A new year, new challenges and a new strategy at AHDB

Monday, 25 January 2021

Unquestionably, 2020 was a difficult year for everyone and adapting to new ways of working was the name of the game. Here, we take stock of 2020 and look ahead to some of the key areas of work we will be focusing on over the next 12 months.

Knowledge exchange goes digital

Unquestionably, 2020 was a difficult year for everyone and adapting to new ways of working was the name of the game. Our Knowledge Exchange (KE) team was no exception. Instead of getting out and about with producers and facilitating pig clubs across the country, they learnt to embrace technology and adapt to a more desk-based role, while still keeping in close contact with producers and delivering services in a digital form.

“It’s been a tough year for so many reasons, but the KE team has pulled together, adapted and continued to deliver for levy payers,” commented Jen Waters, Head of Pork KE. “The move to digital over such a short space of time was a steep learning curve for the team, but the webinar programme we delivered during 2020 was a great success.

“We really can’t wait to get back out in the field and working with levy payers,” Jen continued. “However, over the course of the year, we have learnt that digital platforms do have their benefits, so we will be looking at a blended approach going forward, to meet the needs and preferences of different individuals.”

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The focus for 2021 will very much be about delivering AHDB’s new strategy, which is out for consultation until 31 January. Key to all areas of the Pork team’s work will be promoting and protecting the industry and supporting producers, for example by demonstrating how innovation from other sectors and countries can be applied to English pig farms. There will also be opportunities for producers and stakeholders to really understand what they get for their levy and how AHDB adds value to the industry.

Find out more about our change programme and strategy 2021–2026

Achieving net zero

In 2019, the NFU published its ‘Achieving net zero: farming’s 2040 goal’ report, which set an ambitious and broad framework for the industry to get behind to enable it to contribute to the delivery of the UK’s goal of net zero by 2050. At the same time, the meat industry was being criticised by many for its contribution to global climate change. This was a baptism of fire for Jon Foot, Head of Environment & Resource Management, who joined AHDB towards the end of 2019.

“I joined the industry at a very challenging time, and at a time when the industry had already taken significant and positive steps to becoming more environmentally friendly,” Jon said.

“During 2020, we worked hard to ensure we could pull together the evidence that showed how sustainable UK agriculture was versus global averages,” he continued. “The team effort from AHDB meant we were able to provide robust, scientific evidence that was used to successfully counter climate change and livestock claims, such as those made by the BBC and meat-substitute manufacturer Quorn.”  

AHDB succeeds in challenging misinformation

On 9 December 2020, the UK Climate Change Committee (UKCCC) put forwards its recommendations on how the UK will achieve the Government’s target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. AHDB’s new strategy focuses on placing the organisation at the centre of these fundamental changes, with critical focus on providing evidence, tools, solutions and support to levy payers.  

Jon continued: “Fortunately, decades of environmental consideration within the pork sector provides a solid base for understanding what the focus areas need to be, and they aren’t revolutionary. Improving production efficiency, with a focus on feed conversion ratios, will help the sector to move towards net zero. 

“We will be supporting all farmers to help them understand their businesses now, and where easy wins lie in terms of cost and carbon savings.”

In November, we launched our first wave of on-farm carbon footprinting assessments, which included four pig units. The findings will help determine where savings can be made and inform how the organisation can support farmers and growers in doing similarly on their own farms.  

We will also be completing our accelerated ammonia project soon, which has produced detailed measurements of ammonia emissions from the main production systems used in the UK. “This new data will be used by the Environment Agency and Natural England as part of permit and planning applications,” explained Jon. “We anticipate that the results from this large-scale trial will unlock some of the planning issues linked to the sector.”

Improving health with can-do attitude

Inextricably linked to the impact of pig production on the environment are health and welfare. Pig health is an obvious and significant component of efficient production, as well as being the most significant factor contributing to the welfare of pigs.

Mandy Nevel, Head of Animal Health & Welfare, said: “The environmental impact of agriculture is under increasing scrutiny, and it will be important to demonstrate that efficient production does not compromise welfare, which is often a misperception.”

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the Pig Health Scheme was suspended for much of 2020. In addition, abattoir closures meant that, in some instances, pigs were backed up on farm. Dr Nevel commented: “We haven’t had one of our most powerful tools to monitor pig health and this, along with plant closures, is a concern for both us and producers. As pigs start to back up on farm, it could destabilise herd health.”  

A positive takeaway from 2020, however, is the continued reduction in the use of antibiotics by the pig sector, with figures, captured through the electronic medicine book (eMB Pigs), showing a 5% fall in the first half of the year.

Dr Nevel said: “A levelling-off of the antibiotic use in our pig herd, and any increase in health issues, could be reflected in future antibiotic use. In 2019, we saw swine dysentery cases rise and this had a clear impact on antibiotic use. Increases in swine dysentery may appear as headlines, but they also indicate that disease-control measures on farm need to be strengthened.

Pig industry antibiotic results released

“While we are limited by measures outside of our control, in 2021 it will be ever more important to focus on what we can do,” Dr Nevel continued. “Focusing on health – in particular, disease control – is one thing we can do, and control of disease will safeguard not only health, but welfare, environmental impact and the reputation of our industry.”

In 2021, we will be linking in with Defra’s new Animal Health and Welfare Pathway. The Pig Health Scheme, eMB, Real Welfare and the Livestock Information Service will feature heavily, as data sets are integrated into a sophisticated system which will map health problems and highlight where early intervention is required.

Adapting to market forces

As a result of the challenges that 2020 posed and the changing needs of consumers, our marketing team had to adapt quickly.

January 2020 saw the third year of our ‘Mix Up Midweek’ campaign, promoting the leaner and healthier cuts of pork and positioning them as quick, easy and tasty meals during the busy midweek. 

Love Pork January Banner 2021

Gareth Renowden, Senior Marketing Manager, explained: “This long-term campaign, which aims to change consumer perceptions about pork, started in 2017. It has added £37.3m in incremental sales of total fresh pork as a direct result of the marketing work and 90% of consumers agreed that the TV advert successfully communicated that pork is a healthy food choice. Around a quarter of people also remembered the health messages spontaneously after watching it – a really strong result.”

In response to the closure of foodservice outlets in April, we changed tack. Instead of promoting leaner cuts, activity moved towards boosting the domestic consumer market for pork shoulder joints through pulled pork.

“Typically, the eating-out market accounts for around 14% of all pork volume sales in Great Britain,” continued Gareth. “With there being over 500 million additional in-home meal occasions, it was a great opportunity to get the nation to fall in love with pulled pork once again.”

Our marketing activity is continuing in 2021, with the fourth instalment of the Mix Up Midweek campaign being launched on 18 January; this includes advertising via TV, billboards, print and digital outlets.

Find out more about the campaign and get involved

Export enters digital world

Disruption to international markets as a result of the pandemic also posed challenges during the year. In fact, the impact was felt much earlier in the export market than the domestic market because of the early lockdowns in China and a reduced availability for containers.

Jonathan Eckley, Head of Asia Pacific, said: “February 2020 shipments dipped below year-earlier levels. However, by the end of September, overall pork exports were nearly 4% higher than 2019 levels, at 289,000 tonnes.

“For the first nine months of 2020, exports added £469 million to the sector, which surpasses the value for a full 12 months of shipments as recently as back in 2017. This demonstrates a significant rise in a relatively short period.”

However, coronavirus continues to bring challenges for exporters – global logistics remain fraught in the Far East and port congestion is being reported closer to home.

Find out more about our export activity

In terms of our export team’s activity, this was significantly affected by the pandemic. Instead of travelling to international trade shows and meeting with importers, the team remained grounded in the UK. However, as with the rest of the world, they embraced all things digital and ventured into a virtual world.

Jonathan explained: “This was a steep learning curve for the team and exporters alike, but some great virtual showcases and business-to-business introductions have taken place between Taiwan, Hong Kong and all the way across to the USA and Canada.

“In Taipei, we hosted our first digital business-to-business meeting, an example of where we were able to work with our partners in the market, bringing 50 importers and distributors together.

“Recovery from the pandemic in Taiwan started early,” continued Jonathan. “This meant we were able to introduce nine UK exporters to delegates on a virtual stage, which was well-received.”

AHDB Taiwan export event 2020

Prior to the pandemic, we had also started to appoint agencies in core markets, which enabled them to maintain momentum in key markets during 2020, as well as hold virtual showcase events in the USA and Canada, highlighting the great product UK producers have to offer these important markets.

Looking ahead, and when restrictions permit, we will be working hard to facilitate face-to-face meetings between importers and exporters, to continue building on the UK’s reputation as a supplier of high-quality and safe pork.

Jonathan added: “Our new agencies in the USA, Japan and China will continue to play a key role, both in supporting digital delivery in the short term and helping AHDB promote quality pork from Britain on the international stage.”

Embarking on change

So, 2021 looks set to be a year of continued challenges and change for everyone working in, and supporting, the pig industry. We are no different and, while we will remain agile and adapt as the year unfolds, we will also be embarking on major change ourselves as we introduce our new five-year strategy.

Find out more about our change programme and strategy 2021–2026

To understand what the proposed strategy means for you and to have your say, visit: ahdb.org.uk/strategy by 31 January 2021.