Oxford Farming Conference Union Debate 2018

  • By Emily Retledge
  • 05 Jan, 2018

"This House believes that by 2100 eating meat will be a thing of the past" - Seconding AGAINST the motion


"Mister President, thank you for the opportunity to speak to the House on this motion.

Ladies and Gentlemen, as informed and conscientious members of the agricultural industry, I do not doubt for a second that you will vote wisely and reject this motion. The slippery rhetoric of the liberal elite will not wash with you. We have no sympathy for the Proponents or the extremist behaviour they inspire. Their cause is lost here today.

However, I would like to take this opportunity to challenge your thinking on WHY we must reject this motion and also I would like to be so bold as to give you some inspiration as to HOW we can continue to “meat” the expectations of society for years to come.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is clear that change is coming. Consumer trends change all the time based on fashion or innovation. Farming enables the very success of the human race that allows us to engage in intellectual debate over the ethics of our dinner plates. It is the privilege of a full belly. We cannot be resentful of this debate. It has been said, “Our role as farmers is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” If society demands that we do better, then that we must do.

The difficulty in engaging in the vegan debate though is in its use of blind ethical dogma. No science, fact or argument can persuade someone that a life is a good life or a better life if the consequence of death is the same, and it is that death which is to be avoided. It is not enough to argue that pasture fed or sustainably produced livestock should be preserved because it is environmentally beneficial, because the grazing still results in death. The illogical notion is that in order to avoid the death of farm animals, the Vegan Society would like the number of farmed animals “to reduce to a manageable level, at which point they will be placed in sanctuaries and cared for until they pass away naturally”. So no farmed animals at all.

Or perhaps only farmed animals in “natural” conditions? In ‘The Secret Life of Cows” Rosamund Young asserts that “No artificially manufactured conditions can match the reassurance, stability, attention, companionship and appropriate food that nature provides”.

Alice Roberts book “Tamed” explains the genetic and archaeological evidence for the delicate coincidences and choices that have occurred on both sides of the domestication process since the end of the last Ice Age, from dogs to maize. The evidence is clear in the case of the cow: these animals have been so successful at domesticating themselves that they no longer have a “wild” relative. The last wild aurochs cow died out in the Middle Ages.

The modern cow has ensured her genetic immortality by partnering with people in order to get the reassurance, stability, attention, companionship and appropriate food that nature very clearly does not provide.

This is the vegan paradox. The logical conclusion of the vegan argument is the genetic extinction of farmed animal species. Our frustration is that we do not achieve anything by pointing this out. Death is still death.

I am all too aware of the reality of the trend to veganism. I am not ashamed to admit that vegan month in November hurt my business financially. Much of our high value business is in London and 88% of vegans live in cities.

In running our family dairy business, I also frequently come across what I can only describe as “cow-cerned consumers”. People who have seen or read something online and are now worried about the impact their dietary choices are having on animal welfare. I am always pleased to inform them that they have a choice - Nortons Dairy specialises in Seriously Pampered Cows. But in reality, I can only vouch for my own business, and our own standards of animal welfare. The images and statistics that fill social media feeds must come from somewhere though, and we absolutely must be held to account for abuses.

Social media is feeding the new food revolution. It allows individuals to share and acquire information like never before. Individual suspicions about food supply chains are confirmed, and consumers now seek truth and authenticity in their food. There has been a big increase in the demand for free-from foods that enable consumers to take more control of their perceived health problems. Coincidentally, these products make it much easier for others to follow a vegan diet. One trend enables the other.

The obvious irony here is the profit making opportunities associated with the free-from trend, which will turn many consumers away. Processing vegetables or commodity pulses to add value sounds like a great idea, for the factory processor. The investment attraction of labgrown meat is the commercialisation of the intellectual property, not consumer sales.

The desire for authenticity and suspicion of corporate motivation means that both innovations will be of limited relevance at best, but any farm business seeking to produce a kilo of meat at the cheapest cost is vulnerable - the inefficient part of the process is converting energy to a chicken or pig to start with, so it makes sense to remove the animal for an alternative protein source. Major companies involved in exploiting our food chains are finally waking up to the ethical pressure placed on us by connected consumers, and the smartest ones are turning the challenges into opportunities.

So in the face of unanswerable vegan logic, and against inevitable disruption to the quest for cheap meat, what can we do?

First, 88% of vegans live in cities. They are the ones furthest from, and therefore least in control of, their food sources. We have an obvious need and opportunity to reconnect urban consumers with their ecosystem. It is within the power of farmers to deliver this. Bring farming to the city and bring consumers to the countryside. Be open and experiential, and build trust. Reclaim the quality terms associated with meat - you can’t milk an almond, so you shouldn’t be able to meat a meal worm.

Second, we must challenge the shameless use of guilt used to induce ethical buying. The organic movement relies on the ancient theme of overcoming the monster to motivate us to avoid "scary" chemicals in our food, inspiring the free-from trend. The vegan movement relies on the universal theme of tragedy to motivate us to buy an ethical, meat free and guilt free diet.

Social media is hijacked and corrupted to bombard people with messages of guilt and tragedy in order to keep motivating them to conform to an ideology. And it makes people feel miserable. I believe that we have a collective responsibility to self-moderate here - making people feel constantly guilty about their food choices (including Buy British) I think contributes to ever increasing mental health problems.

Instead, we must inspire a farming romance, and one completely different to that miserable narrative based on guilt. Don’t be ashamed of death, but use the power of social media to bring the joy of life.

The #febudairy can provide a channel and focus for these messages, but we can all engage in spreading ideas, images and videos, showing the love and compassion and fundamental respect we have for our farm animals. No one says they care more about animals than your average vegan - we have a lot in common.

Finally, farmers are the ultimate guardians and gatekeepers of our animals, so lets stand up for their rights. If our UK consumers demand the highest standards of animal welfare, lets champion their cause and make it happen. We can sell fantastic, high quality and flavoursome produce from those farms to the world. Ride the tides of change, and lead the charge on disruptive, innovative thinking. Be the hero!

Ladies and Gentlemen, there is neither right nor wrong in this debate. Veganism exists only as a balance to the ungrateful commoditisation of animal protein, and I would rather eat a vegetarian meal than poorly produced meat any day. We have achieved great success as a species through consuming a varied diet, but do not forget that it is the privilege of the fed to be engaged in this debate. No doubt: we will be consuming less of it, and better quality meat in the future. But I believe that we will still be consuming meat. Why?

Well, I have with me here a candle. Invented millennia ago, from the combination of a leaf and wax from bees or fat from an animal carcass. It brings warmth, intimacy and light to a room. Simultaneously inefficient and utterly pointless as a result of the invention of the electric lightbulb 140 years ago. Back then, we may have predicted that no candles would be sold by the year 2000. Yet, more are sold now than ever before, because the candle is symbolic of the hearth and the warmth and companionship of our ancient homes.

Regardless of innovation and resource efficiency, bringing meat home to the table will continue to evoke ancient feelings within us humans - feelings of family, togetherness, success. More success than the family in the cave next door who failed on their hunt and came back only with leaves and berries. Should we share some of our meat with them? Of course. Use it wisely, for it was hard to get hold of and the animal deserves our respect, but it will make our neighbours warm, happy and grateful. They might even invite us back for a barbecue next weekend.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have formed unique and special partnerships with our animal companions, and our ancient evolutionary heritage interlaces meat consumption with universal themes of aspiration and romance. Are we going to vote today for a criminal and blinkered genetic mass extinction based on a guilt-induced ideology? Of course not. But I also hope that this debate causes you to reflect on your own production and consumption of meat, and how you can bring the joy of life to the world for years to come."

ENDS


Breaking the Silos

By Emily Retledge 05 Jan, 2018


"Mister President, thank you for the opportunity to speak to the House on this motion.

Ladies and Gentlemen, as informed and conscientious members of the agricultural industry, I do not doubt for a second that you will vote wisely and reject this motion. The slippery rhetoric of the liberal elite will not wash with you. We have no sympathy for the Proponents or the extremist behaviour they inspire. Their cause is lost here today.

However, I would like to take this opportunity to challenge your thinking on WHY we must reject this motion and also I would like to be so bold as to give you some inspiration as to HOW we can continue to “meat” the expectations of society for years to come.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is clear that change is coming. Consumer trends change all the time based on fashion or innovation. Farming enables the very success of the human race that allows us to engage in intellectual debate over the ethics of our dinner plates. It is the privilege of a full belly. We cannot be resentful of this debate. It has been said, “Our role as farmers is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” If society demands that we do better, then that we must do.

The difficulty in engaging in the vegan debate though is in its use of blind ethical dogma. No science, fact or argument can persuade someone that a life is a good life or a better life if the consequence of death is the same, and it is that death which is to be avoided. It is not enough to argue that pasture fed or sustainably produced livestock should be preserved because it is environmentally beneficial, because the grazing still results in death. The illogical notion is that in order to avoid the death of farm animals, the Vegan Society would like the number of farmed animals “to reduce to a manageable level, at which point they will be placed in sanctuaries and cared for until they pass away naturally”. So no farmed animals at all.

Or perhaps only farmed animals in “natural” conditions? In ‘The Secret Life of Cows” Rosamund Young asserts that “No artificially manufactured conditions can match the reassurance, stability, attention, companionship and appropriate food that nature provides”.

Alice Roberts book “Tamed” explains the genetic and archaeological evidence for the delicate coincidences and choices that have occurred on both sides of the domestication process since the end of the last Ice Age, from dogs to maize. The evidence is clear in the case of the cow: these animals have been so successful at domesticating themselves that they no longer have a “wild” relative. The last wild aurochs cow died out in the Middle Ages.

The modern cow has ensured her genetic immortality by partnering with people in order to get the reassurance, stability, attention, companionship and appropriate food that nature very clearly does not provide.

This is the vegan paradox. The logical conclusion of the vegan argument is the genetic extinction of farmed animal species. Our frustration is that we do not achieve anything by pointing this out. Death is still death.

I am all too aware of the reality of the trend to veganism. I am not ashamed to admit that vegan month in November hurt my business financially. Much of our high value business is in London and 88% of vegans live in cities.

In running our family dairy business, I also frequently come across what I can only describe as “cow-cerned consumers”. People who have seen or read something online and are now worried about the impact their dietary choices are having on animal welfare. I am always pleased to inform them that they have a choice - Nortons Dairy specialises in Seriously Pampered Cows. But in reality, I can only vouch for my own business, and our own standards of animal welfare. The images and statistics that fill social media feeds must come from somewhere though, and we absolutely must be held to account for abuses.

Social media is feeding the new food revolution. It allows individuals to share and acquire information like never before. Individual suspicions about food supply chains are confirmed, and consumers now seek truth and authenticity in their food. There has been a big increase in the demand for free-from foods that enable consumers to take more control of their perceived health problems. Coincidentally, these products make it much easier for others to follow a vegan diet. One trend enables the other.

The obvious irony here is the profit making opportunities associated with the free-from trend, which will turn many consumers away. Processing vegetables or commodity pulses to add value sounds like a great idea, for the factory processor. The investment attraction of labgrown meat is the commercialisation of the intellectual property, not consumer sales.

The desire for authenticity and suspicion of corporate motivation means that both innovations will be of limited relevance at best, but any farm business seeking to produce a kilo of meat at the cheapest cost is vulnerable - the inefficient part of the process is converting energy to a chicken or pig to start with, so it makes sense to remove the animal for an alternative protein source. Major companies involved in exploiting our food chains are finally waking up to the ethical pressure placed on us by connected consumers, and the smartest ones are turning the challenges into opportunities.

So in the face of unanswerable vegan logic, and against inevitable disruption to the quest for cheap meat, what can we do?

First, 88% of vegans live in cities. They are the ones furthest from, and therefore least in control of, their food sources. We have an obvious need and opportunity to reconnect urban consumers with their ecosystem. It is within the power of farmers to deliver this. Bring farming to the city and bring consumers to the countryside. Be open and experiential, and build trust. Reclaim the quality terms associated with meat - you can’t milk an almond, so you shouldn’t be able to meat a meal worm.

Second, we must challenge the shameless use of guilt used to induce ethical buying. The organic movement relies on the ancient theme of overcoming the monster to motivate us to avoid "scary" chemicals in our food, inspiring the free-from trend. The vegan movement relies on the universal theme of tragedy to motivate us to buy an ethical, meat free and guilt free diet.

Social media is hijacked and corrupted to bombard people with messages of guilt and tragedy in order to keep motivating them to conform to an ideology. And it makes people feel miserable. I believe that we have a collective responsibility to self-moderate here - making people feel constantly guilty about their food choices (including Buy British) I think contributes to ever increasing mental health problems.

Instead, we must inspire a farming romance, and one completely different to that miserable narrative based on guilt. Don’t be ashamed of death, but use the power of social media to bring the joy of life.

The #febudairy can provide a channel and focus for these messages, but we can all engage in spreading ideas, images and videos, showing the love and compassion and fundamental respect we have for our farm animals. No one says they care more about animals than your average vegan - we have a lot in common.

Finally, farmers are the ultimate guardians and gatekeepers of our animals, so lets stand up for their rights. If our UK consumers demand the highest standards of animal welfare, lets champion their cause and make it happen. We can sell fantastic, high quality and flavoursome produce from those farms to the world. Ride the tides of change, and lead the charge on disruptive, innovative thinking. Be the hero!

Ladies and Gentlemen, there is neither right nor wrong in this debate. Veganism exists only as a balance to the ungrateful commoditisation of animal protein, and I would rather eat a vegetarian meal than poorly produced meat any day. We have achieved great success as a species through consuming a varied diet, but do not forget that it is the privilege of the fed to be engaged in this debate. No doubt: we will be consuming less of it, and better quality meat in the future. But I believe that we will still be consuming meat. Why?

Well, I have with me here a candle. Invented millennia ago, from the combination of a leaf and wax from bees or fat from an animal carcass. It brings warmth, intimacy and light to a room. Simultaneously inefficient and utterly pointless as a result of the invention of the electric lightbulb 140 years ago. Back then, we may have predicted that no candles would be sold by the year 2000. Yet, more are sold now than ever before, because the candle is symbolic of the hearth and the warmth and companionship of our ancient homes.

Regardless of innovation and resource efficiency, bringing meat home to the table will continue to evoke ancient feelings within us humans - feelings of family, togetherness, success. More success than the family in the cave next door who failed on their hunt and came back only with leaves and berries. Should we share some of our meat with them? Of course. Use it wisely, for it was hard to get hold of and the animal deserves our respect, but it will make our neighbours warm, happy and grateful. They might even invite us back for a barbecue next weekend.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have formed unique and special partnerships with our animal companions, and our ancient evolutionary heritage interlaces meat consumption with universal themes of aspiration and romance. Are we going to vote today for a criminal and blinkered genetic mass extinction based on a guilt-induced ideology? Of course not. But I also hope that this debate causes you to reflect on your own production and consumption of meat, and how you can bring the joy of life to the world for years to come."

ENDS


By Emily Retledge 30 Nov, 2017
Late into last night I was reading the EU Commission’s policy paper on the Future of Farming and Food in EU, on the coming reform of the CAP.  The paper sets a new political direction for the EU, returning responsibility for the implementation of the CAP to Member States. This could be seen as a direct response to Brexit and the realisation that the burden of bureaucracy at farm level is being blamed squarely on Brussels’ shoulders. One size does not fit all, after all... In an attempt to divert this increasing political criticism, and improve the accountability of the policy, primary responsibility is going to be given to the Member States to determine how EU-wide targets and policies should be implemented at national level.

The Future Food paper goes on to specify a great number of things that these national Strategic Plans should cover, including compulsory nutrient management plans and farm level extension services. So it remains to be seen what actual autonomy Member States will have to deliver against EU objectives, and of course whether the trilogue process will be able to deliver a political compromise that meets this accountability objective. At the Politico Agri-Food Summit this morning, the feeling was not positive that this would be the case. Both the French and Hungarian farm ministers, plus representatives from DG-Agri and Envi, gave their views on Commissioner Hogan’s reform. There was a great deal of criticism of the “renationalisation” agenda, despite DG Agri confirming that the EU would remain focused on activities to enable the Single Market to operate. There was also rejection of national co-financing of agricultural policy, both from France and Hungary, both of whom do well out of the current policy.

The interesting aspect is that national Strategic Plans under a reformed CAP could enable Member States to produce much more comprehensive and integrated farm support policies than exist at present. The ability for Member States to use taxation measures to support farm businesses is expressly mentioned in the Commission’s paper. I was interested to talk to the representative of Bavaria to the EU, who confirmed that German farm businesses do not receive the same “tax averaging” advantages that British farm businesses are able to use. These policies can be extremely helpful in managing annual operational risk in farming.  

The main contradiction within the debate around the future of the CAP is over the responsibility for the financial viability of the EU’s farmers. The CAP was created to guarantee a fair standard of living for farmers (even if that meant a dramatic reduction in their overall number). However, despite phenomenal levels of public spending each year (c. euro56bn), many farmers are at break even, or below. Francoise Eyraud, General Manager of Danone France, noted that the CAP is simply not agile enough to respond to changing consumer behaviours, and that it should be for supply chains to stabilise the farm income base. However, the Future Farming report reaffirms the Commission’s intention to regulate Unfair Trading Practices (UTPs) in supply chains. Neil McMillan of Eurocommerce had some great insight into this, pointing out that a tiny percentage of supermarket retail is sourced directly from farms, as most simply do not have the scale to deal direct. There is political pressure on supermarkets to react, but this is based on this fallacy of exploitation. Supermarkets are operating on a narrow 1-3% margin, so arguably it is the processors that are taking the lions share (explaining why discounters use own-brand labels almost exclusively). This does not mean that the processors should be regulated though: freedom of contract prevails.

Of course, contract law is a national competency, as is intra-state competition law, so it remains to be seen how further EU legislation will interact with this. Could better enforcement of existing legislation at national level help? Despite what Meurig Raymond of the NFU said, it is clear that the political direction of the draft Omnibus Regulation is in favour of farmers colluding to fix prices, in order to counter the perceived market power of retailers. I don’t believe that the same thinking that caused a problem can be used to fix it… and ultimately these draft rules will fall foul of competition law rules that currently work in the favour of consumers alone. But this belies the real issue. If supply chains are operating fairly, and farmers are being paid at the true market rate for their produce, either added value or commodity, what is the justification for additional public subsidy at all? The summit repeatedly highlighted that the political winds are in favour of localism, country of origin labelling and regulated supply chains, all of which fly in the face of the EU super-state approach.

The other strand from the summit today that I thought of wider relevance was an attempt to change the confrontational narrative around farming, which the recent glyphosate debate has exemplified. There is far too much conflict and polarisation of opinion in farming and environmental debate, when actors are often set against each other with conflicting objectives. The thought leaders for an alternative approach were Lee Ann Jackson of the WTO, a trained mediator herself as well as a trade expert, and Nicolas Kerfant of the UIPP (the French crop protection association). Both highlighted that the debates and opinions around the food and farming agenda, particularly on controversial subjects such as trade and science, tended to focus on the wrong thing. Identifying common goals is the crucial first step in managing conflicting interests. Lee Ann gave the example of a strategy game that relied on the players to come up with a plan to defeat a common enemy. Nicolas cheekily observed that all experts are right and that there is a healthy market in opinions!

The polarisation of debate in key areas creates a crisis of trust, as knowledge competes against knowledge for competitive advantage. So, when we deal with the inevitable conflicts occuring in agriculture, the question must always be, what is the commonality? All forms of farming actually achieve a common goal: food. All produce it in different ways, and all are equally valid within the market place. Organic and conventional, conservation and urban. We all have the same challenges in minimising risk and maximising revenue. As Nicolas said, arguing over the mechanics of the process is the privilege of a truly functioning society, one with full bellies and a healthy economy, and achieves nothing but confusing the consumer. Remembering this is crucial when forming policy around farming in particular. Does it matter what the process is if the outcome is the same? We should be mindful to avoid conflict and seek commonality with those who seek to challenge the status quo, as ultimately variety and diversity bring advantages to us all.

By Emily Retledge 21 Nov, 2017
The great and the good gathered at The Insitute of Mechanical Engineers in London this morning to discuss the future of UK agriculture policy. I was pleased that the speakers were upbeat about our prospects and had plenty of good ideas about how we can do things better. There was widespread acceptance of agri-environment being the main thrust of future policy, and a lot of questions raised around this.

Guy Smith kicked things off with a fairly standard NFU presentation of overlapping policy circles, showing how we can end up with a policy focussed on productivity or the environment or volatility in a variety of proportions. I liked that he was positive about the industry's ability to deliver wherever these puzzle pieces land. He was cautious to remind decision makers that we should not off-shore our problems, neither in the environment or in food security. DEFRA need the tools to be able to deliver whatever is asked of it, a comment echoed by Baroness Young later in the day. She I thought rather flippantly doubted the RPA's ability to do anything with its mapping software, which might count in favour of the status quo. Rather depressing...

Guy rightly spotted that the next agricultural revolution might be upon us, in the use of technology to drive productivity improvements. This needs capital investment and advisory services though. A new role for a revitalised ADAS? The AHDB are doing an excellent job on both the technical and policy side in my opinion, as Phil Bicknell highlighted in his talk. Many of the other speakers focussed on the need for the UK to produce higher added value food crops, rather than commodities. We cannot expect protection from global markets in the same way as before, and any element of protection introduces what Christopher Price of the CLA called "moral hazard" ie. farming for protection, rather than for profit. We are very used to farming for bureacracy, so little would change! But we are not incentivised to be efficient. This is a UK problem though - our farming productivity is low on the EU scale, so CAP is not the problem.

This highlights the real tensions within agricultural policy, and was something that I don't think we got to the bottom of today. There were lots of voices calling for the continued subsidisation of agriculture, at the same time as saying that to survive as an industry we need to diversify and be premium producers. Also, that we should be paid for environmental goods, market failures and protecting our natural resources. Perhaps also to provide food security (there was consensus that this was a public good). All are laudable aims, but payments to farmers do not meet these objectives - it simply replicates the problems of the CAP, which is trying to achieve multiple aims with the same tool. Can we really justify transfers of taxpayers money to farmers to produce premium food for the wealthiest consumers? We must be able to do better...

How? Well, a couple of suggestions from the audience that I liked. Environmental tax credits or farmers tax credits. (Thank you Jeanette from Ashtons Legal). I like the idea of using the welfare and taxation system to meet income volatility needs of a DAP. Others didn't like the idea of farmers being the recipients of benefits, but surely that is what the Basic Payment Scheme largely is at the moment? CAP is aimed to keep farm incomes reasonable and SFP was designed as income compensation following the end of coupled payments. Environmental outcomes have been retrofitted.  Such schemes would meet the objectives of some of the more environmentalist voices within the debate, who are keen to promote a diverse and inclusive industry that ackowledges and protects small producers as much as big ones. You can produce a lot of food on less than 5ha! And many new entrants, as Phil Stocker from the NSA pointed out, do not own land at all and so miss out on most EU financed grants. And of course, we are producing food and Rosie Boycott of the London Food Board suggested that this needs to be good food that keeps people healthy and helps them make good choices. Good work is being done in Scotland here - local procurement is a major opportunity once we are free of EU state aid rules. Several people also suggested that measures to increase management skills within the industry should be promoted (again, available under the CAP but ignored due to complexity perhaps?). Managing in a more exposed and more commercial landscape, with payments for environmental goods, seemed to be the consensus. As the AHDB have shown, the top 25% do ok under any Brexit scenario.

And finally timely reminder from a farming legend.. Lord Curry of Kirkharle reminded us that the debate over food v environment has gone. Integrated land management is the best option (one that I am proud to continue on our home farm). But how can these long-term systems be incentivised? Helen Browning of the Soil Association pointed out that it can be hard to measure overall systems, but I think the use of some key indicators could help. Not just soil organic matter, but simple things like ratio of hedgerow to field, cropping choices and integrated livestock enteprises are all basic indicators of diversity and sustainability. 

In conclusion, future farms need to be making a profit first and foremost - high value added, diverse, specialised and technical. Then, they can be rewarded with public money for environmental delivery. Black, then green.
By Emily Retledge 13 Nov, 2017
The theme of my Nuffield  scholarship is breaking with silos. One area of agricultural policy where the need for cross policy initiatives is becoming increasingly clear is in the field of agri data. There has been a comprehensive report published by the European Parliament scientific technology research service today. This highlighted the problems of the European approach to the regulation of agri-tech data  and suggests policy responses within the legislative remit of the EU. The court issue is around the ownership and collection of farm level data on an unprecedented level. Only large-scale actors have the resources to  make this data manageable and accessible to farmers, which  risks creating further farm level monopolies. Careful thought is required as to who owns this data, who is  able to use it and importantly who was able to make money out of it. This latter point is something that the EU project  finds particularly hard. Should it matter that technology is only available to more powerful players within the industry? The report goes to lengths to point out how the digital divide will negatively impact on smallholder agriculture and the family farming model, as it points out that precision agriculture will benefit Agri business and “industrial” agriculture.

  There are opportunities to regulate the use of agri-tech data through intellectual property law, commercial contract law and data protection law. The study suggests a number of policy responses, including  that standardised terms of business for agri-tech companies are desirable in order to protect European farmers. This will inevitably impact on the desirability and profitability of agri-tech as the next high growth revolution  within the agricultural industry.  We hear elsewhere that regulation of the big four data companies-Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook - is inevitable in order to protect consumers interests. Regulating every farm  in its own right seems disproportionate without  more general controls on the use of data from aggregated data sets, Yet as an industry we have become accustomed to providing detailed form level data to compliance bodies and supply chains often without questioning the value in doing so.

One particularly fascinating outcome for the EU would be the possibility to micromanage farm operations even more than at present. This will take the role of data management and collection on farm far beyond the land parcel identification system requirements and towards real-time NVZ compliance, animal welfare compliance and environmental compliance including cropping and EFA enforcement. It would surely be tempting for the EU enforcement  authorities to have this level of vision into our farm  businesses, whether for altruistic reasons or not. However the report acknowledges that this could lead to remote management of these businesses, or the removal of business autonomy altogether. If the data show that the farm should be making a profit, should the farm be allowed to make a loss?  There are some fascinating crossovers between data protection policy, innovation policy, agricultural policy and business management. These are going to require careful consideration in the UK context. 

By Emily Retledge 02 Nov, 2017
The Farmers With Flair section of the East of England Farming Conference today was intended to provide some inspiration to farm businesses looking to diversify or adapt their businesses to meet the challenges ahead. Along with Jack Stilwell of Get Jack Farming and Alec Mercer of Packington Free Range, I was asked to introduce our business and describe how it has evolved over the last 10 years. Of course, this could be a straightforward biographical case study, so I tried instead to offer some insight into the key learnings I have discovered in my time working here.

There were three key points to the talk that I gave. The first is about turning problems into opportunities.  At its simplest, this is about looking critically at what is going on around you and looking for ways to turn those problems on their heads. Empty barns and high energy bills offer obvious investment solutions to increase revenue or decrease costs, but some problems are highly personal. These too can be turned into opportunities with the right creative thinking.

My second point was around keeping things simple. Mixed farming is inherently complicated. Through my time away from the farm, I have had the opportunity to take a step back and critically evaluate our farming system. Through doing so, we came up with the business plan for Nortons Dairy - taking the best quality milk and turning it into award winning dairy products - but the initial messaging that I tried to use was too complicated. As much as consumers care about the environment and animal welfare, they also want these things as a "given". Much like a car buyer does not care how the gear box works, they are buying on looks and comfort. Equally, our customers expect our farming standards to be high, but they don't have time to appreciate the agronomic and environmental benefits of effective arable/grass rotations... I spent too long thinking that they needed to be "educated" about this in order to truly appreciate our dairy produce. I think I was wrong to think this.

The reason why this messaging and detail did not resonate with customers lead to my third point, which is about the universal language of stories. Christopher Booker wrote a seminal work on stories called The Seven Basic Plots. His research found that all stories - books, plays, movies etc - met one of seven basic plot lines:
  • Overcoming the Monster.
  • Rags to Riches.
  • The Quest.
  • Voyage and Return.
  • Comedy.
  • Tragedy.
  • Rebirth.
Any form of marketing is an extension of story telling, and this applies as much to food and agri-food marketing as anything else. Each category elicits an emotional response that gives the story resonance. My point is that one can find examples in each of these categories that are relevant to food. For example, organic marketing and the anti-GM/science lobby relies on Overcoming the Monster to elicit fear to achieve its aims - fear of chemicals, corporations, the unknown, monsters and aliens. They're all the same. Equally, Rags to Riches inspires admiration and envy - much as Daylesford, M&S or the Manoir aux Quatre Saisons inspires a level of luxury consumption. The Quest is for the perfect utensils, recipes or ingredients; and Voyage and Return is the journeys of taste discovery - culinary adventures in food tourism or infuences of Indian, Mexican, Portuguese inspiration. Comedy includes romance - think Tesco's Food Love Stories. A family sat round the table on a Sunday enjoying time and a roast. Its a beautiful image. Tragedy is guilt: perhaps controversially, I think including "eco" purchasing and Buy British. Things we are told we should be doing... how depressing! And finally Rebirth is health - Five a Day, Omega 3 and cancer-fighting brocolli. A very common food story.

The point of this is that so much of agri-food marketing - that done on behalf of the industry - relies on Tragedy. Guilt inducing pity for underpaid dairy farmers...? Its not a positive story, and it does not have endurance. We have used in our own marketing "origin" as an atrribute for many years. It is important, but much much less important than the quality and utility of the products themselves.

So in our own business, we have tried now to establish a new narrative. One of "seriously pampered cows" - meetings consumers' desire for reassurance that our cows are well looked after. I call these people "cow-cerned consumers", rightly inspired by movements such as Veganuary to ask questions of the industry. Our milk is from free-range, small-scale, straw-bedded cows. All key attributes. The cheese is artisan, versatile, Award Winning. Again, all key attributes. But these attributes lack emotional resonance. Seriously Pampered Cows offers a benefit - reassurance that the highest standards of animal welfare are in place. It is a story of love, not tragedy. And that is a good lesson to learn for all businesses looking to add value.
By Emily Retledge 31 Oct, 2017

It is of course a time of uncertainty for UK agriculture, but with change comes opportunity. I am thrilled to have been offered a Nuffield Scholarship for 2018 to look at how repatriating agricultural policy to national level can create a better business environment for British farmers.

For most of the last three years I have spent my off-farm working time looking critically at how tensions between EU and Member State competencies inhibit or encourage farm business resilience. This is particularly the case where the main microeconomic drivers for farm business performance are national issues such as contract law, taxation policy and investment structures. The main drags on business performance have been poor profitability from inappropriate public investment, combined with excess EU-derived red tape to hold the investment to account.

Macroeconomic factors such as national trade policy, industrial strategy and the National Health Service are a step removed from day to day business management decisions, however they inevitably have an upstream and downstream influence in exports, investment, research and food policy. Again there has been limited interaction with a Common Agricultural Policy managed at interstate level. CAP micromanagement of land use has been a huge driver of farmer resentment to the EU, and as an industry we dream of a future where we are free to farm to our customers' and society's expectations.

Brexit of course means the UK will have competence over agricultural policy as well as all of its existing "member state" competencies for the first time since 1973. There is a danger however that, on repatriation, agricultural policy becomes nothing but a historic legacy of the EU system. Responsibilities (by which I mean 'budget') could easily be divided between the DEFRA for the environment and animal health, Dept of Trade for trade issues, Dept of Biz for rural development, DWP for labour availability and rural skills agendas, HM Treasury for any left over public investment... will we need an agricultural policy at all? And this against a historically poor reputation for designing national policies in the favour of UK farm businesses... In comparison, near neighbours such as Ireland and Holland have invested heavily in the economic success of their farm sectors even within the confines of the CAP. We must be able to do better.

There is a real danger that the industry will be left behind as national park-keepers for Mr Gove's Green Brexit, failing to attract investment, new entrants and vibrancy as a result. On the other hand, bringing all policy arenas together (which I have called "Breaking the Silos") could bring opportunities for truly integrated and mutually beneficial policy linkages, securing the best outcome possible for UK farming. Creating the narrative that allows this to happen is essential.

My Nuffield will take a critical look at how other countries manage their agricultural policies to meet national priorities, and specifically to look for synergies between policy areas and how these can be leveraged to develop the rural economy and farm business resilience. I will approach this with an open mind, looking for opportunities and threats of relevance to the unique UK market and environment. I want to meet governments, businesses and individuals throughout the world and at home to see what lessons can be learnt, both from the current situation in the CAP context and from countries that already have integrated policies (Israel, Japan, Singapore...).

This is a critical time for our agriculture, and I hope a very timely Nuffield study topic. Any contributions or tips of good projects to visit and ideas for synergies are most welcome.



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