When Constance Cullman starts listing the changes and challenges facing the U.S. feed industry, she sees a wealth of opportunities.
In fact, the new president and chief executive officer of the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) is very optimistic about the industry’s future.
“I always think with change comes opportunity and we are certainly in a lot of change right now,” said Cullman, who was officially appointed to her new role on Oct. 15. “If we position ourselves correctly, if we are strategic and if we decide to embrace instead of fighting some of that change, we can create an environment where we can flourish and progress. I’m of that mind that this is a whole set of opportunities rather than a whole set of challenges.”
Cullman started with the AFIA at the end of July as president-elect, succeeding Joel Newman, who is retiring Dec. 31 after 15 years with the organization. Cullman, who’s entire career has been in the agriculture industry, said she was attracted to the AFIA position because of the visionary nature of its member leaders.
“They have demonstrated a willingness to tackle the difficult challenges and drop that ‘business as usual’ mindset so we can look around the corner to see what is coming at us,” she said in an interview with World Grain. “I found a group of leaders who wanted to think more creatively, more broadly and tackle those emerging challenges.”
She believes it will take collaboration and progressive policy to tackle issues such as the unpredictability in markets, access and availability to innovations and technologies, safety, changing regulations and connecting with consumers.
“It’s crucial that AFIA take a thoughtful leadership position and continue to push for progress through its policy and representation because we’ve got new innovations and new technologies,” Cullman said. “Right now, the U.S. is lagging in its ability to regulate, review and allow that innovation to come to market especially in terms of approvals. We really need a progressive policy mindset.”
Cullman will draw on her years of agriculture experience that started with growing up on a cow/calf operation in rural Maysville, Ohio, U.S. She has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics and a master’s degree in agricultural economics with an emphasis on international trade and agricultural policy from The Ohio State University.
After graduation, she worked as an extension associate at the university’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and then became vice-president of agricultural ecology at the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.
Cullman was also associate administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service; senior director of regulatory, technical and international affairs at the Corn Refiners Association; U.S. government affairs leader for Dow AgroSciences; and just prior to joining the AFIA, she was president and CEO of the Farm Foundation.
In her work with the Farm Foundation, an agricultural policy institute, Cullman said she focused on building collaborations and bringing people together to talk about issues. But her varying experience with government, trade groups, and private business have given her a broader understanding of what is motivating and challenging different sectors of the agriculture industry.
“I think it will make me more effective in leading the team and directing the industry toward some progressive policy,” she said. “With innovation and the unique solutions that are being developed, we need policy both in the boardroom and in government that fosters innovation.”
Cullman is a strong believer in collaboration, with both traditional as well as some non-traditional allies. This could include activist groups that are trying to make a positive difference.
“My experience has really made me adept to work with both, develop relationships and approaches to do that,” she said. “Sometimes we limit ourselves on where some common ground may be found with those organizations and groups that we traditionally tend to think of as adversaries. As things get more complex in the solution space, where we can find common ground is going to be unexpected and a little more complex.”
Three main challenges
In her five months with the AFIA, Cullman has identified three main challenges facing the feed industry: the need for workable, predictable policies and regulatory environment; the unpredictable and changing trade environment; and finding a way to truly connect with consumers.
The United States is lagging in introducing products to market, which is putting it at a competitive disadvantage across the globe, she said. The AFIA already is involved with standard setting bodies internationally, but it will need to do even more to make sure all nations stay on a risk-based approach to approving new products and technologies.
Regions such as the E.U. have proposed laws that would restrict use of antimicrobials in food animal exports, which is a move toward a hazard-based approach for approvals.
“That is a huge problem when it comes to being able to produce product for multiple markets,” Cullman said. “That idea can be contagious and move to other major markets. We need to hold countries accountable to their World Trade Organization (WTO) commitment and also work diligently with multiple standard-setting bodies.”
A strong dispute settlement system must be maintained within the WTO to ensure members take their obligations seriously, she said.
“We also need to work with developing countries to help them develop a risk-based assessment to how they look at product and technology,” she said. “It’s going to be a multi-pronged approach.”
Beyond government regulations, the industry is seeing policies created in the boardroom that have a much more immediate impact.
“Those company policies are introducing all kinds of unpredictability because we don’t know what our customers are going to be demanding,” Cullman said.
Unpredictability also surrounds the trade environment, where ongoing disputes are hurting existing markets and making it difficult to develop new markets.
“We told farmers and the rest of the industry that you can’t depend on government for support, that you need to produce for the market,” she said. “They did that and developed an international market. But now, the market has been pulled right out from underneath them.”
On the bright side, the United States and Japan did reach an agreement in September to reduce tariffs on agricultural and industry products, which will help make up for some of the ground lost when the United States pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“We’ve lost some market share to our competitors so it’s going to be a matter of getting back in there aggressively and retaking some of that market,” Cullman said, noting that Japan is the third largest export market behind Canada and Mexico.
Resolving the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement is also critical as well as exploring opportunities with developing economies, particularly those in Southeast Asia, she said.
In October, the AFIA received funding from the Foreign Agricultural Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under its Emerging Markets Program to conduct a market assessment in Vietnam. By 2022, estimates have Vietnam’s animal feed additive market reaching $160.5 million, up from $112.45 million in 2014, with a compound annual growth rate of more than 4.7% from 2015 to 2022.
“I really think there is a lot of potential in Vietnam for our sector,” Cullman said. “It’s going to be an in-depth analysis to see how we might be able to diversify our export market.”
Back at home, Cullman said a personal passion for her is connecting with consumers through shared values. Many of the values consumers want already are embedded in how the AFIA’s members do business.
“We just need to be able to talk to consumers about that and demonstrate to consumers the presence of those values,” she said. “I want to get away from saying we need to educate the consumer. The consumer already knows what values he or she has. Right now they’re trying to buy products based on labels that don’t really mean a lot.”
Emphasis on sustainability
Cullman said she also will continue the work the AFIA has done on sustainability, a topic that no one in the agriculture industry can avoid.
“We have a really good story to tell there and we’re working on that,” Cullman said.
The AFIA was part of the consortium that announced in September creation of the Global Feed LCA Institute, a non-profit institute that builds on the work started in 2016 to create a global standard for the lifecycle analysis of feed ingredients.
“It’s an initiative to develop a free and publicly available feed lifecycle analysis database for all of the animal protein groups trying to put together an analysis for their product,” said Cullman, who was elected to serve on the institute’s inaugural board of directors. “One of the missing links is the feed part. This database will fill that hole.”
It will make publicly available an expanded regional and sectorial animal nutrition lifecycle analysis database, consolidating existing datasets developed for the E.U., the U.S. and Canada. The initial datasets are based on the environmental standards of the Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance Partnership, a project led by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. A technical committee will ensure the data has scientific integrity, and it should be available by late next year. Other organizations represented on the board include the European Feed Manufacturers Federation, the Animal Nutrition Association of Canada, the International Feed Industry Federation and the Norwegian Seafood Federation.
“It’s going to improve the accuracy of environmental reporting and help us set some future sustainability goals,” Cullman said. “AFIA is really excited to join our counterparts around the world to provide that sound basis of information that’s going to allow us to make some real improvements in this area.”