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What was said at the Reading Ag Club Conference this year?

Date Published: 11/02/2022

The 56th Reading Agricultural Club Conference - was held in person and not on line as last year - with the theme of “How do we increase food production and self sufficiency in the UK but also meeting sustainability targets?”

- with a panel of 3 speakers of Nick Shorter, the Managing Director of Velcourt, Judith Bryans, the Chief Executive of Dairy UK and Emily Norton, Head of Rural Research at Savills.

My role? To do a bit of chairing during the course of the evening, which with a panel like this it wasn’t too hard - and they made my job easy…

The evening covered a whole range of issues. Some of the most important to me included:

  • This is a hugely complex subject. We are looking, as an industry, to almost achieve perfection - in terms of reaching a situation of UK/international food security and having a positive impact on the natural environment. The UK is part of a much wider inter related global network in this respect
  • There will be significant change in UK farming over the next 10–15 years, but the industry has in general been slow to change in the past, and so in the future, everything needs to be done better than it is now
  • To address the future issues, we need better calibre people with better skills in management and skills sets in the area of sustainability
  • To be genuinely sustainable, we also need farms to be fundamentally profitable too and sustainability needs to be seen as much more than being about the environment
  • The economics of trends such as re wilding needs to be examined in more detail and is not yet proven
  • There needs to be better use of technology, data and analysis in an effort to reduce unit costs of production
  • Farmers need to think more about who they are producing for - and who is their real customer. This could be a processor, a retailer, the end consumer, and in the future, carbon off-setting schemes - or in some cases, even the Government, if they are to align themselves to the mantra of public money for public goods
  • In the dairy sector in particular with the multitude of production systems (indoor, outdoor, large, high input, low input, small etc), there is no one single way to achieve a sustainable outcome. Organisations such as the International Dairy Federation are working hard to look at how this can be achieved not only in the UK and other EU markets, but also in the US, Asia, Africa and Latin America. The process is still evolving, but the rate of progress has to increase. It will need public and private partnerships to achieve this
  • There are still doubts about the direction of travel and the fine detail in the new UK Agricultural Bill which is replacing the all encompassing CAP, in place for 40 years - and the new ELMS will look very different going forward
  • The changes we will see in UK farming in the short term might well be painful for many, but there is still a positive outlook for farming pe se, as we move towards a post-fossil fuel based economy. There are still good opportunities for well thought through diversification projects
  • We need to be thinking much more not just about how much food we produce in the UK but also about its quality and provenance, and be less wrapped up in what has been the policy agenda of the last 40–50 years

 Wow - a lot was covered in the 2 hours we had for this session. It is clear that there are still big questions to be asked – we need to make sure that they are the right ones though – and answered.

This was a well attended event with well over 100 students, staff and guests/friends of the University attending. Thanks to the sponsors of the evening - Old Mill, Lloyds Bank, the Institute of Agricultural Management and Promar International. 

During the Q & A session, there were some great questions from the students and some equally great answers from the panel!

All in all - a very good evening and roll on the 57th of these events !

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John is a Divisional Director of Promar International, the consulting arm of Genus plc and a Visiting Lecturer at Reading University.