This years’ Oxford Farming Conference gave some powerful political and commercial signals as to what lies ahead for the future of the rural sector. The market is changing in terms of what consumers expect from their food producers and supply chains.

Oxford delegates listened to thought provoking presentations from James Wong, the botanist and broadcaster, Eve Turow Paul the US food journalist and adviser and Mark Lynas the journalist and environment activist.

There was general consensus from these speakers that consumption of meat would fall over time. In terms of feeding the world, producing meat was an inefficient use of plant proteins. That said, I don’t think anyone other than a very few are forecasting its total demise.

In fact, on the contrary, there are clear indicators that as wealth increases in some rapidly developing economies so does the demand for animal protein. But nevertheless in terms of the proportion of the human diet meat consumption will almost certainly fall.

Future generations seek food ‘experience’

Eve Turow Paul, in confident yet self-analytical New Yorker style, unpicked the unprecedented increase in interest in food amongst the millennial generation.

Now making up a quarter of the world’s population she argued that generation is looking for food with provenance, low chemical use, transparency in the food chain, and above all an “experience”.

This experience, when posted on “insta” was adding to the individual’s personal brand and uniting these modern day “tribes”.

Producers and supply chains that understood this could make significant inroads into this burgeoning market.

Novel crops as an eating experience are very much at the heart of this potential. This was echoed by James Wong who made the point that we only eat a very small number of the wide variety of plant types that exits, with currently a narrow concentration on maize, wheat and rice.

GMO and pesticide use

Surely, buoyed by natural capital arguments gaining traction with Government, and rising consumer pressure against GMO and chemical use the environmentalist Mark Lynas would close the conference by dealing the death blows to GMO and pesticide use.

But on the contrary, he argued for proper scientific evaluation and education.

He explained that blanket bans of GMO or certain pesticides could bring significant hardship to various parts of the world.

He was particularly critical of the Scottish Government’s position on GMO.

Yes chemical use will have to reduce, and technology will have a role to play in delivering that, and he spoke of a seven point peace plan to bring together the two positions of environmental and mainstream commercial agriculture. He urged informed debate and a concerted effort by the agricultural industry to put an informed message across.

The opportunities for Scottish agriculture will be found in science and technology where it is applied to deliver better and wider ranges of crops using less resources and chemicals.

Food laws and regulations will become ever more important to prevent fraud in the supply chains and to protect consumers.

Is that organic carrot really organic, is the advertised provenance really the true origin of the food in front of you? The producers, processors and supply chains that embrace these changes, manage the environment, and engage with their consumers, whether that be on Instagram or otherwise, are likely to be the ones to succeed.

These are certainly times of unprecedented change…a new agricultural revolution perhaps. This year the conference theme was Embracing Change, next year the theme will be putting together THE plan, and I know I will want to be there!