Accelerating the Food and Agriculture Agenda

AIC chairman Jon Duffy opened last week’s 2015 AIC conference - Accelerating the Agriculture and Food Agenda - the twelfth event in the annual series which has seen over 2,000 delegates and 70 speakers since its inception.

 

AIC chief executive David Caffall outlined the AIC’s progress on just a few of the 100+ issues the association’s executives are dealing with, ranging from medicated feeds and antibiotic resistance; sustainable feed ingredient sourcing and the ongoing GM issue to the availability of pesticide actives such as the endocrine disruptors and the metaldehyde molluscicide; the climate change levy and emissions trading.

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Increasingly, the AIC is working with coalitions of interested parties on cross sector issues, which both raises the effectiveness of the lobby and lifts the AIC’s profile in policymaking circles. For example, the AIC is now an ‘intervener’ in the Bayer CropScience and Syngenta court cases over neonicotinoid seed dressings and was a catalyst in Defra’s decision to devolve responsibility for revising the RB209 fertiliser manual to the AHDB.

A particular success has been the establishment and growth of the Feed Adviser Register, now nearly 1,200 strong. When added to the 5,030 BASIS registered agronomists and 2,080 FACTS qualified fertiliser advisers, this is a formidable force for knowledge transfer in moving policy and technology changes from the centre to farm practice.

Defra’s commitment to a 25 year food and farming policy is welcome, Mr Caffall concluded, but it was hardly consistent with the imminent cuts of up to 30% in Defra expenditure in the next four years – valuable services such as the Campaign for the Farmed Environment would be particularly at risk. Recent moves to restructure the AHDB and make it more fit for purpose were also right. But with the government obviously intent on withdrawing services from the industry - by intent if not word - there would be more opportunities for the supply industry’s trained field force to bridge the gap between policymakers and practical farmers.    

Flavio Coturni, head of the European Commission’s Agricultural Policy Analysis and Perspectives unit, spoke on setting the priorities for agriculture within Europe.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)’s three enshrined policy objectives – to encourage food production; the sustainable management of natural resources and the environment and to ensure balanced rural development - remained the same as when the CAP was first adopted in the 1950s.

But the 2013 CAP reform process showed how difficult it could be to achieve an EU-wide consensus to adapt the policy to suit changing circumstances. At the same time, the 50% of the EU budget devoted to agriculture is under more pressure from competing uses in the EU than ever before.

Current Commission agricultural priorities are to enhance competitiveness; improve sustainability and encourage greater efficiency, stated Mr Coturni. It aims to progress these over the next fifteen years through five objectives – making the EU more market and export oriented through trade agreements such as the TTIP with North America; more investment in knowledge transfer to raise levels of economic viability at farm level; investing to create green job opportunities in rural areas and encouraging under 35 year olds to work in agriculture and rural industries.

Fifthly, the EU recognises there is a structural problem over agriculture’s position in the food chain, Mr Coturni concluded. The industry provides 80% of the food chain’s raw materials and 60% of its employment, but adds only 20% of the value, a share which has decreased over time. A high level food chain group is to examine these issues and ways to ensure a fairer share is retained before the farmgate. There will be more emphasis on risk management and new financial tools rather than the traditional grants and subsidy.

Beth Hart, head of product development and technology, fresh foods at the Sainsbury supermarket chain, said her business had a clear agricultural strategy designed to unlock supply chain value, sustain competitive advantage and protect the Sainsbury brand.

While the business has to be competitive on price, it also needs to protect the quality and consistency of its supply chain – the business believes it can achieve this by working with fewer, better suppliers in a more sustainable way. For example, working with livestock producers to improve health and welfare reduces disease losses and the need to use antibiotics, which is becoming a consumer issue.

The retailer has set up a number of farm development groups, now involving 2,300 producers, to encourage more measurement of key indicators on farm. This is enabling steps to increase yields and farm profitability, together with a farm innovation strategy to help ensuring a greater proportion of UK-produced foodstuffs on the retail shelf.

Better data is key to driving efficiency, Ms Hart said - Sainsbury is working with the Agrimetrics initiative on this.

Independent economist Sean Rickard stated the world faces a “trilemma” over food security – it is inexorably shifting from oversupply to a demand-led state, while wealthier populations are aspiring to a higher protein diet. At the same time, climate change and natural resource depletion – minerals, land and water – are adding to the pressure.

Sustainable intensification, utilising biotechnology and precision agriculture engineering is widely acknowledged to be the right approach to meeting this challenge – but only larger scale farm units will have the financial resources to invest in these technologies.

 Meanwhile the CAP is holding back this process – subsidy payments fossilise EU farm structure where the average farm size is just 5 hectares. The CAP is “hopelessly multifunctional” in trying to achieve too much while failing to meet any one of its objectives, he stated.

Turning to the EU membership debate, Mr Rickard believed the UK was naive in thinking it could drive meaningful reform, since there was too much vested interest. If the period of global austerity since 2008 had failed to bring any changes, what could one country out of 28 achieve, he asked, especially when the devolved administrations can’t agree on a common UK approach to some of the issues.

If the UK did leave the EU, the key change would be in trading relationships. Not only would the UK would be subject to tariffs when trading with European member states, but it could also lose access to tariff-free third country export markets that it now enjoys through trade agreements negotiated by the EU. Nor would the UK have any influence on future EU direction and policy from outside the community.

There would be a long period – at least two years - of uncertainty post any exit, while trade agreements were renegotiated. It would be difficult for businesses to make investment decisions during this period, which could see UK food companies moving to Ireland or mainland Europe instead.

Mr Rickard concluded that the UK would be “barking mad” to leave the EU.

The head of the AgriTech Strategy, Dr Stephen Axford of the Department of Business and Science, spoke on the government’s ambition to help meet sustainable intensification objectives through linking the national R&D effort to the food chain.

So far, after two years of the Strategy, 98 projects are underway after four rounds of AgriTech funding, with bids for the fifth round due to close in January 2016. Crop-based projects account for 66 of the total, livestock for 25 and aquaculture 7. The Strategy has allocated £77 million to project consortia to date, with 50% of the funding from government and the rest from industry partners.

At the same time, the AgriTech is investing in Innovation Centres – the Agrimetrics Centre at Rothamsted, aiming to use big data to help industry progress, is the first to go live after its opening earlier this month.

Ricardo Manoel Arioli Silva is a soyabean grower from the Mata Grosso state of Brazil. This one state produces 24 million tonnes of soya each year, 33% of Brazil’s output or 8% of world supplies. He is also a member of the Aprosoja organisation established to raise the sustainability of Brazil’s soya crops. It promotes the use of no-till planting methods to control erosion; avoiding less sustainable areas when deciding where to grow the crop and the use of wildlife corridors to encourage biodiversity.

Through the Soyaplus program, Aprosoja is liaising with EU groups such as FEFAC in building a network of EU partners to build supply chains.

Certification does not help the Brazilian grower, concluded Mr Silva. Rather, producers there would rather work in partnership with buyers to raise standards to ensure that local growers are providing what the consumer wants.

Dr Marianne Ellis, a biochemical engineer from the University of Bath, discussed laboratory meat production.

Growing muscle cells in culture is not a new idea – it was first tried in the 1920s. But interest in the concept has risen over the last decade with an estimate that cultured meat would require 55% of the energy, emit 4% of the greenhouse gases and use just 1% of the land needed to raise conventional beef. This coincided with rising concerns over future food security and environmental degradation, together with animal welfare and human diet and health worries.

There has been some serious investment in the concept, including a £10m project in the US by  Modern Meadow, a meat and leather business and a Google-funded  $200m venture by Impossible Foods, resulting in the well publicised unveiling of a cultured meat hamburger a couple of years ago.

Market research shows that consumers initially react against the concept, as it is not natural and they don’t trust it. But some change their minds when the environmental and food security issues are explained – although this was easier to achieve in younger age groups.   

While research showed it is technically possible to grow muscle cells in culture, investment to scale up production to the commercial volumes needed seems unlikely at present, until the technology is proven and the product market tested, concluded Dr Ellis. But there are start-up businesses in the UK, the Netherlands and the US working on the concept.