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What did we hear from Henry Blain at the Thames Valley Branch of IAgrM?

Date Published: 09/05/2023

A week or so ago, we had the pleasure of Henry Blain, the Head of Livestock at Sainsburys speak to us at the Thames Valley branch of the IAGRM. Henry has been one of our members in the past, when he was first studying at Reading University and then working at the Royal Farms in Windsor, before joining Tesco and then eventually moving to Sainsburys.  He gave a wide ranging talk to virtually a “full house” at Mapledurham Golf Club with around 30 of our members in attendance.

In his talk and then a lively Q & A session, Henry touched on a whole range of subjects, but to me some of the most interesting were as follows:

  • the Sainsbury commitment to agriculture and farming is big – they have a team of some 15 people managing this, which includes 10 development groups, 30 grower/crop groups, 190 dairy farms, 900 sheep farms and 300 pork producers and then 160 packers and food processors
  • the whole subject of the use of better and more data will become increasingly important over the next few years
  • UK and international farming (overall JS source from over 60 countries) faces a number of key challenges, such as ASF in China, avian flu in the UK, theuncertainty around the introduction of ELMs, the impact of food inflation and then the challenges, and to some extent opportunities, presented by a combination of climate change and the need for enhanced biodiversity
  • JS adopt a flexible approach to how products are supplied to them, with both aligned supply chains (i.e. dairy ) and then non aligned (i.e. beef) and so for JS, “no one size fits all”
  • in terms of developing a more sustainable supply chain,JS is looking to drive industry change, but this represents a massive challenge still. As a result, JS is working closely with arange of stakeholder groups, such as WRAP, WWF, RSPB, RSPO, the UK Soy Manifesto, Red Tractor to achieve this
  • at the same time, while looking to drive this change, JS do not want to tell individual farmers how to farm
  • the need to be able to demonstrate good environmental and sustainability credentials going forward for farmers will form part of the “right to supply” and measuring carbon will be a key new metric. Everyone in the supply chain has to be able to improve performance and increase the uptake of innovation and its application to help bring new products to market
  • the supply chain has to be prepared to share additional costs and benefits this might produce, but it is very difficult to pass these extra costs on to consumers. How this is achieved is still one of the biggest challenges at JS faces
  • JS wants to be able to “plan for better” in its agricultural and farming supply chains. While there is no one single approach to achieve this, it is clear that they will need to be prepared to make some tough decisions on this going forward, as sustainability is such a strong cross cutting theme across the business per se, not just farming
  • in this respect, key areas for future attention include those such as water usage, plastic reduction, re cycling, food waste, healthier diets, carbon reduction and enhanced biodiversity, as well as improved animal health and welfare
  • the ultimate objective that JS are looking for is what might be termed “end to end (supply chain)” financial security, more direct relationships with farmers and increased security of supply

This was a very enjoyable and very informative evening. Thanks Henry for coming to talk to us  - its much appreciated.  It really was great to have you back in our (and your own ) “home patch” and hear how a leading supermarket in the UK sees the future development of its relationships with farm suppliers and what they are doing to support this.

The fact that so many people stayed on after the event had formally finished is testament to how much they enjoyed it and we had to be virtually kicked out by the golf club staff at the end of the evening !


John is a Divisional Director with Promar International, the consulting arm of Genus plc and a long standing remember of the IAGRM Thames Valley branch. He is also Chair of the annual City Food & Drink Lecture.