2,100 ponder future of food at Alltech symposium

Innovation, success go hand in hand

jpatton1@herald-leader.comMay 24, 2011 

In downtown Lexington, hundreds of scientists, farmers and food producers are pondering what you had for breakfast. And dinner.

And what the rest of the soon-to-be 7 billion people on the planet will eat this year.

The 27th Alltech symposium on animal health and nutrition has brought together a record 2,100 people from 72 countries to weigh the big issues in food.

Such as: Will algae save the world if we run out of corn? Is programmable nutrition (microchips attached to meat animals to select the right feed) the answer? How can social media get us to eat better? And what does "eat better" mean?

The international meeting, which continues through Wednesday at Heritage Hall, opened Monday with Alltech president and founder Pearse Lyons presenting the Alltech Medal of Excellence to Inge Russell, Canada's two-time scientist of the year, for her work in biotechnology and fermentation of yeast and algae. A professor at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, Russell has made many a sip of whisky just that much better.

Russell said social media have made possible huge advances in food safety.

"We want authenticity and traceability," she said. And platforms such as Canada's Thisfish or the Harvestmark iPhone app in the United States give it to them.

Using those apps, consumers may scan a code to look up exactly who caught that salmon or grew those grapes, and then, through Facebook, find out whether they have kids or wives who knit, and email them about their food.

Innovation is the hallmark of the biggest global food successes, said Damien McLoughlin, professor at the National University of Ireland.

But, he said, the big hits aren't fads.

Nestlé, he said, takes a 100-year-old product like Kit Kat and just keeps updating it. It even has a corporate word for it, he said: "renovating."

Yum Brands has its big-name brand KFC (formerly Kentucky Fried Chicken) and is headquartered in Louisville, but KFC China is bigger than KFC USA. KFC opens 400 new franchises each year in China, he said.

"We think of it as a typical American company," McLoughlin said. "But maybe we should change that."

And there's Zespri. Not content with being the world's largest marketer of kiwifruit, the New Zealand company has dominated the supply chain to double its profit margin, he said.

Then the company came up with "Zespri Gold," a primo, patented best-kiwi-you've-ever-tasted fruit, he said. "It's magnificent," he said.

And they charge double for it.

That's the kind of game-changer Lyons thinks his Nicholasville-based global nutrition company can bring to the world, possibly through the 800,000 varieties of algae out there, which he said can be the key to the farm of the future.

And not the future of "Tomorrowland," but the future of the next year or two.

Lyons was blunt Monday when talking about the first thing the planet needs to do: "Stop using corn," he said. "It is the height of lunacy to take 6 pounds of corn to make a pound of beef."

For a company that markets Alltech Angus beef, that might sound startling, but Lyons had even stronger words: Face what consumers are saying about antibiotics and global warming.

"Antibiotics should be in our hospitals, not in our food," Lyons said. Embrace programmable nutrition and new technology such as algae, he said.

"These will feed the world," Lyons said, "and we desperately need to feed the world."

Reach Janet Patton at (859) 231-3264 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3264.

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