The 54th annual University of Reading Agricultural Club Conference was held on Monday 27th January 2020 in the Nike Lecture Theatre under the theme; ‘Are we optimistic or pessimistic for the future of British agriculture and food industry’. The event brought together students, staff and former staff of the University and a host of experienced speakers to give insights on the challenges and opportunities faced by the British agri-food industry and how they could be approached. I believe some of the issues discussed could be of help to people outside the United Kingdom as well.
The first speaker was Paul Henman, a principal consultant at Promar International and a fellow of the British Institute of Agricultural Consultants (BIAC). Among his recent projects is developing a 3,000 -cow dairy unit in India. He started off with reasons for caution like the negative effects of climate change, public perception of livestock farming, market dominance by few corporate players, barriers of entry (including trade) and high interest rates. However, he argued that there are opportunities in that the changes in the size and structure of populations offers a higher demand for dairy products. Rapid technological advancements also offer opportunities to solve some of the problems experienced in the agri-food chain. In addition, he suggested that that there’s an opportunity to put a monetary value on greenhouse gas emissions caused by the activities in the food system which is itself a business opportunity.
Andrew Mclay, an InnovateUK livestock specialist put it aptly that there has never been an opportunity to get involved in British agriculture than now. He focused on the funds that the government has availed to support initiatives to create a more sustainable and productive farming sector such as the £90 million ISF challenge fund which he serves as a member.
The last speaker was David Rose, an associate professor at the university whose research has included the ethics of precision livestock technology and stakeholders in developing agri-tech. He is also working with the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in designing a post-Brexit agricultural policy and understanding farmer behaviour change. He explored on the challenges of technology adoption and how youths are important in what was termed as Agriculture4.0. He proposed that despite the need for extension services and farmers’ support, there’s a challenge which is easier to deal with when farmers are organised in groups.
The closing remarks and Question and Answer session was facilitated by John Giles, the divisional director at Promar International, a visiting lecturer at the university and the Chair of the Organising Committee of the annual City Food Lecture (held in London). The speakers were challenged to declare their stand on the theme with the responses being on the need to tell the agri-food story better, proper compensation on the environmental and management scheme and better trade deals.