With adverse effects of climate change on the increase, farmers will be instrumental in making changes to food production to ensure our survival.
There are some monumental challenges facing agriculture. How can agriculture adapt to the increasing uncertainty posed by climate change? Can we sustainably feed the world?
With climate change likely to render areas of the world un-farmable, the UK will probably offer some of the most favourable conditions for growing food. From this point of view, British farmers will form part of the solution to feeding a growing population.
Onwards and Upwards
Vertical farming offers the ultimate resilient farming approach. Unlike crops that are farmed outside, vertically farmed crops aren’t at the mercy of the elements, nor do they require pesticides, herbicides or fossil fueled farming machinery. SAI Global Assurance recently conducted a vertical farm audit and fully supports this alternative, forward-thinking method of producing food.
In the immediate term, building resilience into conventional farming systems is a more realistic ambition for most, and there are plenty of measures farmers can embed into their assurance plans.
The importance of building a flourishing community of soil life – bacteria, fungi, insects, earthworms, roots, organic matter to name but a few – is often overlooked as the foundation for resilient, profitable and sustainable farming. There’s more going on beneath soil level than above and if soil management is right, this will have positive results for air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Optimising soil and plant nutrition can assist with stronger rooting and resistance to insect and fungal attacks, as certain trace elements support plant resilience. Silicon, for example, is the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust and in the right formulation will further help strengthen plant cell walls.
There is also growing evidence to suggest that conservation tillage is better for soil life and crop growth than ploughing. Minimising soil disturbance helps to build the soil’s health and ability to hold moisture, allowing crops to grow better during dry periods.
Whilst livestock farmers have come in for criticism over their contribution to climate change, manure remains a key ingredient in sustainable crop production, allowing farmers to improve soil health by reducing the use of artificial fertilizers. SAI Global considers livestock as being an important element of sustainable agriculture. While the media has identified livestock as a high contributor to greenhouse gases, emergent research is showing that emissions may be less than originally estimated. It is also possible that much of the industry may be already operating at low levels of GHGs.
Careful management of water resources is also essential to supporting soil health and farm wildlife. Farmers who ensure that nutrients and pesticides stay out of watercourses and successfully manage irrigation/natural water supplies can reap a host of benefits. Interestingly, it’s not just on land with a gradient where run-off is a concern; on flat fields, soil can collect in tramlines and get carried horizontally into watercourses.
Step Change in Farm Assurance
Climate and politics are not the sole drivers of change; and it’s good to see the world of farm assurance is rapidly developing too. While increased demands for food safety remain paramount, audit and inspection systems are improving through technological advances and as a consequence there is greater transparency across the supply chain. This is good news both for consumers, who care more and more about animal welfare, worker welfare, product provenance, sustainability and ethical sourcing – and food businesses who need to dig deep and mitigate hidden risks to protect their brand and reputation.
This is reflective in the results of SAI Global’s recent ‘2019 Reputational Trust Index’ consumer survey, which show that companies must begin thinking in terms of transparency-by-design to bridge the gap and safeguard brand resilience through trust-building. It’s not enough to simply say ‘trust us’ when customers are demanding ‘show us’.
SAI Global’s study found that all generations were interested in understanding the story behind the product and they’re willing to pay for increased transparency. Similarly, 71 percent of the consumers we spoke with would pay more for a product that comes from a company with a thorough quality assurance process.
While this focus on full transparency across the food network may be seen as a challenge, or even a burden, the changes it necessitates can be enormously beneficial. The Agri-Food industry should leverage the opportunity transparency brings to identify potential operational improvements and promote good corporate citizenship; the result of which can reinforce the strength of brands and potentially minimise the impact of future reputational events.
Career Development is Essential
Continuous learning to keep up with technological advances in agriculture is key, but also development of people in terms of leadership and management skills is important to get the best return for the farming business.
Taking all these measures into account, we are confident that through collaboration between farmers and suppliers, a robust, resilient future lies ahead.
About the Author
At SAI Global Assurance Robin Levin is UK and Ireland Relationship Manager and works closely with Standards owners such as Red Tractor, GlobalG.A.P. LEAF and farmers, ensuring that we aim together towards achieving mutually agreed industry recognition for buyers and consumers. Robin’s career spans Sales, Management, Consultancy, Agronomy and Farm & Food Assurance. He has participated on the LEAF Marque Technical Advisory Committee, and as a BASIS and FACTS examiner and in 2019 was voted Best Food Technologist at the SOFHT awards.