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Future of Farming 2019

Productivity – Britain’s key to accessing global markets

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Tom Hind

Chief Strategy Officer, AHDB

While our industry has tremendous strengths and some world-class farmers, overall productivity growth in UK agriculture lags behind that of many of our major competitors. This undermines our industry’s ability to compete in a more globalised market.

We are now entering a period when the spotlight on this has intensified. Key agricultural stakeholders have made their commitment to hit net zero emissions by 2040. Put simply, to achieve this while maintaining output will require a massive change in productivity.

Productivity is measured by efficiency

Productivity is defined as a measure of how efficiently resources – including our natural resources – are converted to outputs. For agriculture and horticulture this translates to the ability to deliver globally, against consumer expectations, while adding value to the economy. In turn, this reduces environmental impacts.

The biggest question is how we, as an industry, can overcome low productivity together.

Recently, industry and government have come together under the auspices of the Food and Drink Sector Council to identify the steps that we can take together. This work has identified five high-level recommendations to achieving a step change in productivity growth.

To help the industry achieve the zero carbon ambition, electrification of heavy farm machinery must be facilitated.

More data is needed to drive progress

Firstly, there is a fundamental need for UK agriculture to become more data driven and establish trust around data sharing and use – in doing this, there is also a need to drive business benchmarking using key agricultural performance indicators. It’s a simple fact that you manage what you measure.

Shared knowledge and collaboration are key

Secondly, we know that farmers learn best from other farmers. While the opportunity to learn is improving, fragmentation in the way the country passes on knowledge still remains. By increasing cohesion, best practice can be easily shared, which could in turn change behaviours on farms. This style of working is recommended and must be supported going forwards.

Government and industry must collaborate on innovation

Innovation helps to drive the frontier of technical efficiency forward and is an important long-term driver of productivity growth. But uptake is slow and industry’s role in determining the key funding priorities is patchy. So, thirdly, the future will need business leaders and government to work together strategically to determine innovation priorities.

Upskilling the workforce

Skills development is the fourth area of focus to increase productivity. In 2013, only 18% of farm managers in England had full agricultural training, with 61% relying solely on practical experience. The industry has no single register of training organisations, or a central record of qualifications awarded. In order to change this, a central institute to serve as the home of professional development for training in England has been suggested, with other initiatives to support continuous learning and help train the next generation of farmers and growers.

Improved infrastructure and policy

The fifth and final recommendation emphasises the need for infrastructure and policy to enable productivity gains both in terms of the wider economy and on farms. High capacity data flow is fundamental to artificial intelligence, an essential component of future high productivity farming and growing.

To help the industry achieve the zero carbon ambition, electrification of heavy farm machinery must be facilitated. Nationwide reinforcement of rural electricity infrastructure, including buffer battery storage systems, will be essential to deliver the required electrical flow for ‘smart charging’ of multiple high capacity batteries at times of peak activity in the farming calendar.

While there is much more detail that underpins the recommendations, they provide a focus to support the development of new strategies and funding partnerships. Now the challenge is for the industry to galvanise support and work together to increase productivity.

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