Hundreds of UK farmers attended this year’s Norfolk Farming Conference in Norwich to hear industry leaders and experts debate some of the lucrative opportunities available despite the current anxieties and challenges facing British agriculture.
Convened by AF – the largest agricultural buying group in the UK and independent provider of advice, insight, and services to the farming community – the conference has seen its popularity and attendance grow year on year, offering a diverse panel of speakers, and championing of progressive forward-thinking solutions for a changing industry.
Minette Batters, President of the NFU, was the first speaker and offered a passionate reminder of the ambiguity facing British farmers as the Brexit deadline approaches. “We live in extraordinary times,” said Ms Batters. “Never before has the business of farming faced such uncertainty… This is a time of enormous risk, but it’s also about change and opportunity. It’s right and proper that we plan for our future.”
Ms Batters is optimistic that a deal will be struck, but emphatically warned that a no-deal Brexit would undermine British production to a catastrophic level: “An obliteration of the tariff wall would be the single biggest crisis for our industry. You cannot just open your doors to the EU, you open your doors to the rest of the world – effectively, to the ‘cheap food’ brigade.”
Sir John Beddington, Former Government Chief Scientific Adviser, addressed the resource demands necessitated by the population explosion, the global increase of the middle-class, and increasing urbanisation. Sir John’s speech also examined the consequences of climate change – especially the under acknowledged threat caused by crop disease – and the need to change diets and reduce waste.
George Freeman, Member of Parliament for Mid-Norfolk, flagged technology’s role in driving productivity, and called for greater focus on precision farming over reliance on cheap labour. Despite Mr Freeman’s scepticism towards the government’s strategy, he outlined his view that breakthroughs in traceability and improved productivity signal a huge opportunity for the industry: “British agriculture, with innovation, could be at the heart of a very exciting British bioscience and bioeconomy sector.”
A key theme touched upon by multiple speakers was the need to give greater consideration towards the needs of the customer. Andrew Saunders, Agriculture Director and Managing Director ofTulip Ltd, noted that online shopping will grow by 52% in the next 5 years, with consumer trends focusing on eating less and more healthily. Andrew Fearne, Professor of Value Chain Management at Norwich Business School, also spoke on the need for collaborative resource allocation that increases sustainability for the whole supply chain, putting farms in a better position to meet the shifting requirements of their customers.
Jon Duffy, CEO at AF commented: “The conference gave a clear message of possibility and ripe opportunities for British agriculture. Despite honest warnings about the potential destruction caused by Brexit, leading industry figures are clear that the demand for quality food production will only increase in the future. Each speaker, focusing on different aspects of a diverse sector, were unified in their central message: the future may be unclear, but there are great opportunities that British agriculture is well-placed to seize. A positive and informative day that we are very proud to host.”