Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Is the UK ready for new challenges in food production?

The Financial Times yesterday had a 'Big Read' article about the transformation of food production by new technology. Like all FT articles on new technology, it's a bit 'gung ho'. It doesn't consider that many farmers may be resistant to new technology or may not have the resources to acquire it. Nevertheless, it makes some good points.

The central thrust of the article is to be found in a sentence some way down: 'Once an unfashionable backwater, agricultural technology has started to capture the imagination of investors.' It reckons that 'annual global investment in food tech, from farm management systems to robotics and mechanisation, more than tripled to $10bn' in the five years to 2017. The main areas of innovation are identified as gene editing, artificial intelligence and digital technology.

Consumer demand is, as always, of key importance. As the populations of developing companies become wealthier, they demand protein products, especially meat. The total amount of meat consumed globally is forecast to rise by 76 per cent by 2050. But, as we know, meat production is not good news for climate change (fossil fuels, methane), nor is increased red meat consumption good for health.

Coincidentally, The Economist has a big feature on the vegan trend. Veganism as such, it concluded, is a niche market, but large numbers of people who are not vegans or vegetarians are interested in healthier eating which has led to an increased demand for plant based products.

One of my concerns about Brexit was the impact of the loss of migrant labour on fruit and vegetable production in the UK. Food miles issues can be exaggerated: it makes more sense to produce tomatoes in Spain in the winter than to heat glasshouses around Littlehampton.

I am somewhat sceptical of claims made about automated picking. The FT notes, 'Given that fruits and vegetables are not of uniform shape and ripeness, the technological challenges are extensive. On top of the mechanical dexterity and spatial cognition that the machines need to demonstrate, researchers hope that AI can help them to learn to pick only the ripe fruit and vegetables.'

The FT rightly praises what is going on in the Netherlands in this area, particularly in 'Food Valley' near Wageningen University (it is, of course, as flat as a pancake). When I was doing research on biological alternatives to chemical pesticides, I was impressed by the way in which the Netherlands was ahead of the curve. As the FT notes, 'The country has made food science one of its strategic priorities and hosts one of the world's most efficient agricultural systems.'

Among the advantages that the Netherlands has is Rabobank, one of the biggest lenders to the food industry and a central location in Europe with an excellent port in Rotterdam.

The FT notes, 'Some investors believe that the food business is about to face the sort of disruption that technology has based on hosts of other industries.' Is the UK ready? Is domestic policy prepared? I doubt it.

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Sunday, October 14, 2018

Boost for dairy futures

Now that we no longer have devices like milk marketing boards and large scale intervention buying to manage dairy markets (both of which had big problems), there has been an interest in the deployment of novel financial instruments to help farmers cope with market fluctuations. However, you have to be quite a financially sophisticated farmer to be able to use them and they potentially working best in cooperative arrangements.

Indeed, the traditionally conservative cooperatives are now becoming more active as they look for ways to hedge against fluctuating prices. Big processors are using futures to fix their prices and the big retailers are also involved.

A total of about 20,000 tonnes of skimmed milk powder, butter and whey were traded on the EEX dairy futures market in September, the highest monthly volume on record. Skimmed milk futures were launched in 2010, but there has been a lack of liquidity.

The market is still illiquid, but analysts believe that we are at a tipping point.

Record summer temperatures across Europe affected supply. Brexit is also driving volatility in Britain and Ireland.

John Lancaster, a senior analyst at a commodity broker, told the Financial Times:'It's become more obvious to people that high volatility is not going away.'

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Friday, October 12, 2018

Stakeholders prioritise outcomes over process

The Government has issued a response to the EFRA Committee report on its consultation document on domestic agricultural policy after Brexit: Response

The Government praises itself for the extent of its engagement with stakeholders on the trajectory of policy and certainly there is a lot of interest and concern from many different quarters on its future direction and content. Stakeholders are interested in outcomes not process and what those will be remains to be seen.

Defra states that, 'It is incorrect to say that there have been minimal discussions between Defra and the Treasury over the future funding of the new agricultural policy. We have been in regular contact with HMT at both ministerial and official level.'

Again it is not the regularity and level of contacts that matters, but the content of those contacts. We are now in a period where the end of austerity has been proclaimed alongside continued fiscal responsibility. The reality is that it is politically difficult for the Government to increases taxes, but it has pledged substantial new funding to the NHS before one even starts to think about, for example, the needs of the police and the prison service.

Spending on agriculture is likely to be squeezed over the coming years. Normally reliable sources suggest that the Treasury is happy with the direction of travel of policy towards payments justified by public goods arguments. However, they are not impressed by food security arguments, although they are interested in the possibilities of a new technological revolution.

What is still largely missing is any link between agricultural policy and health policy in relation to issues such as obesity. Healthy eating is an interest of large sections of the population, not least younger voters.

The Government's view is that 'eating healthily is ultimately a consumer choice'. This is true, but that choice can be guided and that is what Public Health England is trying to do, possibly sometimes in too hectoring a tone.

The Government argues, 'We take the view that the market remains the best way to reward the production of good-quality food. Paying farmers to produce healthy food would not necessarily result in the desired outcome of a wider contribution to public health. Farmers may be the wrong target to incentivise consumers to eat healthy food, especially where primary produce travels through the supply chain via food processors and manufacturers before it is turned into the final product that consumers purchase.'

Whilst there is something in these arguments, policy needs to go beyond a reliance on the market mechanism. For example, there is a climate change argument for eating less meat. We need to ensure that there is a good fruit and vegetable supply at an affordable price. Of course, that raises much wider questions about the roles of the state and the market.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

End of basic payment challenges National Park farmer

It was a pleasure to open my Financial Times on Monday and see a photo of a fellow member of the Farmer-Scientist Network of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, Richard Findlay. I had just finished the draft of our submission to the EFRA inquiry into the Agriculture Bill which received its second reading this week (attracting attention because the Democratic Unionists abstained).

Drawing on the expertise of our academic and farming members we have made a detailed response which hopefully will appear on our website before long. You can read our earlier reports and documents here: Brexit

Richard has 700 sheep on 1,250 acres of the North York Moors national park. In a good year he makes a profit of about £12,000, but he receives £44,009 in subsidies under the CAP.

As he points out, the moorland is a managed landscape which would revert to trees and bushes if he was not farming it. Hopefully, he will be able to demonstrate that he is providing a 'public good' under the new arrangements, although the income stream is likely to be more uncertain and involve form filling.

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GM bonanza after Brexit?

Producers of GM crops have called on ministers to abandon European environmental rules after Brexit. The Agricultural Biotechnology Council repesents BASF, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, Monsanto, Pioneer (DuPont) and Syngenta.

Top biotech companies have long been frustrated by rules that have prevented the sale and development of new GM products in Europe. They have the support of the American administration which is likely to make access for GM seeds one of the conditions of a US-UK trade deal.

Mark Buckingham, chairman of the council, said that under the existing system 'a generation of British farmers have operated without technology that is taken for granted around the world while the EU is known for its political regulatory decisions.'

Any move to allow the commercial cultivation of GM crops in the UK would be strongly opposed by environmental groups. The Government might wonder whether it would be worth spending political capital on the issue when they are under pressure on many other fronts, but the US would push on the issue. This is a more serious concern than chlorinated chicken, although I am not taking a position one way or the other on GM crops.

It should also be noted that the EU would be unlikely to accept exports of GM grains from the UK, just as they would not accept crops grown with pesticides they have banned. It is not realistic to think that UK agriculture can become a regulation free zone after Brexit, although some farmers may have been swayed by that hope when they voted in the referendum.

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Friday, October 05, 2018

The limits of new technology

The new conventional wisdom is that agriculture is on the verge of a fourth revolution and that once the UK has Brexited this digital revolution can get under way in earnest, supported by domestic policy and unshackled from the CAP.

I am no fan of the CAP, but I think that some caution is necessary. One farmer commented to ‘Yes, however, there are challenges with farmers getting to grips with the very many and varied types of tech, as my latest tractor testifies, I am generally mystified by the number of possibilities and so find myself being overwhelmed. Tech needs to be simple and intuitive. It’s also expensive.’

Appropriate policy could, of course, help with the question of expense. But much of the AI and digital tech is still at a relatively experimental stage and not ready for on farm use.

Of course, farmers have been using data from near earth satellites for some time and that is now being supplemented by more fine grained information from drones. That enables decisions to be made, for example, about what quantities of fertiliser or agrochemicals are to be applied where with both business savings and environmental benefits.

It is also claimed that machinery using AI can spot when strawberries are ripe and ready to be picked. A downward facing camera is used. However, the berries still have to be picked by hand.

We do face the challenge of producing more food from a given area of land and in an environmentally friendly way. Technology is the key to sustainable intensification. But we also need to think more broadly. Should we try and move away from meat heavy diets which require large quantities of animal feed and livestock that produce methane, a particularly damaging climate change related emission?

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Thursday, October 04, 2018

US faces challenge in shifting food mountain

We all know that government policies often have unintended consequences. So it has proved in the United States with President Trump's trade war leading to a mountain of food that hunger charities are finding it hard to cope with.

The US administration intends to buy up $1.2bn of foodstuffs over the next year to help out farmers suffering from new tariffs on their produce in China and elsewhere. Sales of US soyabeans to China have been badly hit while pork, a staple product in many mid-western states, faces a 60 per cent tariff in China and 20 per cent in Mexico. Indeed, nearly half the purchases to be made will be of pork.

The purchases will increase by more than 50 per cent the amount that USDA purchases for donation. It is estimated that 40 million households in one of the richest countries in the world are 'food insecure'. However, the challenge is to find enough trucks and drivers to mood the before it spoils. Milk may be the biggest difficulty because of its short shelf life and one is often talking about distances between the producing and recipient areas.

With the average farm business earning 20 per cent less this year, if nothing else it shows the continuing political clout of farmers. There are mid-term elections coming up and although farmers are not numerous, the votes of them and their families can be crucial in tight Senate races, of which there are a number this year. Moreover, many farmers are bedrock Trump supporters.

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Thursday, September 27, 2018

Brexiteer Dyson sees his farm business make a profit

The farm subsidies given to vacuum cleaner entrepreneur Sir James Dyson's extensive estate have attracted a lot of criticism. In 2017 he received CAP subsidies of £2.8m, up from £2.4m the previous year because of land purchases.

It is thought to be unfair that one of Britain's richest men should be given such amounts, although in fact they go to his farm business (Beeswax Dyson Farming) rather than to him personally. The estate is made up of 35,000 acres of land in Lincolnshire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. No doubt his example has given some impetus to the reduction of subsidies for larger farms after Brexit.

Now the Financial Times has revealed that the business generated a pre-tax profit of £747,000 last year, compared with a loss of £1.53m the year before. Turnover went up 11 per cent to £15.7m. This represents a return of just under 5 per cent. The cost of sales fell by 12 per cent.

He was one of the few prominent Brexiteers from the world of business in the referendum campaign. He has said that he needs EU subsidies to compete against continental competitors. Over the five years he has put £92m into improving the farms, including renewable energy projects. Investment has been directed at such areas as soil health, technology and infrastructure.

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