Business management

Farming for the future: why now is a critical time for UK agriculture

Delegates at a recent Tesco event discussed the challenges and prospects for the agricultural industry as it goes through seismic change.

Sarah Bradbury, Tesco Group Quality Director, speaking at the Tesco Future Farmer Foundation event.

This was the message from the recent Tesco Future Farmer Foundation event held with NatWest’s support in London. But, as the latest cohort of graduates of the innovative and well-established mentoring programme heard, they must be brave in facing up to the forces that will inevitably reshape many of the established markets and processes that have underpinned UK farming for decades.

Shifting consumer attitudes and climate change among the challenges facing farmers

Sarah Bradbury, Group Quality Director at Tesco, was forthright in laying out the challenges facing farmers, retailers and suppliers over the next decade. “Changing attitudes to health, genuine and significant sustainability issues and the pressure of making farms profitable will all challenge this generation of farmers more than any other,” she said.

“We want to make sure we do everything we can to support UK farming. And part of that comes from our new purpose, which is to serve our customers, communities and planet a little better every day.”

And she acknowledged Tesco’s role in keeping emissions down to limit global warming to 1.5ºC, as reaffirmed at COP26, pointing out that globally, the food industry is responsible for 30% of greenhouse gases. Soon it will overtake the energy sector as the biggest emitter. 

“The truth is that the food industry – and that means Tesco too – is going to have to radically change,” she said. This meant encouraging diets to change, improving supply and eliminating waste. “Farmers know how weather and climate can impact the industry, so we need them to help us to work on solutions for the future.”

Finding agricultural solutions through technology

“We feel that the agriculture sector has a huge role to play in developing solutions to the challenges we have,” said Ian Burrow, Head of Agriculture and Renewable Energy at NatWest. 

“It’s hugely important that we retain and encourage the next generation of smart and business-savvy farmers – even as a bank, we know there isn’t a price to put on that. You are the innovators who will drive the industry forward.” 

Ian made clear that NatWest was committed to supporting the development of new technologies to address specific challenges facing farmers.

“We’re working with the Sustainable Food Trust to develop a sustainable whole-farm global metric assessment tool,” he explained. The programme will deliver a whole-farm sustainability picture, identifying where the sustainability/greenhouse gas hotspots are, along with ways to help reduce emissions.

It’s hugely important that we retain and encourage the next generation of smart and business-savvy farmers. You are the innovators who will drive the industry forward.

Ian Burrow
Head of Agriculture and Renewable Energy, NatWest

Farming economics: making agriculture pay

The economics of the farming sector remain, of course, a major concern. Issues such as yield, diversification and supply chains were all on the agenda at the event. With developing trends around diversification, the environment and changes to the Basic Payment Scheme, farmers now operate in a more volatile yet dynamic and fast-growing sector. Indeed, Charlie Ireland, Managing Partner at farming consultancy Ceres Rural, pointed out how little core agricultural activity contributes to the profits of farm businesses: just around 5%.

One constant theme was the need for farms to look beyond traditional revenue streams to remain competitive in a changing landscape. “Making the best use of land is key for the future,” said Charlie. “Consider the fact that 8% of farmers produce 50% of our food from just a third of our land. So we’re producing a huge amount of food on land that shouldn’t be used for that – the impact on biodiversity and water and air means we should be saying, ‘We can do this better.”

The panel in full (L-R): Carl Atkin, Institute of Agricultural Management; Sarah Bradbury, Tesco; Ian Burrow, NatWest; Natalie Smith, Tesco; Professor Jude Capper, Harper Adams University; Professor David Hughes, Imperial College London; Charlie Ireland, Ceres Rural.

He added that big questions remained to be answered. “Will regenerative agriculture deliver on its promise, for instance? Will renewable energy targets be hit? Will mitigation measures like using peatland to capture and sequester carbon really make an impact, and at what cost?”

Future farming: food innovations and investment

From vertical farming and genome sequencing to rapid developments in plant-based foods and alternative products to cater to changing dietary habits, agriculture is in the grip of a scientific and technological transformation. 

For Professor David Hughes of Imperial College London, the innovation around the food industry is gathering pace as retailers, producers, agribusinesses and technology companies develop new ways to produce food cheaper, faster and healthier. 

“As farmers, you need to ask what the social issues are that will disturb growth in the markets that you’re producing food for – because they will be looming,” he said. “From water use to methane production – you need to understand them all.” 

Pointing to the number of huge investments made by major players across the sector, he strongly advised the assembled cohort to adapt to new technologies with the same level of commitment and ingenuity that has helped make UK farming so vibrant in the past. 

Ultimately, the next generation of farmers have far more tools at their disposal than their predecessors, and arguably much more responsibility. They also have the talent and ingenuity to succeed and grow their sector in ways that were previously unimaginable. The challenge now is to bring it all together and make it work.

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