THE BLOG

Why The Makers of Animal Growth Hormones Shouldn't Control the Hunger Debate

06/23/2014 01:46 pm ET | Updated Aug 23, 2014
  • Andy Bellatti Registered dietitian; Strategic Director of Dietitians For Professional Integrity

When I heard that Elanco -- the global pharmaceutical company behind recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), an artificial growth hormone, and various antibiotics used on livestock farms -- was reaching out to dietitians to educate them about farming, my red flag went up.

Next month, Elanco, which is owned by pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and recently bought Novartis' animal health business for $5.4 billion, will sponsor a free webinar for dietitians titled "U.S. Farming 101." The session, the company says, is meant to "provide a foundational understanding of farming, with relevant information for nutrition professionals to share with consumers."

Behind the scenes, Elanco recently gave the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) -- a professional group of over 70,000 members that I belong to -- a grant (the amount has not been disclosed). At around the same time, AND co-created a committee and personally invited a handful of dietitians who are involved in agriculture (many of whom are also farmers) to join. The goal, according to internal AND communications, is to "arm Academy members with resources to educate themselves and the public about issues relating to [sustainable farming, food insecurity globally, and nutritiously and safely feeding a growing world population.]"

To get a sense of how Elanco frames these issues, take a look at the report Elanco published earlier this year, effectively throwing its hat into the world hunger ring. The core message? "The fight for a food-secure tomorrow" requires 60 percent more animal-sourced foods -- specifically meat, milk, and eggs.

Now, world hunger is not insignificant. According to the latest statistics from the United Nations' World Food Program (WFP), one in every eight people on our planet goes to bed hungry every night. The world's population (currently at 7.17 billion) is increasing at a rate of 74 million per year, and is expected to reach 9 billion by the year 2050. These numbers beg the question: How will we feed an additional 2 billion people?

Elanco suggests that we solve the problem by taking advantage of "dairy innovations" like long-day lighting. The company also tries to make the case that an increase in meat and dairy can help boost test scores in developing nations (the cited study compared children who had their diets supplemented with meat and dairy versus additional calories from oils, essentially operating on the assumption that protein is exclusively synonymous with animal products).

The company's arguments certainly make for great marketing material, but they do not reflect the reality of solving hunger, or at least not the reality presented by organizations whose livelihood is not dependent on the sale of animal pharmaceuticals.

In fact, at the moment, we don't have a lack of food. The WFP has explicitly states that "the world produces enough to feed the entire global population of 7 billion people." Hunger, says the group, is caused by factors such as climate change, poverty, unstable markets, and war and displacement. Hunger, in essence, is a socioeconomic and sociopolitical problem that requires socioeconomic and sociopolitical solutions.

According to the United Nations, the two most important changes that must take place if we are to begin to solve the hunger problem are:

* First, raise the incomes of the poor by helping them to earn a better livelihood so they can afford to buy food;

* Second, provide immediate and direct access to food for those families most in need.

This is not to say that technology and innovation cannot play a role. However, technology and innovation encompasses far more than sub-therapeutic antibiotics and growth hormones. For example, in some developing nations, the UN provides "e-vouchers" sent via text message, which, the WFP says "benefit the local economy, because beneficiaries spend the money in local markets. People often prefer cash and vouchers to traditional food assistance, because they offer more choice and variety."

While Elanco is billing its collaboration with AND as educational, it seems to me that Elanco is looking for an easy way to keep tabs on criticism or concerns about its practices and quickly engage in damage control, if needed.

It's a real pity that rather than consider the important research on innovation-driven sustainable agriculture that can be applied on a global scale, the nation's leading nutrition organization is instead setting a place at the table for a company who has a vested interest in increasing production of bio-tech animal products. If nothing else, it would be an ethical move to make a place at that same table for another group or organization that approaches issues of agriculture and hunger differently. For example, will the Academy ensure that dietitians also hear from groups who believe that a diet high in animal products can be detrimental?

As long as the conversation about world hunger continues to center around -- and be dominated by -- the myth that we are not growing enough food, we can expect the problem to get worse.

Instead, we need dialogue that addresses climate change, food waste, sustainable agriculture, gender equality, and economic inequity. Then, and only then, can we confidently say we will be able to feasibly feed all 9 billion of us by 2050.

This article originally appeared in Civil Eats.