Cornerstone Capital Group (CCG) is an integrated financial services firm offering investment advisory, corporate advisory and investment banking capabilities. CCG systematically integrates Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors into all of its analyses and services, as the firm believes these specific corporate performance metrics drive long-term financial returns.
Inquiries and investment opportunities
Michael Shavel, Cornerstone’s Global Thematic Analyst, explained to FAIRR that clients and prospects are increasingly asking about sustainability issues related to intensive farming. He said, “It is an important issue that is moving from the niche to the mainstream. Some clients are concerned that there are serious health issues potentially connected to the factory farming model and they want to know how they can align their portfolios with their concerns, or make sure they don’t own companies that are ignoring these issues”.
On behalf of its investment management clients, CCG performs due diligence on managers, evaluating both their financial performance and the degree to which they incorporate ESG factors into investment strategies. For clients with a focus on animal welfare and factory farming, the firm leverages its research to include questions related to these topics into the manager due diligence process. Shavel explains, “Where relevant, we ask portfolio managers questions on areas such as the food safety supply chain to get a sense of whether they take these issues seriously. It becomes clear pretty quickly whether they have considered intensive farming issues without any depth. For example, if the manager owns a poultry producer, Cornerstone will ask how that manager thinks about the development of the antibiotic-free chicken market and what impact it might have on margins and future market share.”
Antibiotics and animal health
“It is an important issue that is moving from the niche to the mainstream. Some clients are concerned that there are serious health issues potentially connected to the factory farming model.”
– Michael Shavel, Global Thematic Analyst at Cornerstone
One of Cornerstone’s flagship reports and workstreams has been their thesis on antibiotics and animal health. In brief, this argues that:
- antibiotic resistance is a growing concern and that the misuse and overuse of the drugs in animal agriculture is one of the drivers;
- a confluence of regulatory action (see table) and heightened consumer awareness is exerting pressure on livestock producers to reassess their usage of antibiotics; and
- there is both investment risk for those companies ignoring this trend and investment opportunity – for example in a number of other specialty and nutritional feed additives that are utilised for similar purposes.
Shavel elaborates on this theory pointing to growing consumer demand for meat and poultry raised without the routine use of antibiotics. Market research firm IRI, he notes, found that in the year up to 25 Jan 2015 sales of antibiotic-free chicken increased 25% in dollar terms to 11% of overall chicken sales in the US. This changing consumer demand, and changing regulation presents significant near-term and long-term risk to earnings for some animal-health companies. And Shavel points to US poultry producers Sanderson Farms as an example of a company that has so far resisted the industry’s moves to curb antibiotic use.
Notable regulation on the use of antibiotics in animal feed, Oct 2015 (Source: Cornerstone Capital Group)
Turning risk into opportunity
Cornerstone’s research argues that as nutritional feed additives are generally produced by major chemical companies and sit as only a small portion of overall revenues, investors should look to companies with more concentrated exposure to prebiotic and probiotic feed additives for a chance of good returns.
Shavel points to companies like Danish biotech firm Novozymes, who recently partnered with Adissseo to develop a new pro-biotic product for poultry that could act as an alternative to using antibiotics as a growth promoter. “It’s important to watch these companies,“ says Shavel, “because if the data around some of their products is compelling, it could be scaled up and really move the needle for a business of their size.”
Cornerstone has also highlighted other areas of potential opportunity such as vaccines and biosecurity – i.e. alternative processes, systems or products that can help replace antibiotics and reduce the chances of an infectious disease being carried on farms.
“We ask portfolio managers questions on areas such as the food safety supply chain to get a sense of whether they take these issues seriously. It becomes clear pretty quickly whether they have considered intensive farming issues without any depth”.
– Michael Shavel, Global Thematic Analyst at Cornerstone
Shavel acknowledges that the overuse of antibiotics is not the only ESG issue associated with factory farming, but says that Cornerstone has yet to do in-depth research on other factors such as environmental damage. “On a personal level,” he adds, “it’s clear to me that advances like antibiotics have enabled factory farming to be one of the primary methods for feeding the world but that some rethinking of intensive farming is going to need to come into play”.
Antibiotics and animal welfare
Shavel also points to the complex, on-going discussion on the relationship between antibiotics and animal welfare. He says, “We’ve observed consumers campaigning for ‘no antibiotics for animals ever.’ But when engaging with companies on this we also hear the argument that antibiotics are necessary to treat certain types of disease (even on less intensive/non-factory farms), and refusing to treat sick animals wouldn’t be consistent with animal welfare obligations. Thus there is an important nuance, says Shavel, between slogans such as ‘no antibiotics ever’ and investors’ calls for an end to the routine use of antibiotics important to human health in their global meat and poultry supply chains.