Who’s going to feed all these people?

AB Vista sees sustainable agriculture, peer-reviewed science as central to its mission

ChallengeTo gain insights into sustainable agricultural products and practices through in-depth data analysis and visualization.
SolutionAB Vista researchers use advanced predictive modeling tools in JMP® Pro software to combine data from tests conducted around the world into a single database, validate it and examine multiple interactive factors.
ResultsJMP Pro informs decisions about the design of agricultural solutions that save money, are easier on the environment and are more sustainable.

It’s estimated that the world’s population will grow from its current 7.2 billion people to more than 9 billion by 2050. Urban areas are expected to expand at an accelerating rate, accounting for perhaps 70 percent of global population by 2050. Who’s going to feed all these people?

That’s a big question, one that requires a creative bent of mind, and one that Nell Masey O’Neill and her colleagues at AB Vista ponder every day. Masey O’Neill is a research manager at AB Vista’s headquarters in Marlborough, about 80 miles west of London.

AB Vista is the microingredients division of AB Agri, a UK-based agribusiness that sells products and services in more than 70 countries. AB Vista develops ingredients for animal feed, including enzymes and yeasts, provides technical services and has a dedicated research and development team. A commitment to sustainable agriculture is central to its mission.

That commitment is what led Masey O’Neill to this work. She earned a bachelor’s degree in nutritional biochemistry and a PhD in nutrition, then spent a bit more time in academia before coming to AB Vista in 2010 with an aim to put her interests to practical use.

“I really like being able to translate what I know to be good, strong science, very well-designed experiments into something that actually supports sustainable agriculture,” Masey O’Neill says. “I think that’s probably one of the things that attracts all of us here.

“The sustainability of animal production is so important. And being able to do good science that gets peer reviewed and published – that actually has some real value for people who are producing animals to feed the world – that’s what drives us.”

While assisting in new product development is part of their job, Masey O’Neill and her colleagues focus primarily on research support for AB Vista products in the field, examining, for example, the effectiveness of a certain feed additive on an animal’s growth. Team members collect data from animal feeding experiments around the world. They use the predictive modeling features of JMP Pro to analyze it and predict how well a selected ingredient may work in combination with others.

Some of their findings are, of course, considered trade secrets; but Masey O’Neill estimates that about 90 percent of the team’s research is intended for the public, with much of it published in peer-reviewed journals.

This transparency “supports our reputation,” she says, and helps advance collective efforts at sustainability.

A valuable global food resource

“Our work is about understanding how to raise animals in the most efficient way possible,” Masey O’Neill says, “and JMP allows us to support our customers in doing that.”

A primary objective is to ensure that pig and poultry meat continues to be a viable, safe and cost-effective global food source. AB Vista conducts trials in Europe, the US, Asia and South America, and JMP plays a key role in this research.

Masey O’Neill has been a JMP user since she arrived at AB Vista. She discovered early on that it offered functionality she couldn’t find elsewhere. Then, in 2011, her team was introduced to JMP Pro.

“We were just starting to develop our understanding of linear methods,” she explains, “and our JMP representative said, ‘Perhaps you’d like to look at these nonlinear methods such as decision trees and neural networks.’” They liked them quite a bit.

Then they learned about the model validation features in JMP Pro. “And we thought, ‘Yes, that’s really valuable; that gives us a lot more confidence in our models.’”

Masey O’Neill is able to combine all the experiments AB Vista conducts across the globe into a single database, regardless of trial design. She then uses a partition method, perhaps a decision tree, to analyze that data in confidence.

“If the outcome of interest is the efficacy of one of our particular products, we can use that analysis to say in which situation it works best – what are the primary drivers of when our products work most effectively.”

Decision trees let the team examine interactive factors, Masey O’Neill says, bringing considerably more depth to the research and producing much richer insights.

Uncovering the obscure

Research that Masey O’Neill and her colleagues have conducted on Econase XT, an animal feed enzyme and one of AB Vista’s flagship products, is a good example of where JMP Pro has enhanced insight.

The team compiled results on the enzyme from 85 trials, combined them and analyzed them using JMP Pro, and were able to determine with what other additives it performs best. In essence, it allowed them to conduct a single experiment, examining multiple, interactive factors, and uncover otherwise obscure associations.

“We can now say that when you have a corn-based diet, such as in the US, fat is also particularly important in making sure that product works well,” Masey O’Neill explains. “So this allows us to advise our customers that if you’re going to use corn, then you might also want to consider your fat level.

“And we know this from the predictive modeling we’ve done with JMP. The really important point here is that we wouldn’t have been able to divine that from one single experiment. Had we run one experiment that looked at a corn-based diet versus a wheat-based diet, we wouldn't necessarily have been able to look at the fat at the same time.”

Econase XT improves whole-diet digestibility. It enhances amino acid, fat and carbohydrate digestion. More nutrients mean reduced feed costs and less output of waste into the environment – a more sustainable agricultural solution.

‘Proper and thorough’ analysis

Masey O’Neill uses a number of JMP tools nearly every day (analysis of variance is another favorite), because, she says, “proper and thorough statistical analysis” is critical to her work. JMP Pro provides just that, and with ease. Masey O’Neill underscores the software’s user-friendliness; little training is required. Analyses are repeated quickly and efficiently, a boon to productivity.

She also appreciates the value JMP brings in illustrating her findings.

“We use distributions to display the important points from multiple regressions,” she says. “For example, we’ll use decision trees to define the interactive factors involved in predicting a response variate.”

Attempting to explain this to someone who isn’t familiar with statistics can be difficult, she says. But plotting the distributions of all the variables with the JMP Distribution platform simplifies things considerably.

The Distribution platform offers “a very nice, very clear way to display data back to the customer. It’s a very simple thing to do in JMP.”

I really like being able to translate what I know to be good, strong science, very well-designed experiments into something that actually supports sustainable agriculture.
Nell Masey O'Neill

Research Manager
AB Vista

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