Seven lessons for the agri-food sector from the Covid lockdown experience

Michael Brady: Agricultural Consultant and managing director at Brady Group: 1st published in the Farming Independent, July 7th 2020

This week I was back on the road visiting farmers up and down the country.

Practicing social distancing, hand sanitising, and offering optional or alternative handshakes, this new (awkward) normality post COVID-19 is taking shape.

The spring is the busiest time of the year for most farmers so COVID-19 did not have the same routine changing effect as it did on the office commuters working in our cities and towns. Farmers have always worked from home, so many wonder what all the fuss is about.

For private consultants and Teagasc advisors, farm and office visits were replaced by virtual visits on Zoom and by invites to a plethora of webinars, as companies and organisations scrambled to stay relevant during the crisis. The entire 2020 Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) campaign was conducted remotely, clients were serviced via the medium which best suited them as clients i.e. telephone, email or virtual meeting.

So now as we slowly work through the phases back to the new normality, what have we learned in the agri-food industry from the lockdown due to the COVID-19 crisis:

  1. Agriculture and Food are important

We have learned that while we can survive without jobs, pubs, and sport, we cannot survive without food. There was more concern about the supply of toilet roll rather than the supply of food; this is a credit to agri-food industry and in particular to farmers, processors, and logistics, who continued to deliver in spite of all the risks and challenges presented. However, as we have seen in the past after storms etc. ‘eaten bread is soon forgotten’ by the public, we need to ensure this does not happen this time. 

  • Global warming is caused by people not animals

The spectacular decrease in green-house gas levels during the lockdown should shape environmental legislation into the future. It is now clear that people, not animals, are causing global warming. More people and globalisation of trade on the planet encourage the increased use of aeroplanes and cars and necessitated the burning of coal, natural gas, and oil for heating and electricity. Yes, agriculture and food are part of the intricate web of climate change, but if we continue to have massive population increases surely farmers must be allowed to produce the food to feed the people. The challenge is to do it in a manner that’s sustainable for all.         

  • Essential Services

The term of ‘essential services’ has entered our everyday vernacular. Healthcare workers were clearly top of the list but followed closely by the whole agri-food industry. We should be proud of this achievement and newfound status. It will certainly cause today’s students to re-evaluate what are the best lifelong careers for them to pursue. We need young, bright energetic people in the industry.

  • The Food chain really is ‘farm to fork’

The farmer is the primary producer of food, but there is a long chain before that food ends up on a consumer’s plate. The processing, retail, and logistics industries are vital links in the chain. Transport and logistics are often taken for granted but couriers, van and lorry drivers are as important as the farmers who produce the food. The dairy industry navigated through peak milk production and the COVID-19 crisis in impressive fashion. However, the beef industry again skirted on the edge with a high incidence of COVID cases amongst factory workers. It only takes one broken link in the chain for the industry to grind to a halt.    

  • Shopping online is here to stay

Love it or hate it, one cannot avoid the incessant march of the internet into our everyday lives. Shopping online is probably the biggest change in recent years, it was already on the increase pre-COVID but it has exploded in popularity during the lockdown. You can now literally buy anything online from anywhere in the world. This is a threat to some traditional businesses but a huge opportunity for others. Shopping online is the start of a supply chain in another industry which ends up with the consumer via the ubiquitous courier man delivering the eagerly awaited package. This is no different to the milkman or breadman delivering fresh produce to the door in years gone-by. Herein lies an opportunity for locally produced food products to be delivered locally initially, and if the product proves popular, then the world market awaits.         

  • People need human contact

A lot of business was conducted via virtual visits on platforms such as Zoom during the lockdown. Agricultural consultants and advisors were quick to adapt to this technology to help clients with the day to day running of their farm businesses. There were virtual one-to-one / discussion group meetings and even some virtual farm walks conducted with farmers and advisors who quickly adapted to become part-time film makers. Whereas this technology is great, and it certainly has its place, the general consensus amongst farmer clients is that you cannot beat a face to face farm visit to get to the core of the issues.

Webinars or virtual conferences are a great way to acquire information but one big negative from the lockdown, there are simply too many to choose from. However, I believe we have all realised the main reason we go to conferences is to meet new interesting people, the information is secondary. People contact is at the very core of human civilisation, this message has certainly been reinforced during lockdown. 

  • Benefits of working on-farm

The lockdown forced working spouses and student teenage children to spend a lot more time at home on the farm. The next generation of medical students, lawyers and accountants, often out of boredom as opposed to desire, ended up feeding calves, grass measuring, milking and driving tractors on farm. As well as being a great help as extra labour on the farm, many thoroughly enjoyed their experience and have gain a new-found respect of their parent’s efforts to run and manage a farm business.  This can only benefit the future of these farm businesses and the wider industry.    

The resent release of a Global Report on Food Crises (ref: EU/FAO/OCHA/UNICEF/USAID/WFP) highlights the fact that in 2019, 135million people across 55 countries experienced acute food insecurity. We have a moral obligation to feed these people. The COVID-19 lockdown has reminded us of the importance of the agri-food industry in our daily hierarchy of needs as human beings. Let’s not forget this fact, and more importantly avail of every possible opportunity to remind policy makers, key influencers, and consumers so that agri-food retains the status it deserves.