Farmers' boss optimistic for food industry future

By Nicholas Robinson

- Last updated on GMT

Meurig Raymond: 'No farmers, no food, no future'
Meurig Raymond: 'No farmers, no food, no future'

Related tags: Food

Meurig Raymond, president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), has a very clear message for the food industry: “No farmers, no food, no future.”

Key points

His words are harrowing for an industry that is now, more than ever, facing unavoidable struggles that stem from a rising global population, supermarket price wars, lack of investment and climate change. Despite this, 62-year old Raymond, who was elected president in February this year, is coolly confident about the future of the food and farming industry.

“Think back 10 years ago, farming and food production weren’t considered seriously by the government,”​ he says at the NFU’s Smith Square offices in London. “Now there’s an understanding about all of the challenges that we face.”

Daily, the world’s population is growing by 220,000 and within the next year there will be more than an extra 80M mouths to feed, which is the population of Germany, he says. “Ultimately, we’re facing a global population of 9.6bn by 2050, which we need to be prepared to feed.”

The problems brought about by the UK’s burgeoning population must not be overlooked either, Raymond adds. He has been farming since the 1960s, when he and his twin brother Mansel inherited the family farm in Pembrokeshire, at the age of 13. And 20 years on, in the 1980s, he recalls that the UK was about 80% self-sufficient in food.

“But last year, the UK was 62% self-sufficient and my maths tells me that, if we go from a population of 63M last year to 72M in 2025, without increasing productivity, we will be 50% self-sufficient in food supplies. This is a worry.”

Solutions (Return to top)

At the heart of the solution to many of the sector’s problems is investment, not only private investment from banks and businesses, but farmers’ ability to invest in their own businesses, he says. Yet, as with most solutions, there is a potential iceberg on the horizon. For Raymond, this is the supermarket price wars, which have the capacity to strip margin from the supply chain and prevent farmers from reinvesting into their businesses.

Price wars are about the only thing to make Raymond lose his cool, and the multiple retailers’ race to the bottom really concerns him. “I get extremely nervous in any sort of commercial operation when somebody is squeezing the top-end, as the pressure tends to find its way back to the producer.”

Such pressure has been experienced in the past by the milk industry, as well as the pig and poultry sectors, “where I’ve seen a lot of pain in the years gone by”​, he says.

From the retailer back to the farmer, the whole supply chain needs to work on better partnerships, if they are to become more efficient and ensure everybody has an equitable share of the margin, Raymond argues. “Because from a farming point of view, a huge investment is going to be required to meet those population challenges and, unless farmers are profitable, how are we going to invest for the future?”

Supermarket price wars (Return to top)

One tool Raymond believes UK farmers will have in their arsenal to protect themselves against the likes of price wars, is the intensifying attention the industry is receiving from the national media and consumers. “There’s recognition from those two groups that food production and supply chains are going to be ever more important,”​ he says.

But further into the future, Raymond believes farmers will be able to draw on the need for greater food security as a bargaining tool, especially as the markets tighten, to protect themselves and their margins from price wars.

Demand from many British consumers to have more home-grown produce on their plates will also provide the boost needed for UK farmers to increase output to sustain the nation’s food production, Raymond predicts. “Provenance is something the British consumers have said they want – they don’t want to be reliant on imports. And how could you argue with 79% of British consumers saying they want Red Tractor-assured food?”​ he asks with a grin.

Raymond and the NFU may be able to negotiate with the supermarkets to help farmers, but one area they have no influence over is the UK weather, which has been turbulent recently.

Weather (Return to top)

Over the past three years the UK’s weather has tested its farming sector, Raymond points out. “In April last year there was snow on the ground, it was -5°C. Only three years ago we had one of the wettest summers on record and two summers ago we lost more than 2Mt of wheat to the weather.”​ It is difficult to protect against adverse weather conditions, he admits, noting that the UK’s grain harvest fell by 2Mt to 19.5Mt in the autumn and summer of 2012. Then there was a poor harvest in 2013.

“The only way we can mitigate​ [against the weather] is through investment in modern machinery and by looking at cultivation methods: precision farming and efficiency,”​ he says. “But that’s going to require the government and policy-makers to make big investments.”

Raymond isn’t calling for government handouts, but more public infrastructural investment. He says there is already millions of pounds of investment from the Agritech strategy, launched in July last year to build technology in the sector, but the government needs to support water storage and irrigation applications for the horticulture sector.

Big role for GM (Return to top)

Raymond also argues that genetically modified (GM) food has a big role to play in the future of the UK’s food production. But he accepts that policy-makers and consumers need to be brought on board. “We have to carry the consumer and policy-makers with us, otherwise what’s the point in growing a GM crop in the UK if nobody wants to buy it or support it?”

GM has received a bad press over the past couple of years, he adds. Yet, despite this, it offers the food industry a solution to its problems. He cites the example of the wet summer in 2012, which led farmers to use large amounts of fungicide to prevent potato blight. “It was horrendous from a cost point of view. Yet there is a GM blight-resistant potato, so why are we not even allowed to trial them?”

Raymond is certain that consumers can be convinced about the merits of GM. Besides, supermarkets recently recognised they couldn't guarantee the meat they sold was GM-free, he adds. “You can’t prove that meat sold in a supermarket hasn’t been fed on GM,” ​he says. “I think it was a big step for the major retailers to take but they had to.”

Sustainable intensification (Return to top)

Another big area where farmers need to convince a sceptical public is around sustainable intensification. “It’s a big phrase,”​ he says. “But it goes back to the big issue of feeding more mouths with fewer resources.”

Sustainable intensification is little understood, he claims. It has connotations of jam-packed, low-welfare and highly polluting farms. “But to me, it means producing more per hectare than we have in the past and we’re going to have to do that because we can’t take any more land for food production!”

Intensification of the UK’s production is inevitable, says Raymond, who adds it is the only plausible answer to feeding the extra 9M people expected to make up the UK population by 2025. The modern world doesn’t have the huge surpluses of food stocks it did 20 years ago, he remarks. The dynamics have changed and the answer is in biotechnology and intensification. “We need to shore-up our production capabilities to ensure we maximise what we get out of the land we use.”

GM and sustainable intensification are also essential to put UK agriculture on a level playing field with overseas competition, he says. “I am confident that we could compete with the likes of Europe and the US, but for the disadvantages brought on us by government and policy-makers that prevent us from using GM.”

Raymond’s initial term as NFU president is two years. However, his ambitious plans will require longer to fulfil. But will he be re-elected? That will be up to the NFU’s 50,000 members to decide, he remarks stoically.

“I don’t plan on being just a one-term president, but it depends on how things move forward in the next two years I’m in office. I’m passionate about the industry and I believe I understand it. So here we go.”

Watch our video with Raymond to find out how he said farmers could benefit from moving into food manufacturing.

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