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There’s no doubt that change is on the horizon. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has forced everyone from farmers and producers to retailers and independent brands to adapt overnight, whether that was through finding new routes to market, setting up online platforms or restructuring the business around furloughed team members.
The agricultural industry is certainly no different. Yet historically, farming is one area of the food chain that has arguably, for the most part, remained unchanged throughout the years. But the coronavirus effect coupled with new Brexit trade policies may equate to drastic changes in the industry, which could set up the farming industry for a more sustainable and resilient future.
As the world focused on the coronavirus impact, the farming industry was also paying close attention to Brexit debates that would have serious impacts moving forward. Industry bodies, farmers and even consumer groups have been fighting to protect farming standards in the UK – from animal welfare and the environment, to the quality of produce – as MPs (according to some) failed to support the industry. It came as the agricultural bill reached its final stages in the Commons, where it failed to secure amendments that would have protected UK farmers and producers from lower-quality imports as part of post-Brexit trade.
Whilst many are concerned about the import of cheap, poor-quality produce, one positive area of the new Brexit policy will see farmers rewarded for ‘public goods’ services. This could include tree planting, flood protection and improving soil quality. As consumers become more climate conscious and take more time to look into how and where the food they buy comes from, it puts UK farmers in a prime position to promote sustainably produced foods. What’s more, following the growing sense of community spirit amidst the coronavirus pandemic, and the various campaigns to support local producers, Brexit may actually present an opportunity for the farming industry to inform consumers and retailers about the benefits of buying British, in an effort to put local produce at the forefront of people’s minds.
Even before the pandemic took hold, change in the industry was imminent on the environmental front. In a sector that developed a reputation – whether or not unfounded – for failing to address greenhouse gas emissions, it became a hot topic amongst environmental campaigners.
Back in January 2019, the National Farmers Union announced its ambition to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions across the industry by 2040. With the industry accounting for around 10 percent of UK greenhouse gas emissions, it was an ambitious step. The announcement also came as a surprise to many in the farming community, but according to NFU president Minette Batters, it’s vital that farmers change in order for the industry to remain relevant to its market.
Though the coronavirus pandemic has caused some setbacks on the environmental front, as people adapt to the ‘new normal’, focus could once again turn to sustainability, and the farming community could be front and centre of the debate. As Batters said, this is an opportunity for the farming industry to build a “better, climate-smart business”.
Whilst the NFU said that farmers won’t need to reduce meat and crop production to meet its 2040 goal, the Committee on Climate Change has said that the agricultural industry will certainly need to shift its focus. It noted moving away from rearing livestock in favour of planting trees, restoring peatlands, improving soil quality and flood protection, and growing crops for bioenergy as key.
There’s certainly a difference in opinion, but what remains clear is that sustainability will instigate big changes in the industry moving forward. For farmers and growers, this could mean promoting better quality, organic and sustainably grown produce to consumers who are looking for a more sustainable approach to their diets and lifestyle.
The COVID-19 effect
Over the last few months, consumers have become increasingly aware of the link between their health and the food they eat. This dramatic change in attitude towards food could create new opportunities for the industry, from increasing organic production to informing consumers about the importance of food production overall. The organic agriculture concept links back to the industry’s zero emissions target, showing that many of these topics could work hand-in-hand to build a more resilient farming industry and food supply chain across the UK.
The coronavirus has also increased people’s reliance on technology, as well as unveiled the many ways in which the digital world can open up opportunities, even within the farming community. We’ve seen virtual farmers’ markets pop up, whilst others are utilising the power of social media to ramp up their messaging, whether that’s shooting a behind-the-scenes video, or hosting a virtual cooking class. Even a new app has been developed as a virtual value-chain for livestock production. Breedr aims to ensure quality and supply throughout the production and trade of farm animals, offering information about health and weight, whilst an analytics tool can help farmers boost their herd’s productivity and profitability. There’s no doubt that the virtual world has a plethora of possibilities.
The pandemic also shed light on the fragility of the food supply chain, which has created an opportunity for positive change. With the hospitality sector and export market both essentially closed overnight, many farmers and producers were left with surplus supply. Whilst many found new routes to market, the situation has shown the fragilities, and many may now be considering concepts such as share farming, or diversifying. On a wider scale, with Brexit trade deals up in the air, climate change still on the agenda, and consumers likely to be making changes to their own habits in the future, the coronavirus was unlikely to have been the last major test we’ll see on our food system. Joining in discussions and sharing insight amongst the community could prove fruitful to the industry’s future.
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