The City Food Lecture 2022 put farmers at the forefront of sustainability action

The first City Food Lecture of a post-Covid world saw its keynote speaker, the MD of Arla Foods UK, Ash Amirahmadi, urging more than 600 leaders of the UK food & agricultural industry to embrace change as their sector enters a defining decade.

Ash argued that the negative terms often associated with farming are a distraction, and that there is a compelling argument for the whole supply chain to reconnect with farmers who will become increasingly important in the fight to feed people whilst protecting the planet. Claiming: “farmers are the people who can make the biggest impact on our journey to sustainable food production”, he talked about his confidence in the net zero journey Arla farmers are on and said that everyone in his audience – whether a food company, an industry supplier, an MP or a member of the public – should all be asking how they can help farmers accelerate the journey towards sustainable food production.

Sharing insight into Arla’s own sustainability journey, which has made its farmer owners among the most emission efficient in the world, Ash challenged every business in the sector to look first at what’s working well in their business, before identifying the best areas for change.

Stopping mid-speech to ask the audience to join him in a round of applause for all those who kept food flowing during the coronavirus pandemic, his timely reminder of the vital importance of the sector put into context the operational business challenges that sit alongside the bigger questions farmers and food companies are grappling with. These range from climate change, growing populations worldwide – to the opportunities and challenges of technological advances and changing consumer demands.

In speaking at the 21st anniversary of the event, Ash stated, “Just as the City Food Lecture is coming of age, so too is our industry.” He said that it is time for the agricultural sector to tell Britain, “we’ve got this, but here’s how you can help.” This includes:

  • Government – can deliver legislation that is consistent and joined up, addressing tomorrow’s challenges with a real sense of vision for British food that avoids a patchwork of sometimes contradictory measures that fail to recognise how intertwined our food systems are.
  • The financial sector – needs to back farmers and recognise that on-farm is where the biggest game-changing moves can be made, and that investments, research and innovation need coordination in order to scale up change across Britain’s smaller farms
  • The food and retail industries – need to reconnect, talk to and listen more to farmers – everyone in the industry should be seeking to understand how they can support change on farm by listening to those driving those changes.
  • The public – need to recognise that balance in our farming systems is more complex than the removal of production of certain food types. If farmers are to go beyond making food to also increase biodiversity and support ways in which farming can reduce carbon, food prices will have to reflect this increased activity

The panel discussion that followed Amirahmadi’s lecture featured Richard Clothier, managing director of Wyke Farms; James Lloyd-Jones, founder and CEO of Jones Food Company and Fraser McKevitt, head of Retail & Consumer Insight at Kantar. It was chaired by Charlotte Smith, presenter on BBC1’s Countryfile and on Radio 4’s Farming Today.

Their comments ranged across key societal issues including the growing global population, increased demand for plant based protein and other nutrients, lab grown food, the impacts and the high levels of food wastage in the supply chain.

Importantly, the panel agreed that nutrition must be considered alongside carbon emissions if we are to reach a truly sustainable food system.

John Giles, chair of The City Food Lecture said, “There are a huge number of issues to consider, but amongst the key ones are how do we feed nine billion people in the world and how do we do this in a sustainable manner. There is also the role of new technology across the supply chain and the increased concerns over issues such as animal health and welfare, obesity, the opportunity from the opening up of new markets around the world and the development of today’s niche markets, which will become more mainstream over time.”

To help contribute to the future talent pool, an important part of The City Food Lecture is its Future Generation Forum student programme, where 150 university students from leading food and agricultural colleges and universities heard from both the keynote speaker and panel members on how they can play a vital role in these big industry developments, whatever career path they take in the food, drink and agricultural sectors.

The forum also included the  McDonalds Progressive Young Farmers Programme and a deep dive into the career roles at ABP Food, this year’s Future Generation Forum sponsor, amongst students from ten universities and colleges across the UK.

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