Plant-based phytogenics threaten big pharma’s pull on big ag, opening lucrative feed industry to emerging markets and eager investors

By Nancy Collisson

The free-from movement relating to consumer demand that chemical additives and preservatives be removed from packaged food and drink has, in the last five years, crossed over to the commercial pet food and livestock feed industries. Demand for plants that thereby supplement feed will grow exponentially as pet-owners and farmers want their animals to eat as healthfully as they do, and while most governments now insist that livestock, especially, stop receiving anti-biotics through their feed.

The fiscal impact of this transition will, of course, primarily be suffered by Big Pharma, with the benefit going to plant-growers, as pet food and animal feed manufacturers are now increasingly supplementing their products with phytogenics – plant-based compounds including herbs, spices, saponins (parts of plants with special nutritional properties), and botanical-based essential oil extracts. Phytogenics are the same sorts of plant-based nutrients that health-savvy human consumers are now widely using and even referring to as superfoods.

Many of us already know that turmeric, for example, is no longer regarded as a mere flavoring for curries; it is worshipped as a miracle cure-all. Leaves of the delicate cilantro (coriander) no longer just serve as a simple garnish for guacamole, they are praised and purchased for their unique chelating effect that allows their enzymes to bind with and remove mercury deposits from the brain.

Tailored to specific dietary needs of animals, certain phytogenics such as these improve the health of these animals, as well. Just as before the advent of pharmaceutical drugs in the late 19th and early 20th century, consumption of plants by animals helps them in myriad ways. They aid an animal’s digestion by improving taste and thereby increasing their production of saliva. (Anyone who has ever observed the reaction of a dog or cat five minutes after its eaten grass understands this.) Phytogenics that generate healthy gut flora protect animals from pathogens, thereby eliminating need for expensive anti-fungals, de-worming agents, parasiticides, and anti-biotics. This point is particularly poignant in light of the fact that the USDA and the EU Livestock Feeding For Health In A New Era have all but banned use of non-essential and especially growth-promoting anti-biotics on farm animals.

Additionally, certain phytogenics enhance nutrient absorption and can reduce emissions of and weaken the harshness of urea and methane. Setting aside popular media fodder that methane from cows contributes to global warming, plant-based feed causes cattle and pigs to have less acrid urine, giving them immediate relief from respiratory infections. Typically, such infections would be treated with dosages of anti-biotics.

As with humans, so with animals: if the animals have a healthy diet, they tend to not get sick.

Saponins are nutrients from plants with specific known and tested properties. The saponins in yams, for example, can add healthy weight and improve fertility in animals – just as they have been regarded as doing for millennia among many cultures across earth.

Because certain phytogenics serve as natural preservatives, pet food and livestock feed manufacturers are able to increase product profitability by dropping their use of chemical preservatives in packaging – and not handing that cost-reduction to consumers.

In 2016, the 36 percent of Americans who own dogs and 30 percent who own cats will spend nearly $24 billion on pet food. USDA statistics show that in 2014, US farmers spent only a bit more, $30 billion, on feed for chickens, dairy cows, beef cattle, pigs, and sheep combined.

The fact that the animal feed industry is responding to massive consumer demand as well as government awareness that anti-biotics are ineffective is best illustrated by the fact that pharmaceutical companies have begun manufacturing their own phytogenics – but they stick with plant-based vaccinations.

In 2010, professors Brian L. Buhr, Professor and Head of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota, St. Paul; Derald Holtkamp, Assistant Professor in Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine, Iowa State University, Ames; and Steve Sornsen, Senior Director of Veterinary Services for Pfizer Animal Health, addressed this phenomenon in a white paper focused on pharmaceutical interests in the agricultural feed industry.

Their article, Healthy Competition in the Animal Health Industry included the following proviso: plant-based vaccines have the potential to reduce the risk of animal virus contamination, are highly stable and cannot produce virulent pathogens that can spread to other animals. In addition, they may be administered as an inherent part of feed, assuring treatment of all animals and reducing the need for additional treatments and management. To this end, they added, Dow Agrosciences has developed a plant-made vaccine technology called ‘ConcertTM.’

The level of threat to the pharmaceutical industry by phytogenics and eubiotics, which include probiotics and prebiotics that also generate healthy gut flora, is easily discerned as they write: A more fundamental substitution threat is in the form of biopharmaceuticals. In broad terms, biopharmaceuticals are pharmaceuticals manufactured using biotechnology. Biotechnology can be applied to vaccines, antibodies and therapeutic protein products. This has the potential for new competition to emerge and firms in the plant sciences may have a significant stake in this development.

The writers then grapple to provide their core readers with a measure of reassurance as they describe potential problems with plant-based nutrients: As with the use of other genetically modified crops for food production, there are concerns about the environmental and ecological risks of releasing pharmacological plants into the field. Containment in these situations is uncertain with potential for genetic drift to occur or for unknown allergens to emerge.

Since they published that article, pet food and livestock feed markets have moved rapidly to meet the same and and arguably even greater demands by consumers for nutrition and information about food ingredients than those consumers have for themselves. They want increased transparency about ingredients and production processes; elimination of chemical preservatives, flavor and color enhancers, ineffective anti-biotics, and petroleum-based supplements such as folic acid, which has as its natural counterpart the plant-based folate.

In a Webinar describing the top-ten food trends for 2016, Lu Ann Williams, Director of Innovation for Innova Market Insights, said that from 2011 to 2015, sales tripled of all food products with labels that featured explanations following the words made in or ingredients from. Regarding pet foods in particular, she stated that from September 2014 to October 2015, sales of grain-free pet food rose a stunning 25 percent to $2.6 billion.

Including exotic or rare plant species in feed that can or that can be said to improve animal health will both provide emerging markets with the opportunity of supplying these plants, and generate new marketing opportunities for feed manufacturers. Good marketing that provides descriptions of or stories about the journey of these ingredients will go miles in benefiting farmers in emerging markets.

Money saved by manufacturers in reducing or eliminating chemicals provided by pharmaceutical companies – along with profits gained by refusing to let these savings be passed on to consumers, will encourage this mutual benefit. And how much money might be loosened up for this?

Buhr et al state in their article that according to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the average cost to develop a new human drug in 2005 was $1.3 billion dollars, due both to the 10-to-15 year development pipeline as well as to a high rate of failure. Figures are not available for costs associated with development of pharmacological animal-health products, but processes to develop and release new drugs are similar, thereby generating similarly high costs.

Because large agricultural companies retain in-house pharmaceutical representatives, their shift toward using livestock feed that contains nutrient-dense phytogenics could eliminate this expense. According to 2007 statistics provided by the US Census of Manufacturing, total US revenue from veterinary pharmaceuticals was more than $5.41 billion. 

The gold rush for phytogenics is on. 

Plant-based nutrients are more than just a trend – they’re life-enhancing and life-saving. They also just happen to be every marketing director’s dream – they pair the practical with novelty and branding intimacy.

Thirty years ago, a pet owner showed greatest care for Rex and Tinkerbell by grabbing from a grocery store shelf the bags of pet food that listed as their first ingredients a meat or chicken by-product rather than cornmeal.

Times changed and consumer concern about pet food ratcheted up in parallel with pet-food marketing schemes and prices. Pet owners in the US are now widely referred to as pet parents.

Furthermore, due to the impact of incessant images of adorable kittens and puppies circulating globally on social media, the tradition of having and caring for pets is spreading worldwide – and all those pets need to eat.

Soon, pet mommies and daddies around the world will be just like Americans. They too will be able to bring their own Seamus and Cupcake with them to designated pet stores where together they consider the nuanced benefits to health of cranberry and flaxseed as they peruse ingredient lists printed on glossy earth-tone shaded bags of food that feature artful images of nature scenes.

A bag of Fromm-brand cat food contains a grain-free recipe prepared with salmon, tuna, and anchovies. It also includes A Medley of Fresh Mediterranean Garden Vegetables including fresh tomatoes, spinach, zucchini, eggplant, and olive oil. Ingredients of Orijen Regional cat food include chicory, ginger, and dandelion roots; chamomile and peppermint leaves; caraway seeds; turmeric; and rose hips.

As a marketing move, likening diets of pets to that of humans stimulates in consumers a greater sense of connection and care for their pets, and a concomitant willingness to spend more for their food. This concept is taken a step further by some feed manufacturers that require pet parents to take the extra caring effort of adding homemade ingredients – even just water – to their pet’s food. The act of pouring and mixing plays upon the consumer’s sense of being extra good and extra caring – the self-satisfaction that enhances their loyalty to that brand.

However usefu as a marketing ploy, the novel use of phytogenics in animal feed is not a passing trend.

Use of chemical preservatives and anti-biotics has reached its inevitable plateau in the feed market. Pharmaceutical companies are now scrambling to maintain legitimacy and acceptance in an increasingly hostile and aware consumer world. They will likely take increasingly desperate measures to justify their relevance and their immense income.

Meanwhile, animal feed industries will enjoy the respite from their pressure. They will be free to continuously adapt to fresh market demands that they try exciting new plants that offer irresitible new health benefits.

This market will expand with greater research, informational campaigns, and creative marketing that reveals social considerations such as the building of schools in Nepal, where shihtzu’s shilajit was sourced or the new soccer camp in Brazil where guinea pig’s guarana was gleaned.

Increasing global demand for phytogenics for pet food and livestock feed opens remarkable opportunities for farmers in emerging markets throughout the world. And there is no time like the present to make this opportunity bear fruit.

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