Our industry stands on the cusp of a seismic transformation. No-one can predict the exact outcome but there is no doubt that our industry will look significantly different in 2030. A series of factors are combining to shape this process.
The transformation of farming as we know it
The next decade will see the greatest reset of agricultural policy in the UK since the 1940s. Leaving the EU and the elimination of direct payments will lift the comfort blanket of support from the industry and challenge producers to be even more globally minded and customer focussed.
Climate change will test the industry’s resilience whilst placing even more scrutiny on it in terms of its contribution to net zero. It will also shape consumer behaviour, with more and more shoppers making conscious choices on the basis of how what we eat affects the world we live in.
Finally, new technologies, especially artificial intelligence, autonomous systems and vertical farming, will reshape what it means to be farmer and more importantly, the skillsets that are required to succeed.
How should today’s industry respond?
It won’t be easy. The challenge lying ahead is beyond comprehension. As an industry it is imperative that we focus not on the obstacles, but on the opportunities to maximise our potential. What can we do now to set us on the path to compete in the global market?
Firstly, we need a shared industry-wide vision about where we want our industry to be, one that’s ambitious but grounded in an honest reflection of where we are now and what it will take to get there.
2030 will be here in the blink of an eye and in an age of disruption, coming together as one is the only way to deal with change and ensure we can compete in this decade and beyond.
There’s inspiration to be drawn from the Net Zero mission that’s been persuasively put by the NFU. It’s been said that if everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself. Our industry is dogged by fragmentation of effort. What we need is unity of purpose to deliver a successful future.
Secondly, whatever the vision, we need to underpin our industry’s reputation. Saying we’re the best is one thing but the industry will need to go further to prove its credentials for high standards, quality and trust. This means embracing data use and sharing, adopting lifetime assurance, recording our environmental performance and addressing any weaknesses we may have.
Thirdly, we need to embrace structural change in farming. There is no shame helping farmers retire early, seeing more land in the hands of the proficient, planting more trees to exploit a growing carbon offset market or producing public goods where the market cannot or will not sustain a profitable living.
The scourge of low productivity growth
Finally, to succeed, be sustainable and profitable we must dramatically grow our productivity. This is not about increasing our levels of production but becoming significantly more efficient in the way we do it. Yet over recent decades our performance has flat-lined whilst that of key competitors such as France and the Netherlands has marched ahead.
From an economic perspective they stand to be more competitive on a global stage than us.
From an environmental perspective, low productivity growth will hamper our efforts to meet the Net Zero challenge.
The key question is whether we acknowledge that we have a productivity challenge and as an industry, we’re prepared to take ownership of it?
There are signs that we’re grasping the nettle. Thanks to the government’s Industrial Strategy, the industry has come together through the Food & Drink Sector Council (FDSC) to identify the steps industry and government can take, together to accelerate productivity growth in farming.
The report published by the FDSC’s Agricultural Productivity Working Group (APWG) identifies the need for UK agriculture to become more data driven, taking advantage or big data, being open the sharing data and benchmarking performance through Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).
Overhauling our innovation and knowledge exchange systems are critical, with a centre-piece of the recommendations the establishment of the Evidence for Farming Initiative to create a single source of evidence-based practice, drawing from expertise globally to highlight what works.
Skills also come into sharper focus. A trained, professional workforce is vital to our long-term competitiveness. The report highlights evidence from the Irish Revenue that shows that trained farmers in Ireland have, on average, a 12% higher profit margin than untrained farmers. It’s important as an industry we embrace professionalism and life-long learning.
Of course there is a role for Government to play in this process. Industry needs policy that facilitates investment in infrastructure and skills. Government must also play its part in aligning innovation and research funding to help the industry achieve that shared vision for the future.
But industry leadership and ownership is vital to help farmers navigate a successful path through this period of transformation. We have to act now or inexcusably risk being bystanders to an agricultural revolution where the rewards of our missed opportunities are reaped by our global competitors.
I have little doubt that with an open mind and open eyes this will create major opportunities for farmers who can embrace it. To ignore or even dismiss these factors and believe we can carry on much as we have done will I’m afraid be fatal.