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Food tip of the spear, solution to solving U.S.-China trade war, says ag tech leader

Article cover photo
The current trade war between China and the U.S. is creating volatility and risk at the farm gate and beyond according to Alltech President Mark Lyons. (Photo: Aaron Putze/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Aaron Putze, APR

Soybeans and other agricultural commodities are being used as weapons in the ongoing U.S.-China trade war.

But can food also hold the key to resolving the diplomatic impasse?

The answer is “yes,” says the leader of a U.S.-based company doing business internationally in animal feed, meat production and distilling.

Alltech President Mark Lyons, in opening remarks at the company’s annual convention in Lexington, Kentucky, said he long held out hope that a resolution was in the works. It quickly faded, however, when talks between the two countries broke down earlier this month.

“I remained optimistic that this was indeed a trade dispute,” Lyons said. “But it’s no longer a dispute. We definitely have a war on our hands.

“Let’s keep it just a trade war as we continue to find ways to work together.”

The world’s two largest economies have a tremendous impact on global markets and currencies. Lyons said tensions between the two geo-political powers is creating extraordinary risk and volatility at the farm gate and beyond.

Yet food can be the great unifier because the need for nutrition knows no borders.

“Never before have we had more people who are defined as rich and middle class than poor,” he said. “This holds tremendous promise provided we can work through the political tensions.”

Lyons points to African Swine Fever, a threat for both countries – and also an opportunity to work together.

The virus, which infects domestic pigs and wild boars, results in mortality for more than 90 percent of its hosts. It’s rapid spread through China has impacted as much as 40 percent of the nation’s hog herd – or 180 million head – according to some estimates and depressed soybean meal usage.

It’s also traveled from Russia and Eastern Europe to Belgium. U.S. ag officials, working in cooperation with America’s farmers and their associations, are working proactively and using every tool possible to safeguard domestic herds. The much-publicized cancellation of next month’s World Pork Expo held annually in Des Moines is one example.

Lyons says preventing the spread of disease is of paramount importance to a broad and diverse coalition including Chinese and U.S. pig and soybean farmers, consumers and political and regulatory officials.

That’s why the company is partnering with Cornerstone, a partnership between AniTek and Pipestone. The shared effort will assess how to effectively prevent the transmission of the virus via feed.

“We’re excited about this and the aligned effort around a shared goal,” he said. “Collectively, we’ve done a great deal of work on many different viruses and diseases. This is the next step.”

Given the amount of raw feed ingredients obtained from Asian countries, feed as a vector for the virus’ spread is a real and immediate threat. Initial testing has found the virus in dust present at feed mills and in feed trucks and transport trailers. Researchers have also determined via laboratory tests that the virus can likely survive the 37-day trip by ocean vessel from Asian countries to the United States.

The next question, says Lyons, will be on the regulatory front.

“I’m optimistic about the potential of managing this virus but can we get the products into China?”

Despite that potential hurdle, Lyons sounded more optimistic that ASF would be solved before Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping end the trade war.

“Having lived in China for six years, I think these two really need to get closer as the way of negotiating is very different between the countries,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to happen quickly. That said, it could very well could be a shipment of soybeans or pork that helps us come to an agreement.”

Alltech, headquartered in Nicholasville, Kentucky, develops agricultural products for use in both livestock and crop farming, as well as products for the food industry. It operates under three main divisions: animal nutrition and health; crop science; and, food and beverage.

Contact Aaron Putze at

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