Consumer trust in the food farmers produce sits firmly at the top of Tauni Brooker’s risk list for UK Farming Plc.
As UK director of the sustainable solutions division of global risk management consultancy URS she has a firm grip on the issues that matter.
Consumer attitudes supersede climate change, EU legislation, water supply, labour resources or waste disposal, she insists.
“From electronics to jewellery the biggest driver in every sector is consumer attitude.”
Creating and retaining that trust needs producers to go beyond what legislation demands and deliver not only what consumers want, but add extra value to secure their commitment and enthusiasm in future.
This issue is even more important for farming than any other industry.
“There is one simple reason:
Consumers can buy more than one TV for the home, which underpins manufacturing growth, but they can’t eat two or three extra dinners.”
Europe’s ageing and increasingly affluent population wants better food, not more food.
Quality is, therefore, the focus.
Failure to address that is the biggest risk the industry faces.
“Get this wrong and your business will suffer.
This is the key issue.
And it is all about trust.
Farmers need consumers to trust them and that means being seen to be doing the right thing.
The whole issue of intensive farming has to be handled right to preserve consumer confidence.”
Significantly, food quality is not just about the quality of the final product.
It encompasses the quality of the production process, the inputs used, the impact on the environment, and ethical and social issues, she says.
The huge growth in farmers’ markets and improved supermarket labelling highlights that trend, Ms Brooker stresses.
The risks from losing consumer trust are evident.
“In the Netherlands pig farmers were perceived to be big polluters.
So, when they tried to address limits on the total amount of nitrogen they could apply to land as pig muck, they bought land in Poland to increase their holding size.
But the muck was still going on the same area of land in the Netherlands.
It was a paper exercise and the producers were caught out, doing severe damage to their reputation.
“If you don’t get these issues right it will have a very material impact on your business, on your brand as UK Farming Plc and your access to markets in the future.”
She urges farmers to look beyond their own farms.
“Look downstream at input supply and upstream at how your food is handled in the food chain.
There is a risk there that you need to manage, to preserve the integrity of the food you produce.”
But farmers can also turn threats to advantage.
Energy and biodiversity are two examples.
Both worry consumers, yet farmers can deliver on both, improving their standing in the eyes of consumers.
Wind farms, energy crops and carbon credits are all options open to farmers.
“Wind farms, in particular, offer a real chance for your land to work two or three times harder for you, delivering livestock or crops, plus wind energy and improved consumer perception.”
Energy crops could bring wins, too, by producing fuel crops with a positive carbon balance.
There could also be indirect wins, if carbon emissions can be cut through reduced cultivations or modified cropping.
That could lead to carbon credits which could be traded with industry, as in the USA.
Delivering biodiversity gains could attract payments, too, as well as fostering greater consumer confidence, she adds.
Emerging technologies will also need careful handling.
“Smart PR will sell genetic manipulation as splicing technology, with greater risks to consumers from obesity, for example, if the technology is not embraced.”
Keeping an eye on the various risks and constantly updating plans for handling those risks is a vital part of business, Ms Brooker stresses.
“Risk managers don’t have a crystal ball or access to the gods, but look to ask the right questions and keep an ear to the ground, bearing in mind that it isn’t just new risks that matter.
Risks of the past can also come back to bite again.”