So far my Nuffield travels have taken me to six countries, including the Netherlands, Ireland, US (Washington DC and California), Mexico, Brazil and New Zealand. Together, with nine other Nuffield scholars from different parts of the world, I visited numerous agricultural enterprises to gain a deeper understanding of global food production.
From a 6ha kiwifruit orchard in New Zealand to the largest privately owned farm in the world comprising 400,000ha of soya bean, maize, cotton and beef in Brazil, our group got an acquired taste for every type of agriculture.
The 2018 Nuffield GFP group visiting Terra Nova farms in California.
We spoke with politicians, policy makers, CEOs, NGOs, scientists, environmentalists, investment companies, co-ops as well as private and public organisations. Most importantly our group met with farmers.
When we think about the challenges facing the Irish primary producer, quite often we think of poor farmgate prices, labour shortages, succession, bad weather, land prices, managing debt as well as environmental regulations. The interesting thing is that these challenges are evident in every country we visited in some way shape or form. I imagine they are part of life for farmers in every country around the world.
For example, while in Brazil it was clear to see the country has the potential to export enormous volumes of commodities. However, the lack of infrastructure and export logistics in Brazil is frightening. It would not be uncommon for a grain truck to travel 3,000km to a port along the coast and have to wait four days to unload during the height of harvest.
A feedlot in the US with the capacity to finish 120,000 head.
Tackling this problem might seem obvious but Brazilian politics is crippled to the point where it can take a government 10 years on average to make a decision. The average price of land in Brazil can be as much as €7,000/acre, where soils are extremely acidic and have little or no phosphorus. In order to comply with environmental regulations, Brazilian farmers must keep 20% of their under natural vegetation.
In the US, dairy farmers have been dealing with weak farmgate prices for the last 12 months, with the majority of farmers losing money. The attitude in the US seems to be get bigger to survive or get out. US farmers are also extremely concerned about the escalating trade tensions between the US and a number of its major trading partners such as Mexico and China.
Aside from the similarity of challenges we face, our GFP group also learned about some of the emerging trends that could potentially be opportunities for farmers in the future.
Farmers are the first link in a complex supply chain, which is coming under increasing pressure. Today’s consumer is more informed and health conscience with ample choice for food. More than ever, the end consumer is seeking food that draws on their emotions, looks great and taste fantastic. They want to know where their food comes from and how it’s produced.
Farmers telling their story might trigger the minds of some consumers but to me the majority of consumers will take it or leave it. What they do care about is themselves. What’s in it for me? Am I going to feel better? Is it healthier for me? What are the food bloggers/influencers saying about this product? Is it convenient?
These are all questions that seem irrelevant to a farmer milking cows, moving cattle or cutting corn but this is the reality of how modern consumers think.
Technology has become part and parcel of how we live our lives but also how we do business. Blockchain technology, which is used to record transactions across many computers so that the record cannot be altered, is at its infant stage in terms of the food supply chain.
However, from my travels I believe it is going to play a big part in the future of the food industry in order to reinforce tractability, demonstrate animal welfare and environmental standards, assure quality control regulations and show processor and retailer transparency. This technology will potentially allow consumers to choose the farms they wish to buy from based on their own belief systems and standards. Consumers will be able to track their purchase right through to their fridge.
So what does this mean for Irish farmers? Potentially the farmer and his/her practice becomes the focus allowing them to build relationships and reassure consumers around the globe at the click of a button.
Ireland has a huge opportunity in this regard as we already have premium food brands, high animal welfare and environmental standards on farms, the majority of which are family owned.
For the first time, the farmer will have the potential to create their own value. The next generation of tech-savvy consumers living in large urban hubs around the world might just love what we have to offer and be willing to pay for it.
How UK farmers are responding to water quality challenges