Report questions competitiveness of UK farming

Report from the Oxford Farming Conference highlights good practice but says the country as a whole is falling behind

Seagulls follow a tractor ploughing fields
Seagulls follow a tractor ploughing fields

British farmers are no longer competitive world leaders in agricultural performance, according to new research from the Oxford Farming Conference.

A report produced on the matter - The Best British Farmers: What gives them the edge? - however, points out that the country’s finest farmers are world-class in terms of their productivity, profitability and attention to detail.

The research was conducted for the OFC by The Andersons Centre to explore how well UK farmers compare with their global counterparts farming in other parts of the world - what they do well, what holds them back and where opportunities for improvement lie.

Sponsored by Burges Salmon, HSBC and Syngenta, the findings were distributed to delegates at the conference this week.

Conference chairman Richard Whitlock said: “Our report wholeheartedly acknowledges that Britain has some world-class farmers, but that, as a whole, our farming industry is lagging behind other countries and must make bold strides to becoming more globally competitive.

Richard Whitlock, Oxford Farming Conference chairman
Richard Whitlock, Oxford Farming Conference chairman
 

“The research repeatedly highlighted that what separates the best from the rest is an individual’s receptiveness to risk, their ability to save cost whilst raising output and an underlying zeal for building their businesses.

“Britain has its fair share of very successful farming entrepreneurs, with a considerable number of them establishing their enterprises from modest beginnings, or from scratch.

“If the sector is to improve its global competitiveness, there are some fundamental ‘must haves’ that we must collectively address, such as lowering the barriers to land occupation, increasing the number of joint ventures and giving young farmers - who are often more eager to build their businesses - their chance to farm.”

The report’s author, Graham Redman from The Anderson Centre, sees underperformance being linked to direct subsidies stifling competitiveness, R&D which fails to focus on near-market needs and lacklustre business appetites.

Graham Redman, author of The Best British Farmers: What gives them the edge?
Graham Redman, author of The Best British Farmers: What gives them the edge?
 

He did, however, suggest a number recommendations for improved farming competitiveness:

* To raise agricultural productivity, the decline in public research expenditure on agriculture needs to be halted, with research investments increased;

* A greater proportion of research funds should be spent on near-market research to best put the findings to commercial use, which should also attract more private funds for research.

Benefits from improved exchange of knowledge will be twofold, benefiting the research community while also helping to get information to those who can use it. The would help top performers move the productive frontier forward and those following to catch up;

* Focus should be centred on the top and middle sectors of farmer operators. Those that do not seek information will always be very difficult to influence;

* Opportunities for restructuring UK agriculture through facilitated young farmer access should be improved. Younger farmers are often more strategic and visionary operators than their elders. They are also more frequently prepared to use loan, venture or external shareholder capital to expand the business;

* Farmers, as with all businesspeople, should help themselves by seeking greater (non-agricultural) business acumen.

Now in its sixth year, the Oxford Farming Conference has gained a reputation for its strong practical, grassroots focus.

This year, the event attracted 650 famers, growers, scientists and economists from across the globe for two days of talks debates and hands-on workshops, demonstrating a growing demand to challenge the status quo in agriculture.

With science now playing a key role in food production, considerable emphasis was placed on presentations by research experts, both from the UK and abroad, with speakers including world-renowned microbiologist and soil scientist, Dr Elaine Ingham, and Professor of Global Farm Animal Health at Bristol University, Mark Eisler.

The Landworkers’ Alliance likewise took advantage of the event to launch its policy manifesto and there was a lively debate between journalist and author George Monbiot and The Sustainable Food Trust over the role of sheep farming in modern agriculture.

Responding to the report, CLA North regional director Dorothy Fairburn said: “Farmers in the North East are competing in an increasingly global market.

Dorothy Fairburn, CLA North regional director
Dorothy Fairburn, CLA North regional director
 

“This has created huge volatility in commodity prices, which looks set to stay for the foreseeable future.

“In such a competitive market, farmers have to be supported by the latest technology.

“Government must invest in research and development to help boost efficiency and productivity while working with European institutions to streamline the regulatory approval of innovative technologies.

“The report is also right in identifying new entrants as a key factor in improving competitiveness.

“Share farming has a crucial role to play in enabling young people to get their first foot on the farming ladder and we are working closely with our members in the region to identify and promote opportunities for the next generation.”

NFU President Meurig Raymond likewise agreed it was right to raise concerns over UK farmers’ competitiveness, suggesting the report was correct in concluding that more investment in British agriculture by way of applied research and a greater emphasis on the sharing of knowledge should be a key priority.

Meurig Raymond Predident of the NFU
Meurig Raymond Predident of the NFU
 

He said: “We believe it is this lack of investment and applied research in British agriculture which is making it harder for farmers to do their job of producing more food for a growing population.

“Farmers are entrepreneurs and work hard to ensure we have enough domestic food on our plates, while protecting the environment and working to world-class welfare standards.

“During these volatile times, we face enormous challenges, most especially in providing a stable basis for investment and risk-taking.

“The NFU’s research with our membership also shows that burdensome regulation that penalises rather than encourages our farmers and growers to produce more food is a consistent block to meeting farmers’ productive potential.”

At the same time, he added, there was a distinct lack of investment in British agricultural research to meet these challenges, whether through measures to ensure productivity during extreme weather or through encouraging farmers to embrace new technologies.

“Farmers have worked hard to ensure that the British public are hugely supportive of the work they do in producing high quality domestic food,” he said.

“Our priority is to ensure we have the right tools to enable us to grow as an industry and to reverse the decline in British self-sufficiency. But make no mistake, our farmers and growers are up to, and capable, of the challenge.”

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer