Publication of Defra’s analysis on the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) review has highlighted market development and on farm productivity as key priorities for the levy board going forward.
The industry-wide consultation on AHDB, which sought views on the abolition of statutory levies and the board’s governance, took place in 2018 following industry calls for ’major reforms’ of the levy board, but results were delayed due to staff tied up in no-deal Brexit preparations.
Defra’s response, published today (April 20), highlighted market developments and farm performance as crucial areas ‘to realise the full potential of the industry’.
Farming Minister Victoria Prentis said: "Now that we have left the European Union and are charting a new course in both agriculture and trade policy, AHDB will need to deliver against two key priorities: market development and improving farm performance.
"There was strong support in the review for structuring AHDB around these two core themes, with more focus on business resilience, skills, environment, reputation and market development at home and overseas."
The analysis highlighted less appetite from industry for knowledge exchange, which was at the forefront of former chairman Sir Peter Kendall’s vision for AHDB.
Respondents thought knowledge exchange could be more ’effective’ or ’relevant’, with many commenting the levy board was not knowledgeable enough, information was incorrect or out of date, too simplistic or delivered by people who do not have the necessary expertise.
In fact, 15 per cent of respondents opted for the AHDB to stop this service.
The need for statutory levies to continue alongside greater accountability towards levy payers was also highlighted in Defra’s analysis.
Ms Prentis said: “We envisage AHDB consult levy payers in each sector and propose a five-year programme of activity for both cross-cutting areas and sector specific programmes, allowing levy payers to vote on its appropriateness for their sector.”
Environmental sustainability, a knowledge hub and EU exit support received the most support for ‘new AHDB priorities’ with 68 per cent of respondents choosing these services.
However, the review also highlighted industry calls for the AHDB to prioritise informing and improving the reputation of the farming industry among the public.
On its structure, Ms Prentis added: “AHDB has made good progress to ensure it works in a more joined-up fashion and to reduce duplication among the sectors through the consolidation into a single board.
"However, there is still a tendency for sectors to work in silos and I have concluded that we should offer greater clarity about those areas of work which should be part of a single, central entity and those areas which are rightly sector-specific.
"I believe we should take this opportunity to think from first principles about how many separate levies there should be and how the levy should be calculated and collected.”
Jane King, AHDB chief executive officer, said: “I welcome this report during an extraordinary period of change.
“Under the guidance of our new chairman Nicholas Saphir, we will refocus our efforts in identifying the risks and opportunities that face British farming and growing.
“We will drive market development and support farmers in improving performance. We are committed to being responsive to the needs of our levy-payers by adding real value where it matters and helping make an impact on farm.
“We want to engage farmers, growers and the whole supply chain in designing and shaping our technical programmes going forward."
NFU president, Minette Batters, said: “AHDB plays a hugely important role within British food and farming. It is great to see the government acknowledging this and committing to make changes that will enable it to become more agile, responsive and transparent, and so better serve the farming industry and address its needs.
“A key focus for AHDB must be to help drive new opportunities at home and abroad, and a turbo charged Market Development programme is needed to really promote the British food brand of high quality, high value and high production standards.
“With the continued uncertainty around Brexit and the looming deadline of the transition period, not to mention the immediate and significant lessons to be learned from the coronavirus outbreak, it is more important than ever that AHDB is able to provide support for the industry both through market and business development.”
The Tenant Farmers Association has said AHDB requires a ’significant shakeup to be fit for purpose’ and advocates market development as the number one priority for the levy board.
TFA chairman, Mark Coulman, said “AHDB has the capacity to be a tremendous force for good for UK agriculture. However, it is massively inhibited by poor governance, a lack of understanding of its priorities and a deficiency in its accountability to levy payers. Now, more than ever, we need AHDB to be an effective driver of the development of our domestic food and farming industry.”
“AHDB should be at the leading edge rather than the trailing edge of the industry. Much of its work is wrongly targeted on knowledge exchange and standardised business information to the farming industry.
"Instead it should be driving the industry forward in seeking out new markets and improving farm returns from the markets which exist already."
Rare Breed Survival Trust chief executive, Christopher Price, said: “A restructured AHDB must deliver for our native livestock sector. We welcome Defra’s recommendation that the AHDB focuses on market development and improving farm performance.
“But this must involve devoting some of its resources to maintaining the genetic health and diversity of our native livestock breeds.
“As we leave the EU and move to an unsubsidised, more market facing world, and need to tackle the challenges of climate change and changing attitudes towards meat consumption, our native breeds with their hardiness, thriftiness and potential to provide premium products will become increasingly important. AHDB has a major role to play in making the case.”