Agribusiness 2021, delivered by the UK trade association, the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC), took place on the same day that the new Agriculture Bill received its Royal Assent.
Run as a virtual event for the first time, the annual meeting reflected on the challenges and opportunities faced by the UK’s agri-supply sector in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit.
Wheat imports into the UK increased in the months July through to September with UK millers said to be looking to secure supplies ahead of the end of the Brexit transition period on December 21, 2020.
"Both a reduced domestic supply and demand picture have impacted wheat usage this season, with greater reliance on imported supply. Total wheat usage by UK flour millers (including starch and bioethanol) from July to September stands at 1.47Mt, up 2.1% year-on-year," said the AHDB.
Victoria Prentice MP, parliamentary under-secretary of state at the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), discussed how removing the ‘comfort blanket' of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and adopting a new approach to agricultural funding, with a focus on environmental sustainability, would also support farm productivity and profitability in the longer term.
“We have heard your call for an open partnership and have engaged fully with the AIC’s Sustainability Roadmap. By working together, we can take forward the opportunities that you have identified. Your commitment to ongoing investment will be crucial to improving profitability, while at the same time making the adaptations that we need to avert climate change.”
Robert Sheasby, AIC’s chief executive, highlighted the role of that trade group in supporting its members as the feed and crop protection industry navigates its way through changing agricultural legislation, new trade deals, and the threats posed by climate change, the weather and Covid-19.
Increased friction in trade
Minette Batters, president of the UK farming lobby, the NFU, identified sectoral concerns for increased friction in the trade of agri-food products with no confirmed EU trade deal in place less than two months until the end of the transition period.
However, she was bullish about opportunities to trade with the EU and further afield. “We have been lazy exporters,” said Batters.
Building the British farming brand and investing in how trade is done would help to open up new markets, she added.
She also urged the UK government to ensure that the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, which is due to be fully rolled out for farmers in England by the end of 2024, and largely replacing schemes currently available under the CAP, is an enticing platform for farmers to base their businesses on.
Fiona Smith, professor of international economic law and N8 chair of agri-food regulation at the University of Leeds, had a positive outlook on trade opportunities for the UK’s agri-food sector, despite the uncertainties around specific trade deals.
“The UK is re-writing the rule book as it leaves a major trade deal with its geographic neighbor. But I think the UK government is on track to produce some really interesting trade agreements that will help embed sustainability into the supply chain,” she said.
Nicholas Saphir, chair of AHDB, pointed to the ability of UK agribusiness to be competitive, and how the productivity gap between the best and worst farmers can be narrowed by better use of benchmarking and data. “Farm success requires good agronomy and business acumen. The best farmers make more [money], the worst do not. We need to drive unnecessary costs out of the system.”