The Case for Juiced-Up Cows in the Organic Age

Big Ag pushes back as consumers demand more natural food.

Illustration: Braulio Amado

Jeff Simmons is a man on a mission. As the president of Elanco, the animal health division of Eli Lilly, he’s spent the last several years out on the stump, determined to convince the world that technology and innovation—including Elanco’s drugs for farm animals—are essential for Big Agriculture to thrive and feed the growing global demand for food.

“We’re part of one of the most important forces on the face of the earth— American agriculture,” Simmons declared last October to an audience of more than 10,000 delegates at the annual Future Farmers of America Convention in Louisville. “Get on your feet,” he commanded as the country music hit Give Me Back My Hometown blared and Simmons made his way through the crowd, high-fiving delegates and snapping selfies on his way to the stage. “Moments ... can create movements,” he said.

Simmons
Simmons
Photographer: Matthew Avignone for Bloomberg Businessweek

Simmons is on a counteroffensive. Increasingly, the drugs Elanco makes—including antibiotics and productivity enhancers—have come under attack by food activists and, in some instances, scientists and regulators. Food companies and fast-food chains are responding to consumer demand for healthier, more natural food that doesn’t contain some of the drugs that have made Elanco a $2.3 billion business.

Over the past year, McDonald’s and Subway became the latest fast-food chains to take steps to phase out purchases of meat from animals raised with antibiotics; routine feeding of human antibiotics to farm animals contributes to resistant superbugs. Many consumers are also choosing not to buy milk from dairy cows treated with the synthetic growth hormone rBGH, which Elanco also sells.

A drug called ractopamine, created and sold by Elanco to speed muscle growth with less feed, has been used in raising as many as 80 percent of U.S. hogs. Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest hog producer, says it has stopped using the drug—already banned in China, Russia, and the European Union—on its animals.

Simmons’s aggressive argument is that the world’s growing demand for meat, milk, and eggs is a more urgent priority than American consumers’ desires for food that is organic, antibiotic-free, or pasture-raised. Industrial farming is not only necessary, he says, but also a moral imperative to feed an estimated 9 billion people by 2050. “We don’t need more animals,” he said in May at a regional Rotary conference in Indianapolis. “We need productive animals.”

Simmons doesn’t directly pitch Elanco products during his speeches on hunger, saying he has a higher purpose: alleviating world hunger and changing a conversation that’s been hijacked by a vocal fringe of activists. If the arguments sound familiar, it’s because Monsanto and other proponents of genetically modified foods made similar claims. Those failed to allay consumers’ fears.

Simmons says leaders in agriculture can’t win by just arguing the science; they also have to address other elements of the debate, such as economics, the environment, animal welfare, and moral issues. The industry, he adds, can’t be soft-spoken. “We got a little tired of playing defense. We’ve made a major mistake in agriculture,” he explains. By being so restrained “we don’t say anything. We were dead right but disconnected.”

His impassioned delivery is what separates Simmons from most other Big Ag executives. His speeches are a mix of statistics on food and agriculture, motivational nuggets, and stories about his own encounters with poverty. He told the Rotarians about an incident in April 2000, when he was Elanco’s country director for Brazil. One night, his security guard and Portuguese instructor, a man named Joaquin, knocked on his door. Joaquin, who had his two teenage daughters behind him, said he hadn’t been paid for more than a month because his employer—Simmons’s landlord—had fallen on hard times. His daughters hadn’t eaten in two days, and he was desperate. “If you have seen kids who haven’t eaten in a couple days, or even a day, the wrongness of that screamed out at me,” Simmons said. “It’s time to stop being politically correct and get after this.”

He’s been honing his message ever since: that a minority of pushy elites—vegans, organic die-hards, and GMO-bashers—is keeping vital technology from farmers, that animal protein is a crucial source of nutrition, that unleashing innovation would allow farmers to produce enough meat, milk, and eggs to meet demand without draining additional natural resources.

Simmons reinforces his thesis online with a campaign called the Enough Movement (enoughmovement.com). His Twitter page shows a grainy photo of Simmons carrying a small African child on his back. “What’s in your #organicfood is also in conventional food. The difference? Organic food isn’t as #sustainable,” he tweeted on Aug. 5, linking to an article entitled “The Colossal Hoax of Organic Agriculture.”

The industry shares Simmons’s views, if in a less demonstrative way, says Ron Phillips, vice president for public affairs at the Animal Health Institute, the trade group for animal pharmaceutical companies. “I think you will see the threads of that through every company’s story,” Phillips says. Simmons has “put some hard data and a nice narrative around it.”

Not everyone is sold on the sincerity of Simmons’s message. Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that advocates for environmental causes, says raising the productivity of livestock mostly benefits the middle class and the wealthy, not the hungry and poor. “I always find it sort of hollow when someone pushes so hard on their own profitable products as the key to feeding the world,” he says.

Elanco’s international sales grew 16 percent in 2014. U.S. sales grew 4 percent that year, down from 6 percent in 2013 and 30 percent in 2012, following the introduction of new drugs for pets. The consumer backlash against animal drugs has not had a material impact on its bottom line, says spokeswoman Julie Lawless. The consulting firm Vetnosis says the $24 billion global animal health market will grow 4 percent to 5 percent a year over the next decade.

Simmons is determined to stay ahead of the public debate. In June, as the White House convened a panel on antibiotic resistance, Elanco announced a policy to reduce the need for shared-use drugs. The company plans to develop “animal-only” antibiotics and seek other alternatives, like vaccines. “I don’t want to be the Kodak executive who said, ‘No one will ever take pictures on their phone,’ ” he says.

Simmons grew up on a grape farm in upstate New York. At the Future Farmers of America convention last year, he recalled his own experience at the 1985 convention, a time when U.S. agriculture was struggling with staggering debt, high interest rates, and plunging crop prices. That year the motivational guru Zig Ziglar was one of the speakers. “I just remember the last 30 seconds,” Simmons said. “He walked to the edge of the stage, he closed his eyes, and he said, ‘I want you all to close your eyes, and I hope you dream big, and you dream boldly, and you put yourselves in those dreams.’ ”

Wearing an Enough T-shirt beneath his suit, Simmons urged his audience of teenaged future farmers to find their own “hunger inside” and take control of the story of American agriculture. “Are you up for that challenge?” he asked. “Do you want to own it? Or do you want somebody who doesn’t have an agricultural background to own it?”

The bottom line: Elanco’s president says there’s no way to satisfy global demand for meat without innovation and technology.

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