Shaping the future of horticulture

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

With rising automation, labour shortages, fewer plant protection products and evolving consumer behaviour, AHDB Horticulture needs an ambitious strategy for the industry, explains Hayley Campbell-Gibbons

Some incredible things have happened over the last 15 years.

World population has grown by 1.5 billion, your mother has a mobile phone, British consumers spend over £12 billion a year buying groceries online - and I finally paid off my student loan.

For the horticulture sector, the advancements are equally huge. Production of crops such as strawberries and asparagus has soared. The value of horticulture has almost doubled in some sectors, and we grow crops and varieties that, a decade ago, most people had never even heard of.

It’s food for thought as we begin to write AHDB’s new strategy and was the focus of discussion at the last AHDB Horticulture board meeting (10 July). Our ambition for horticulture must look ahead to the next 10–15 years if we want to achieve the same level of success.

What sort of marketplace will there be then? What will consumers be eating? What will we be growing? How will we be growing it? And what resources will we have at our disposal?

There are certain trends emerging. Automation and robotics will transform the role of labour on British farms; doubling our efficiency at least. It’s part necessity, part economics.

Climate change will affect the varieties we produce, the pests and disease pressures on crops, the growing season and geographical spread of production.

As growers are all too aware, the availability of actives for plant protection continues to decline.

The supply chain will not only consolidate, it will look and function in a fundamentally different way.

More British growers will have operations overseas.

There will be a rise in urban and vertical farming systems, and a change in the traditional business model for how we invest in food and plant production – from attracting outside global investment to retailers setting up their own facilities.

Then there’s the business of consuming. I can’t envisage people spending hours pushing trollies and trailing screaming toddlers (maybe that’s just me) up and down supermarket aisles in 15 years’ time. How will consumers buy their food? What values will be important to them? How will tastes evolve? And, crucially, what will they be prepared to pay for it?

These are some of the questions that AHDB needs to help answer. Exciting questions, forward thinking questions, and challenging questions. Our role is unique. We operate in a rare, pre-competitive space in the industry. Yes, it’s vital that we’re responsive to the industry’s needs today – our critical work on crop protection, emergency approvals and driving labour efficiency at a time of shortage – but we also need to be mindful of where the industry wants to be in the next 10–15 years.

Our job is simple. To provide the world-class knowledge, insight and evidence that growers need to make the best business decisions possible. To do that we might sometimes have to balance doing what the industry wants, with what it needs.

Conversations have started. Not least, the NFU is leading an important debate in the industry about what our ambition is for UK horticulture by 2030. We need to support growers’ vision and play our part in making it happen.

I’ll be talking to growers, crop associations and other stakeholders as we develop our strategy – your strategy – over the coming months, and welcoming views. If you have an opinion, please get in touch. Better still, if you’re a grower with a strategic mind and want to influence how things get done around here then you might wish to consider applying to join the board

Hayley Campbell-Gibbons

Chair, AHDB Horticulture