British agriculture is changing: Brexit, food consciousness, science and technology continue to drive changes to UK food production. But what does this mean for the country’s growers? Opportunity, say industry experts.
As global markets continue to evolve, there are new trading routes for commodity producers – as well as some challenges, says David Eudall, head of arable markets at AHDB. He will be chairing the Market Outlook seminar in the New Era theatre at Cereals on 30 June. “There’s a lot of volatility caused by global and domestic pressures; from Brexit and the phase out of BPS payments, to the introduction of E10 ethanol and changing consumer demands. But there are a new and reapable opportunities for UK growers.”
Speakers – including Nick von Westenholz, the NFU’s director of trade and market outlook – will be putting a spotlight on the challenges and opportunities for UK producers in the global market.
“There is no one-size-fits-all and growers will be in a better position to weather volatility and identify opportunities if they know their business inside and out; fully understanding costs, overheads, cashflow and markets,” explains Mr Eudall. “Benchmarking, identifying skill sets, and building good relationships with key contacts will also stand the business in good stead.”
Changing consumer demands mean there are also new opportunities to serve. “Concerns over the impact of animal agriculture and deforestation caused by soya production has increased sales of foods with assurances and meat and milk substitutes like oat milk.
“Growers need to respond. It might mean introducing new crops, but growers need to remain focused on how they grow and farm to truly capitalise on market demands.”
On day two (1 July) Roger Vickers, chief executive at PGRO, will chair a seminar on Plant Protein Potential, exploring the value of pulses in the face of changing consumer needs. “There is a good future for pulses, not only to meet consumer plant protein demands but also to deliver livestock nutrition and environmental sustainability,” says Mr Vickers.
Speakers will be summarising the market outlook for pulses and where opportunities lie for UK growers. They will also look at how farmers can use pulses in their rotations to reduce inputs and improve their carbon footprint, while exploring how science will help in developing disease resistant varieties so that pulses can be grown more frequently in arable rotations.
“Pulses’ rooting systems fix nitrogen and create structure that improves soil biology, health, fertility, and friability as well as significantly reducing fertiliser and operational inputs,” says Mr Vickers. “But they are generally undervalued – how do growers put a figure on the value of soil health? This session will help growers identify and attribute value more accurately.”
As the UK looks to reduce its reliance on imported soya, there is great potential for the pulses sector if industry investment is made. “At present no one is extracting protein from pulses in the UK – but we are hopeful that industry targets to reduce farming’s carbon footprint will drive investment into processing facilities in the UK.”
Other market opportunities are forming as the result of scientific research – and visitors will hear from a range of speakers like Professor Johnathan Napier, a pioneer in plant biotechnology at Rothamsted Research. He has led a ground-breaking project using GM technology to replicate fish oils in the oil plant, Camelina – a strong contender for crop choices of the future.
“Globally we are more conscious of our health and how what we eat affects us – like the benefits of omega-3 from fish oil,” says Prof Napier. “But sustainability in aquaculture is challenged when farmed fish are having to be fed oils to make them rich in these beneficial fatty acids.”
Prof Napier’s project is a global first; using GM technology to add specific genes from microalgae to engineer Camelina plants to produce fish oil traits.
“We’ve successfully completed field trials in the UK, Canada, and USA and this has great potential as a UK commercial crop – no specialist equipment is required to cultivate, harvest, or extract oil,” he says. “The oil has also been successfully tested in human and animal nutrition.”
With a crop cycle of under 100 days the GM-engineered Camelina is a promising break crop. And while current policy means GM and gene edited crops can’t be grown in the UK, Prof Napier urges growers to not see this as a blockade. “Research is showing that these tools have a crucial place in achieving sustainable food production and better human nutrition and health,” he says.
“The government and Defra have clearly recognised the potential of these technologies, with gene editing now in consultation and indications of a relaxation around GM policy. The UK is on the cusp of a whole new revolution in terms of growing crops– benefiting the farmer and consumer alike.”
- The Cereals Event will be held in Lincolnshire on 30 June – 1 July 2021 and will comply with all required biosecurity measures against Covid-19. For more information or to register for tickets visit cerealsevent.co.uk.