Farmers have a great story to tell

Friday, 1 November, 2019

By policy and technical manager, James McCluggage

We as an industry need to be much better at telling our story regarding how good our standards, production systems and most importantly, our farmers are.

Having been at the RUMA conference this week in London, I heard Stuart Roberts NFU vice president, telling the audience that in the UK we are going to have an additional three million mouths feed over the next 10 years.  These mouths will be very different with the demographic going to change and it is already shifting very rapidly. 

The main reason farmers were put on this earth was to feed an urbanised population that can’t feed itself. Over the next 30 years the agri industry is going to have to produce the same amount of food as the world produced in the previous 10,000 years. The reality is, however, what our societies expectations are of us. What are their values? How do we as an industry play a role to meet the three big challenges of these consumers, what they will expect on climate change, water and anti-microbial resistance.

If we want to carry on farming, we must play a solution role to meet these challenges for society rather than contribute to them. We do not know politically where we are going at the moment, what would any future deal mean for trade and standards and where does this lead farmers? UK takes a massive leadership on animal welfare, however, the WTO will not help on these ethical issues. 

Our competitive advantage going forward could be standards.  We will not be the cheapest commodity producer in the world. We need to have a differentiating product that will have to be different on our standards for instance on animal welfare, environmental, food safety standards and we cannot let people sacrifice these standards. When we look at our politicians in London, they talk about not lowering domestic standards. We’re not looking for them to protect domestic standards as we are proud to already do that. We’re looking for government not to import product into the UK that would be illegal to produce here or would be against societies values here in the UK. It is alarming to hear politicians say that they need flexibility in standards to allow them to do trade deals around the world.   

However, we must have trust and confidence in UK consumers and society. The fact that we now have more than 75% of consumers not comfortable with the use of growth hormones and that chlorinated chicken is now being used more as a headline in the press. However, a consumer’s intentions outside of the shop can be very much different when they get inside of the shop. This is why farmers need to get much better at telling their story. It is good that we now have 82% of consumers who are concerned about standards. We have got to get those consumers to turn that into action, be advocates and highlight the positives of the reduction of anti-biotic usage in UK farming compared to rest of the world. We have got to get better at articulating that story to the consumer. Furthermore, it is not just about the message that is the challenge, but how the consumers make choices when they go into a shop.

When it comes to standards, it is not the retail shelf that will be the challenge. The real task in food standards is in the food service sector.  It is an anonymous sector; provenance, knowing the root of where your food comes from, can disappear were stories are made up. When provenance disappears, standards disappear, and that is where the valuable work that farms do through building their reputation, trust and transparency can disappear.  If we’re not transparent as farmers as to what standard our products are produced to i.e. the low levels of anti-biotics that we use, we will do ourselves a huge disservice. If we don’t tell our great story and be transparent about it someone else will beat us to it. If we are secretive about our industry, we will damage our trust and we will never ever get that back. As farmers we must not undersell ourselves, we have a great story to tell.