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At the start of January I attended the annual Oxford Farming Conference, an excellent three-day event, which M&S supports. The conference explores the challenges facing the farming industry and sets the agribusiness agenda for 2016.

The event has been running since 1936 and is widely-regarded as one of the UK’s most authoritative farming conferences. Every year, leading farmers, scientists, politicians and business people from around the globe gather in Oxford to assess events of the previous 12 months, and to investigate the issues that will impact the industry in the future.

The theme of this year’s conference was ‘bold agriculture’, focusing on the roles that technology, sustainable farming and entrepreneurship have in helping to create an ambitious and successful farming sector.

Innovation for sustainability

Sustainability affects us all. Farmers worldwide are grappling with how to produce enough food to feed a growing population with fewer resources. One of the speakers at the conference was Dr. Bram Govaerts, who is involved in sustainable agriculture research in South America. He urged that part of the solution was to encourage food producers to do more, with less.

No easy task – but through innovation in crop science and the development of better agronomy practices, we know it can be done. It was encouraging that Bram’s suggested approaches included working more closely with farmers to increase training and innovation and, as a result, the efficiency of farm production – all things that we are already doing as part of the M&S Farming for the Future programme.

Power of data

In a world of ‘big data’ and rapid technological advances, another speaker, David Fischhoff, Chief Scientist at The Climate Corporation, examined how digitisation and data science in agriculture is improving the efficiency of food production.

Whilst we are all accustomed to working in a digital age, it remains a surprise to some that farmers and growers are using technology and data to become more efficient. Everything that affects agriculture is becoming digitised, from seed genetics to weather data. With faster computers, cheaper wireless data transfers and greater capacity for data storage than ever before, data scientists are now able to develop computer models that can quickly analyse agricultural information and provide valuable feedback and this can be acted upon quickly & efficiently.

So, whilst rural broadband continues to be an issue for some, these digital advances are enabling farmers across the globe to manage resources in an increasingly efficient manner, through data management and information sharing, whilst simultaneously maintaining or improving levels of food production. 

Entrepreneurship

Every year, the Oxford Farming Conference produces an annual report and this year the focus was on entrepreneurship in the farming sector.

Against a backdrop of market volatility, declining commodity prices and lower direct subsidies, many farmers are looking to become more entrepreneurial in order to survive and thrive. Farms can clearly provide an excellent platform on which to build an entrepreneurial business and, whether focused on diversification or solely food production, farmers were urged to implement ideas that maximise returns from the resources at their disposal.

To encourage an entrepreneurial spirit, education of young farmers was seen as crucial, through both practical and classroom experience. This is also something that the M&S Farming for the Future programme focuses on, and our Agricultural Leadership Programme at Cranfield University was shortlisted last year in the Business in the Community Responsible Business Awards.

Politics

A number of prominent politicians were at this year’s event, including Liz Truss, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Kerry McCarthy, who holds the same role in the Shadow Cabinet; Owen Patterson, MP; and Phil Hogan, the EU Commissioner for Agriculture.

The topics they raised included the impact on the agricultural industry if Britain were to leave the European Union, the restructuring of DEFRA and the challenges that UK farmers face in the wake of climate change and global market pressures.

All of the politicians highlighted that the challenges facing food producers remain significant, and volatility and complexity are only likely to continue in the future. M&S suppliers are not excluded from these difficulties, and we will continue to support our farmers and growers as they face the challenges of the year ahead.

Steve McLean, M&S Head of Agriculture & Fisheries


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