Last week, I chaired a “Question Time” style event at Reading University organised jointly by the Department of Agriculture and Food Policy, in conjunction with the Institute of Agricultural Management and the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s Food & Agricultural Group.
On the panel, we had a cross section of people from the supply chain, including:
- Damien Flynn – the Agricultural Attaché at the Irish Embassy
- Jude Capper – an international expert in livestock sustainability
- Anand Dossa - NFU Economist
- Grace Potter - a 4th year student from Reading who had just completed a year long placement with Aldi
This was a well attended event with c. 65 people there “in the flesh” and another 200 or so joining us online, as the event was streamed live on Facebook.
Once the event started, the questions came thick and fast and the panel got stuck in to giving their views and opinions on a whole range of issues related to the subject of “how competitive is the UK agricultural and food sector ?”
Among the areas discussed were as follows:
- Whether we like it or not, the ability to compete on price is a fundamental given in the supply chain - this doesn’t have to mean always being the cheapest however, but does imply giving customers and consumer good value for money
- The UK can also compete well against other suppliers in areas such as provenance and high levels of animal welfare etc., although we should not assume that we are alone in doing this. In Ireland, the Origin Green scheme has helped to under pin the sustainability credentials of the Irish food and drink sector and is a key part of their drive to develop new export markets, not least in Asia
- Labour is going to be a big part of how competitive we are in the future. This has been an ongoing problem for some time already and not just in the UK. How Brexit plays out will be a major determining factor in this, but is not likely to help the situation at all
- In helping primary producers “up their game”, the role of knowledge transfer and discussion groups etc has a key role to play in the future, but often takes time to see results
- “Good” industry sectors have a well developed vision of where they are heading over a 10 year period and what each of the key stakeholders in the supply chain need to do in order to achieve this
- For export development, it is important that agri food sectors move in a unified manner and are all seen to be “on the same page” as each other. Fragmented and/or disjointed efforts tend not to work or be effective. It needs a big commitment to achieve success and takes time to do this. The UK hasn’t always displayed these characteristics in the past, although exports have done well in the last few years
- Any claims made on “competitiveness” need to be backed up by real facts and evidence
- In terms of communicating with consumers etc. there is a need for all in the supply chain to be involved with this (and not just leave this to others to do) to promote “good news” stories and head off any adverse comments on how food is produced in the UK or even other parts of the world too
- The UK can use its systems of traceability across the supply chain to its advantage
- There will be new opportunities for the UK to trade and invest with Commonwealth partners post Brexit
- Major retailers can drive change and improve efficiency in the supply chain far quicker than government initiatives and/or policy can
There were plenty of comments about Brexit of course, as you might expect. The general view was, that as things stand at the moment, the whole process was going to be detrimental to UK agriculture and food and for many in the rest of the EU too. Enough said on that!
All in all, this was a great evening, full of strong views and well articulated opinions and enjoyed (I think!) by all - not least, the panel themselves.
And a special mention to Grace – who joined the panel at the last minute and performed like a seasoned veteran! No wonder Aldi have offered her a job after graduation next year!
John Giles, MIAgrM