IAgrM Annual Review 2021

4 | events@iagrm.com www.iagrm.org.uk | 5 To summarise the past year in the Northern Ireland agri-food industry in a few words is far from simple. It was a year when terms such as future uncertainty, structural change, trade disruption, political tensions, Irish sea borders and new trade deals were all in regular usage. It meant those working in the industry were tested like never before in terms of their ability to interpret unfolding events and to react positively and appropriately to them. In times of uncertainty and change timely and effective communication is of vital importance. The Institute responded to this situation in a number of ways but specifically by hosting two key information events during the year to let members and guests hear from industry leaders at a national level. A conference in January titled ‘Northern Ireland’s Agri-Food Industry in 2030’ was led by Justin McCarthy of the Irish Farmer’s Journal and Conall Donnelly of the Northern Irish Meat Exporters Association. The speakers recognised that the changes affecting the industry were at a foundational level involving changing relationships to key market outlets, allied with a range of uncertainties, both known and unknown. They recognised the difficulty in predicting how these changes will unfold over the next decade but highlighted that there will be opportunities to grasp, along with significant challenges to face and manage. In our traditional market, UK consumers spend one of the lowest percentages of their income on food when compared globally. The expectation of cheap food will be ongoing and bring many challenges to our sector. To achieve the optimum returns for our agricultural produce there is an overriding need to establish new and stable trading patterns. This will require joined up thinking like never before, and strong communication throughout the supply chain. The role of science and technology will be paramount in giving our farming sector a profitable edge.We all need to embrace science and work hard to harness its benefits. The industry also faces ever greater demands from the public to produce food in a sustainable manner and farmers need new knowledge and technology to meet these challenges. Clean air, clean water, healthy soil, biodiversity and a reduced carbon load are all in the list of demands. It can be achieved, but will require ongoing knowledge and technology adaptation throughout the industry. The autumn conference held in October was called ‘Future Agricultural Policy and Practices for a productive sustainable Agri-food sector’. Dr Rosemary Agnew of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs who outlined the future framework of agricultural policy while Dr John Gilliland of Devenish Nutrition discussed some of his work on implementing environmental solutions within the agri- food sector. They were joined in a panel discussion by Victor Chestnutt, President of the Ulster Farmers Union and John Egerton, a leading beef and sheep farmer, to consider the implications of the future agricultural policy and how the industry can tackle environmental challenges. The Northern Ireland agri-food industry, made up of 26,000 farms, supplies food for 10 million people. These customers are expecting not just food but public goods from our farms and our policy has to reflect this situation. The drive for productivity has to be balanced with the need for environmental sustainability which is a complex and challenging exercise. John Gilliland outlined that for too long there has been a focus on carbon output and not enough attention is being placed on the amount of carbon our farms are sequestering. The aim of his farm-based research is calculating net farm greenhouse gas emissions at different stocking rates and determining steps that can be taken to achieve Carbon net zero. Measurement of the carbon accumulation both in the soil and above ground is key. Technologies employed on a range of farms include the LiDAR digital topographic scan and soil sampling for lime requirement and indications are that productivity can be maintained while enhancing carbon sequestration. In the discussion session it was recognised that farmers need to go a step further up the sustainability ladder each time to justify public funding. As the policy develops into advocating specific actions on-farm, the need for high level knowledge and the application of technology will intensify. More widely, the 60 minute webinars delivered by the Institute clearly met a need attracting audiences of over 100 participants from a cross section of the industry. This level of engagement has contributed to the growth of Institute membership locally with which now stands at 73 members. The uncertainties facing us are ongoing but they can be managed with resilience, innovation and good communication. Transfer of ideas and knowledge is as vital as ever and the role of the Institute in this process in the local industry is assured. Global economics are unusually unsettled. As consumption returns from global Covid lockdowns, the demand for many commodities and goods, including fuel, gas, steel, computer chips and some farm goods has exceeded supply. This sharpens the already sensitive global geopolitical position. Chinese authorities flex their growing political (and military) muscles, provoking the US by flying warplanes over Taiwan. Taiwan manufactures 70% of computer chips in the world, making the country strategically critical. Russia supplies over 40 percent of European gas so commands considerable political influence over the continent. A laissez-faire style of food policy is not ideal in a geo- politically unstable world where markets are disrupted and potentially more exposed to control by individuals. The recent carbon dioxide shortage demonstrated the impact a little- known minority input in livestock and meat supply can have. Its not just the farming that stops the food production. For 50 years, being part of a club which supplied over 90% of our food requirements provided sufficient food security for the UK. Now we have left, and the world feels less safe. The presence of Covid leaves us feeling vulnerable as demonstrated by the dramatic reduction in food-waste and rise in local sourcing. It would not take much to trigger another food- stockpiling event that we saw in lockdown-1 in 2020 or at the fuel stations in September 2021. If, in the build-up to Christmas, one supply chain cannot meet every consumer’s requirement and the press finds out, then the queues outside the shops and the pushing for food and toilet rolls will return. The surge in demand for consumption is matched by demand for workers; to make or deliver the goods people want to consume.With over a million job vacancies in the UK, surely nobody should now be unemployed. Inflation is almost inevitable. This suggests the costs of borrowing money might rise at some point too. The physical and therefore noticeable Brexit start date was 1 January 2021, and since then, the return of skilled workers to their respective EU countries has left us short of skills. Migrant labour is concentrated in a few areas. As a result, bars and hotels have closed from lack of staff, deliveries are not being made, animals not being slaughtered and horticultural crops not harvested. Covid self-isolations intensify this. It will take time for these skills to be replaced. The 2010s had had little political unrest, no new major wars, no massive economic disruption, and relative calm in the commodity markets. Even global dairy prices have been unusually settled since 2015. But commodity markets never promised to be anodyne or predictable. And markets are related. Too little carbon dioxide reduces poultry and pig numbers, too little fertiliser reduces grain yields, and possibly increases pulse cropping. High fuel prices encourage biofuel manufacture and biofuel demand in Europe increases oilseed rape acreage.Whilst it may lead to short term opportunities for some farmers, it will not help all. Farm policy is being created to support the environment, income support or social payments are ending potentially causing more volatile farm returns. It is fortunate the markets are currently high. It is perhaps prudent to invest current profits sensibly and make the farm robust to help it whether future changes in markets which may not be as favourable. AYEAR IN REVIEW FOR THE IAGRM IN NORTHERN IRELAND ECONOMICS, GEOPOLITICS AND FOOD SECURITY DAVID TRIMBLE, DAERA GRAHAM REDMAN , PARTNER, THE ANDERSON CENTRE