customers have "lost connection with the story of their food". He suggested creating trust along the value chain can help take customers on the journey of their food from farms to their plates.

Dr De Meulemeester said Merck's acquisitions have helped it become "a leader in traceability". However, he noted the need to create a win-win situation for all stakeholders and drive technological uptake. While consumers are benefiting from the technology's ability to constantly measure animal wellbeing, Dr De Meulemeester said producers using these systems need to be rewarded for increasing their animal wellbeing.

Merck is working with Danone as part of the Farming for Generations alliance, which is designed to bring together leading businesses in the agricultural sector to help farmers to adopt regenerative agricultural practices. It has a particular focus on preserving the planet's resources, animal welfare and the long-term economic viability of farms.

Cees Jan Hollander – global farming expertise manager at Danone – said this initiative allows players in the value chain to gather next-generation best practices and provide a unified voice to farms.

Henry Berger, who is Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health's global head of marketing and strategy for animal diagnostics and monitoring, said companies within the food production value chain remain very siloed. He suggested the adoption of technology will only increase when these barriers come down across the value chain to allow for increased collaboration.

Technology is the key

Sebastien Pascual, who is a director at investment firm Temasek, said the recent food supply chain breakdown during COVID-19 “has created a very deep concern and a need to rethink how to bring more resiliency”.

He said more regionalized food production at local levels could be a solution. Again, technology could help facilitate this – enabling areas with limited land to increase protein production. For example, the ability to bring aquaculture production inland would benefit many countries in need of new sources of protein.

Mr Pascual also pointed out the need for added automation at meat plants to limit the interaction of humans. This could be provided with the adoption of more sensors, robotics and analytics.

Lars Leopold Hinrichsen – managing director of the Danish Meat Research Institute – showed how Denmark halved the number of employees in its pork industry between 2001 and 2018. At the same time, the sector has kept the value of its pork exports on an even keel.

Mr Hinrichsen said the introduction of flexible next-generation automation technology could bring employment levels down even further, with new sensors and artificial intelligence potentially key areas.

”I believe we are at a point now where we face completely new possibilities with the technologies arriving,” he remarked. “We will be able to create a completely new trajectory for our development and innovation.”

Alleviating labor constraints is a critical focus of a lot of the new technologies being adopted along the food supply chain.

SriRaj Kantamneni – managing director of digital insights at Cargill – stated: "COVID-19 is going to open the door for phenomenal innovation with entrepreneurs and start-ups that enter this space wanting to make an impact. We know it's more difficult to be on farms, we know it's more difficult to interact with customers and so we've got to come up with new and unique ways to do that."

He also underlined the necessity of actionable information across a holistic platform of connected data points. Mr Kantamneni said innovation in the pork sector is Cargill's current priority, while the company is also focused on leveraging the dairy sector in Europe and the poultry space in Brazil and Asia.

Alternative proteins

The panelists also broached the perceived rising consumer interest in alternative proteins.

Mr Hollander said it is Danone’s mission to give customers a choice between traditional meats and plant-based or cell-based options.

Mr Pascual stated: “It would be naïve to think alternative protein will go away. There is room for both to coexist. Alternative proteins will become more and more important in the value chain, not just for the consumer but for the animal industry itself.

”There is a need for protein players to adapt and remain relevant, and jump on those trends of sustainability.”

Frank Mitloehner – a professor at the University of California’s animal science department – pointed out “after all the hype”, plant-based alternatives still only account for 0.6% of total meat sales in the US.

However, recent data suggested sales of plant-based food in the US has outpaced total food sales during the COVID-19 pandemic.