After four weeks in his new role as chairman of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), Nicholas Saphir spoke to Hannah Binns about his vision for the levy board, which will see a strong focus on export market development and more effective communication.
With more than 25 years’ experience in global trading through his work building the Organic Milk Producers’ Co-operative (Omsco), and trading fruit and vegetables worldwide, it is perhaps unsurprising that Nicholas Saphir is keen to prioritise boosting exports now he is heading up AHDB.
During his time at Omsco, Mr Saphir called on Government to improve the UK’s ‘appalling’ export record in order to increase farmgate prices – and now he is in a position to lead on that work. He said: “It is important to identify competitive advantages.
“There are some products we will never be able to export due to climatic disadvantages and or high cost base, however there are plenty of opportunities for specialist products and added value.
“It is also important to identify which countries to prioritise and the route to market through working with farmers and the supply chain.
“Unless we establish better exports, it should not be a surprise if farmgate returns lag behind global market prices.”
Though Mr Saphir is keen to open up new markets, he recognises trade with the EU will remain vital for UK food producers, pointing out access to both will depend upon the success of the UK’s trade negotiations.
He also highlighted the vital role the home market plays for British agriculture.
“There are opportunities to address current import levels and the domestic home market must be defended and developed,” he said.
In recent years, AHDB has faced criticism from its levy payers and industry representatives, with calls for ‘major reform’ of the levy board.
One reoccurring complaint is that AHDB does not spend enough money promoting British food.
But Mr Saphir suggested the real problem was the board’s ‘failure’ to explain its marketing work to farmers – something he is keen to rectify.
“Farmers do not recognise our current marketing strands as we do not communicate them clearly,” he said.
“For example, the weekend commencing April 11 saw the board switch its budgets to fund a full-scale beef promotion campaign to address carcase imbalance concerns, and we will be moving on to a dairy campaign shortly.
“We still have a lot to do in terms of developing marketing, and levy payers will find a stronger focus on promotion. But this does not mean promoting brand ‘British’ for the sake of it.”
Further priorities under Mr Saphir include on-farm productivity, with a reduced focus on knowledge exchange, which was at the forefront of former chairman Sir Peter Kendall’s vision for AHDB.
More immediately, the new chairman is working with industry representatives and Defra to help alleviate any problems in UK food supply chains which have arisen due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“With one third of domestic food and drink consumed by the food service sector, the shift into retail has not made up for the shortfall, and while distribution chains are diversifying into new markets, AHDB will continue to monitor the situation and shine a light where there is opportunity,” he said.
“We are also calling on retailers to remove product limits regardless of household size for produce, such as milk and beef, which are in oversupply rather than undersupply.
“Things are beginning to change, with consumers starting to switch from long-life products to fresh produce and rediscovering cooking at home, which marries well with British agricultural produce.
“However, I remain concerned about the oncoming labour shortage and the aftermath.”