Opinion: Could virus be the marketing wake-up we need?

Given the unprecedented turmoil that the coronavirus has caused, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that we are, in the main, in a far better place than the majority of the population.

Supplying one of life’s fundamental necessities may not be the most glamorous or remunerative of occupations when the economy is booming, but when the manure hits the air-con, we can rest assured that the country still needs to eat.

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However, while primary production has so far been largely unaffected and retailers have, after weathering a short bout of panic buying, adjusted to the shift in demand and managed to keep enough food on the shelves to avoid widespread civil unrest, there is a growing disconnect between the two ends of the supply chain, particularly in the livestock sector.

Beef and lamb prices are dropping and the dairy market is teetering precariously on the edge of a Covid-accentuated precipice that, for some, threatens to make the last market trough look like the common cold.

So why is milk starting to be dumped? And why are finished cattle backing up on farms while imports continue, or even grow, as in the case of Polish beef mince appearing on the shelves of supermarkets that have a supposed commitment to UK sourcing?  

The crux of the problem, as I see it, is ownership of the middle ground. This is a growing issue for our industry that cannot simply be laid at the door of retailers, who invariably become the default whipping-boys for farmers’ frustrations in times of falling prices.

Sadly, as is so often the case, the source of the problem lies closer to home.

Over the past two decades, the industry has essentially looked on passively as the UK red meat and dairy processing sectors were sold off to foreign ownership; in the main to countries that have a vested interested in exporting the very same products that they increasingly control the flow of here. 

Put simply, if you control the processing sector, you essentially control both domestic demand and the interface with the customer.

If you control demand, you control the market, and if you control the relationship with the end customer, you effectively own the marketing and growth strategy.

In times of crisis, this manifests itself in the kinds of disconnects we are currently witnessing.

But of course, if you also own processing capacity in other countries that have tariff-free access to our markets, then the associated risk is shifted back on to the primary producer, whilst the reward…

This is an issue we cannot delegate ownership of. Neither should we expect too much assistance from a government that is an avowed supporter of wider trade liberalisation and, rightly, more concerned with ensuring a secure and affordable food supply and controlling retail price inflation in the face of an impending mega-recession, than bailing out an industry that is already heavily subsidised.

In short, despite paying it ample lip service, we have for years systemically neglected marketing in the pursuit of a low-risk “sustainable” farmgate price – and those chickens are finally coming home to roost.

We have taken our market for granted for too long. Maybe this is the wake-up call we badly need.

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