AS THE supplier of nearly half a million tonnes of potatoes a year to customers such as J Sainsbury, McCain Foods and Whitbread, the MBM group is already facing demands for greater product traceability and reduced usage of inputs.
The Integrated Crop Management (ICM) theme, at the March open day, provided a forum for customers to outline their needs. At the same time, MBM added its own encouragement to full grower participation in ICM schemes.
Event organiser Tim Berry supported the recent NFU/retailer partnership – a scheme which will independently verify that around 6000 fresh vegetable growers are using ICM protocols. "We believe that ICM will form the central plank of the marketing of all agricultural and horticultural produce in the future," he said.
"There are two choices – to embrace the concept enthusiastically and to make a good job of it, or to find oneself in the precarious position of having very limited market outlets."
John Manchett, managing director of the March site, added: "The environment is now firmly on the list of consumer demands and rising in the order of priority. We ignore it at our peril."
MBMs role, he explained, was to interpret the protocols on behalf of growers, but he believed that the technical support required would incur high annual costs.
Caroline Drummond, LEAF project co-ordinator, argued that for the grower at least, the resources demanded by ICM were more managerial than financial. She described ICM as a way of auditing ones own conscience. "Its also a constant reminder that youre handling food, which can be easy to forget, especially with cereals.
"Selling in the future is going to be conditional on ICM, especially given the influence of the supermarkets. So be prepared and do it now," she urged.
LEAF demonstration farmer, Henry Cator of Rotac Farms, agreed. "ICM wont make us any money, but it will get us on the retailers shelves." He also suggested growers turn the tables by challenging the environmental commitment of suppliers and customers.
One of MBMs largest end users is J Sainsbury. Simon Thirkell, technical manager for fresh vegetables, said that pesticide residues were the number one concern expressed in his companys mailbag, followed by spray drift, factory farming and intensive agriculture, loss of habitat and declining bird populations. The latter, he added, was an issue which the public easily relate to and, rightly or wrongly, associated with modern farming.
ICM, he said, is not a panacea, but it does start to address these concerns. He, too, could see a day when growers not conforming to ICM protocols would not be part of J Sainsburys supplier portfolio.
When asked whether, given that such a commitment to ICM must be of value to the multiple retailers, any of the financial reward might be passed back to producers. He reminded the audience that while supermarkets couldnt work without suppliers, neither could growers work without an outlet for their produce.
However, he was able to give reassurance that imported produce is coming under similar scrutiny with protocols specific to J Sainsbury being imposed on a country by country basis. South Africa and Chile have well developed ICM programmes, he added.
Another major end user is McDonalds, which purchases its french fries via McCain Foods. Barbara Crawford, of McDonalds, explained that while her company is not directly involved in ICM, it did support its principles.
"Were looking for full information on products – not just traceability, but transparency too. Were requesting this from our suppliers and they will expect you to have it available in the same way.
"The UK farming industry has received some bad press. We may think its unjustified but, whatever our own view, we need to consider how our customers perceive things. Perceptions become a reality to them," she added.
Robert Sturdy, MEP for Cambs, described that reality. About 68% of European citizens are concerned about food safety, he said, while 35% believe food is actually unsafe. "Food isnt just the petrol to drive another engine – it touches the people, the culture, a whole way of life."
Among the publics anxieties is a fear of the unknown and GMOs were therefore going to cause widespread concern.
Integrated crop management topped the menu at MBMs open day last month. Tia Rund reports.