Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Agribusiness Companies - Shadowy Figures That Need to Come Into the Sun

An under reported but well attended conference took place last week, laid on by the Agricultural Industries Confederation.

As one of the speakers, Joanne Denney Finch of the Institute of Grocery Distribution pointed out agri supply businesses will have a critical role to play in feeding the 9bn people projected to inhabit the planet by 2050.
It is these companies who have the research muscle and investment funds to identify and bring to market new ways of feeding more people whilst using less natural resources. They therefore have a societal responsibility to “get it right”.

Yet as Ms. Denney Finch pointed out, they will only fulfil their responsibilities if they understand and engage with consumers, for as we in the UK know only too well from the GM experience, if consumers do not want something it will not succeed in the market place.

For too long agri supply companies have hoped that a combination of farmer support and government indecision will push through solutions that the consumer does not want. As a result they have created an appalling image for themselves, and seem in no hurry to change it.

The average consumer has no idea which companies operate in the agri supply sector, or what they do, or why they should trust them. Their one experience is likely to have been Monsanto, and many would not have liked what they saw.

All this needs to change if agri supply companies want to fulfil their potential. Players need to come out of the shadows. They need to explain their work, and be clear about the benefits it brings to society as a whole.
Some of their work will be more sensitive than others. GM foods and animal cloning are two areas which, based on where the research on both stands now, are likely to continue to be unacceptable to many consumers.

There are though areas where agribusiness is working far less controversially, and very effectively. Examples might be prevention of loss in wheat crops post harvest, more sophisticated irrigation techniques, more sophisticated and less costly mechanisation, or provision of advice to the developing world.

In planning both their business strategies and the way they communicate them, agribusinesses need to have a clear grasp of what matters to people as they make decisions about the food they purchase. It is not, as might be expected, just a wish for the cheapest possible food to help balance budgets in tight economic circumstances. Rather it is a trade off between price, quality and ethical considerations.

Above all, the industry needs to become transparent. It is symptomatic of the secrecy of the industry that exists today that when I went to download speeches made at the conference my access was barred. Why for heaven’s sake?

If it is a mechanism to encourage more people to join the AIC to get information them it is short sighted to say the least.

If it is because they have something to hide then this just sets off alarm bells and reinforces the feeling that agribusiness is up to no good.

This feeling of unease is further exacerbated in a communications environment where access to information via smartphones or tablet computers is becoming the norm, and bad news can spread like lightening. Today there is simply nowhere to hide.

The world needs agribusiness to understand those who will ultimately shape their future, namely the public, and armed with this understanding to act responsibly, ethically, and openly, and to successfully meet the food supply challenge.  All of us need food, regardless of where we live, and we rely heavily on agribusiness to help supply it.