Agricultural economist warns East Anglian farmers consumer preference should not be overlooked
PUBLISHED: 12:23 10 November 2017 | UPDATED: 12:23 10 November 2017
This was the advice from an eminent agricultural economist as sector leaders gathered near Norwich to hear about and debate advances in the industry.
Prof Allan Buckwell said the health, environmental and social issues around how food is produced – including technological and chemical interventions in the process – were “under constant debate”.
“There is not a human being in Britain who does not have an opinion about their food or how it is produced, and these are things that we work on on a daily basis,” he said.
“I hear that the belief in the farming world is that consumers are out of touch, but they make the decisions.
“Once society has decided what it wants in regard to its food, those choices are going to be directed to us by the people we are trying to sell our products to – we would do well to listen to them. It is then the job of technology to deliver that.”
On the subject of new agricultural technologies and techniques, Mr Buckwell said American food producers had a “more liberal” approach compared to “cautious” Europeans and Britons. “Which model do we think citizens really want? They want to fruits of the first, like the low prices, but the way the debate is going you only have to hear the words ‘chlorinated chicken’ and they know they do not want it and it must be bad,” he said.
“If we want a trade deal with America we have to be careful about this.”
The lecture at Easton and Otley College’s Easton campus was followed by a panel debate, moderated by Anna Hill of BBC’s Farming Today, in which consumers were also a prominent topic.
Emily Norton, who runs Nortons Dairy in Frettenham, said consumers’ trust “must be earned”.
“The trade-offs we have must be negotiated very carefully,” she said.
“We can never feel entitled to farm. We are providing something for the supply chain which keeps consumers and the global economy fed. Our role could not be more crucial.”
Andrew Blenkiron, estate director at the Euston Estate near Thetford, said: “The question we have to ask before we move forward is: would the consumer be happy with adopting all the technological advances that we have in the sector, such as GM?”
He added that imposing tariffs on imported foodstuffs could stop the UK agricultural sector becoming a “sacrificial lamb” post-Brexit.
He said: “The consumer will buy whatever is cheapest on the supermarket shelves and there is a very easy mechanism by which we can decide whether that is our produce – by putting import tariffs on.”
Prof Buckwell likened the reform of domestic agricultural policy which would come with Brexit to the repeal of the Corn Laws on imported food and grain in the 1840s, saying it would “set the tenor of agriculture for the decade to come”.
But he added: “It is not right to try to settle agricultural policy until you have settled trade policy. Until we know which way we are going there you do not know which mess you are trying to clear up in your agricultural policy.”