The early start to the Oxford Farming Conference each year is a short, sharp, shock to the system that has now become part of my annual New Year routine. The theme of this year's conference was "Growing a Healthy Society". It wasn't about "big Ag" so often associated with conferences like this, but was looking at issues such as sustainability, healthy diets and climate change, and posing the question of how the agricultural sector responds to those challenges. Henry Dimbleby, DEFRA non-executive board member and co-founder of Leon Restaurants, is leading the National Food Strategy in England and he spoke of the change in food production, and how we have managed to increase production without increasing the amount of agricultural land required. This "green revolution" broke through the glass ceiling of production limited by land. It is poor distribution, not under production of food that now causes hunger", he said.
These advances come with their own problems, in this case the abundant supply of calorie-rich food, manifesting in an increasingly overweight population, whilst at the same time having a negative impact on environmental issues such as soils and bio-diversity across the world. Add to this the global climate change challenge, there is powerful argument to change food systems globally. And there lies both the challenge and the opportunity for farmers to recalibrate and reset their role within it.
Professor Alice Stanton of the University College Dublin School of Medicine continued this theme. She compared the nutritional values of food and focussed particularly on red meat. Her argument was simple, that whilst it is possible to live on a plant-based diet, with some vitamin supplementation, highly processed products such as veggie burgers, with a high salt content, were potentially more of a health risk than red meat, highlighting a lack of consumer information. This is an area where farmers could play a direct role in educating consumers and getting the right information across.
Picking up on this, Poran Molani, a marketing consultant who had worked with companies such as Coca-Cola, Lenovo and BASF, talked of the amazing opportunity available to farmers to move up the value chain by communicating the complex message about agriculture. Consumers are looking for entertaining, interesting content about agriculture, and here was the opportunity for farmers to turn around misinformation about agriculture. This, he said, was not about any one method, but about engaging at many levels. He emphasised the importance of research to really understand what consumers want from farmers, and not only those who are supportive of farming, but also those with different views. He stated that consumers need to reconnect farmers and food after a long period where processors have occupied that middle space.
Bringing all this home, what does it mean for Scottish farmers and the food and drink sector? It left me with a sense of a huge challenge, but also great optimism that a space was emerging in the value chain for farmers willing to respond. In Scotland, we have such a great story to tell, with predominantly grass-based farming systems and some world-class produce. But the challenge for Scotland is also clear; tread lightly on the environment, listen to consumers and step up to the challenge to deliver nutritious affordable (but not too cheap) food.
Brodies LLP was pleased to be one of the sponsors of this year's Oxford Farming Conference.
This article first appeared in the Press & Journal on 18 January 2020.