Five Minutes with Pearse Lyons

One of agriculture's most charismatic figures offers Farm Futures the big picture on science, food and biofuels.

Pearse Lyons is hands down the most interesting scientist you will ever meet. Everything he does is high energy, whether it's belting out an Irish tune with 300 friends at a brew pub or running his multi-million dollar company's global biotech (and beer) business.

Lyons is an Irish-born scientist living out a bluegrass American dream on Kentucky soil. Educated in the United Kingdom in fermentation and distillation, he moved to Lexington in 1976 and began meeting with Midwest farmers who needed help making 'gasohol' from corn. 

Even then Lyons was ahead of his time. His first textbook, published 28 years ago, was titled "A step to energy independence" and focused on alternative fuels. (He has since authored over 20 more books.)

When gasohol waned, Lyons redirected his efforts toward livestock. He developed natural yeast fermentation and natural enzyme technology as the driving force for new products in the animal feed industry.

He started Alltech in 1980, focusing on people, science - and family. The letters "A-L-L" came from his then 5-year-old daughter, Aoife Louise Lyons. His 3-year-old son Mark chose the company colors, and his wife Deirdre created the logo itself, with a microscope inside the shapes of the letters (see graphic).

Today Alltech is a thriving $450 million company with customers in over 100 countries. The company employs 2,000 people worldwide and revenues are growing at the rate of 25% annually.

Lyons is one of the feed industry's most charismatic figures. His message always hammers on science-based solutions. Micro-biology could unleash massive opportunities for livestock nutrition, he believes. It can unlock the 'feed' potential of a raft of resources, including bio-energy by-products, alternative crops and other recycled food waste.

"If we were to take all the waste, from grass clippings to wood shavings, that the United States creates every year and convert it into cellulosic ethanol we would not import one single barrel of oil," he says. "That's the challenge, the goal and the prize."

But Lyons never set out to be a scientist as a youngster. He was aghast when he first set eyes on a periodic table. At University he drifted toward science because he found it interesting and ended up getting his PhD in England. With Ireland's rich history in brewing he got into the practical application working with yeast in the distilling industry. Besides animal feed products, Alltech also produces Kentucky Ale along with other adult beverages sold around the world.

Farm Futures: In Alltech's early days, why did you shift focus from ethanol to the feed industry?

Lyons: The company was started to provide embryo ingredients for the ethanol industry in the early '80s. In those days we selected the site to make ethanol, ran the plant, ensured its profitability. Somewhat ironically 15 years later companies like Broin took the same model.

I was concerned ethanol would go up and then down, concerned that ADM and Cargill would become the giants of this world, which they did. We would be left with the crumbs from the rich man's table. So we looked at other ways to apply our technology. I saw an opportunity to use yeast-derived products in the feed industry. Being a salesman I was able to make a profit from it.

You travel the world and work with the biggest players in every market. What can farmers learn from your perspective?

There's a barrier out there. I call it the wall. That wall is typically the one thing that's stopping me and some of my guys getting to the owners of these farms. A dairy farmer can make money, but you have to be made aware of the latest technology.

I tell farmers in Somalia, Brazil and Bangladesh the same thing: Here are the latest five things you must use to make money. We have, for example, a product called Sel-Plex and if you look at the scientific studies and use this in a dairy diet you will get 7% more milk, do away with selenium, have less mastitis, and better calving.

Why then don't all farmers use it? There's a wall. It may be a consultant or a nutritionist who hasn't kept up to date. Or they listen but they don't understand it. My point is, the opportunities are there for farmers to use new innovative technology, whether it's improving animal health or something else.

Can livestock growers still make a profit today?

In 2003 corn was around $2 a bushel. Now it's in excess of $6. The grain producer is doing well for the first time in their lives and land prices are up. On the other hand the beef producer is not doing well. We risk some cow-calf operations switching to just growing grain.

The problem is we need to increase the price of our value-added products - beef, eggs, etc. - in a corresponding way. This is the problem in the feed industry. They say, 'price is going up, we'll make economies.' That's dangerous because if you don't make changes, you don't make profit.

I really think there has to be connectivity between the price people get in the marketplace and the price they pay for their raw materials.

Are biofuels to blame?

The increase in prices of meat is not simply due to biofuels. It's a small contributor. It's the price of energy, with oil prices going to $120 per barrel. And people realizing we only have 32 years of oil left.

Dubai toady is one of the richest places in the world, but 95% of Dubai's revenue does not come from oil. Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoumhas said, we can't depend on this long term so we're going to brand Dubai as a tourism and financial center, and create something very special.

The message for us is, those guys cannot raise animals. We can raise animals. As good as Brazil is, we're still the grain basket of the world. We still have an incredible opportunity, but let's give the customer what they want.

Reporters at last month's Alltech Feed Symposium asked if we should all become vegetarians since it cost so much to convert grains to meat. Your thoughts?

In an ideal world the best use of grains is to eat the grains. We wouldn't feed them to animals where you have a 6-to-1 conversion ratio. But this is not a perfect world and boy what a boring world it would be.

As long as people have money they will want to eat meat. Just look at India and China. The challenge is, make the meat financially more available. And the challenge is to keep farmers in business.

You tout science, and every science-based study shows using growth hormones to produce beef is harmless. Most people think the EU ban on growth-hormone beef is just more trade protectionism.

The EU ban on growth hormone beef had nothing to do with protectionism. The EU is the largest buyer of beef, but the consumers there have lost faith in the regulatory system. You're trying to tell them that steroids are good but their confidence is shot, so you had better give them what they want - after all, they are the customer.

The United States could take over the world beef market, but we should sell it as a branded product and make sure it's totally traceable, that you don't have anything in there you wouldn't want your mama to know about.

What role will science play in solving food and feed problems?

The key to our future is to be curious about science, to be at the cutting edge in a curious way.

We do a lousy job of educating people about the necessity of science. Let's not bog them down with the periodic table. Instead, tell them what science does for you, the exciting part.

We have to have a system which makes science interesting to these kids and if they have a short attention span, we have to play to that and make it interesting.

It's like a preacher. After 15 minutes, you're gone — why do we expect kids to be any different?

We have to have more kids coming into science. Yet, what do we do at the PhD level? We tell them to put their lives on hold, pay them subsistent wages, and ask them not to get married because they won't be able to afford kids. That's crazy. How can we possibly lead the world if we don't understand that it starts with education?

What do you think has been the key to success since you came here from Ireland?

I don't think we've ever lost the common touch. We're in it for people as much as we're in it for profit. I'd like to claim that we haven't changed and people who know us would say we're still the same people we were 30 years ago.

We will only be limited by our imagination and ability for hard work. I always tell people, don't worry if it's wrong just go do it. Surround yourself with good people and just do it.

What will be your legacy?

Hopefully it's that we really made a difference and brought some excitement to rural ag and science.

I didn't grow up with a silver spoon. My dad was an electrician and didn't have a high school education. So sometimes I have to pinch myself. The American dream is alive and well at Alltech, and Pearse Lyons is thankful and fortunate to be living the American dream.

TAGS: USDA
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