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Opinion: Big data can stop farming's 'slave labour'

About a third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted every year in a world where 795m people – a ninth of the population – go hungry.

How does society solve this issue and cope with the result, even bigger rises in the world’s population? The key is developing sustainable food value chains. What are they?

A sustainable food value chain is a food value chain that is profitable throughout all of its stages, that means economic sustainability (profit); broad-based benefits for society, that means social sustainability (reasonable work hours); and has a positive or neutral impact on the natural environment meaning environmental sustainability.

Every business requires three things to operate. Time, money and labour. Currently farming is short of all three.

Profit? Reasonable work hours? Once you have stopped laughing, think, how do we build that? How do we invest in that? What changes do we need to make?

The answer takes investment and collaboration between farms, their advisers, suppliers and customers through the smarter use of data that can help assess the shortfalls in the seed-to-fork journey, cut out waste, and improve margins. What are the drivers which will change in the industry? Recent documentaries exposing bad practices by some players across the food sector reflect badly on the industry as a whole.

More and more people question agriculture’s credentials over issues such as sustainability, provenance and animal welfare. Our industry is under more and more pressure and scrutiny than ever to prove it is committed to change.

How can we achieve this?

Big data is a significant part of the answer. This is the accumulation of data from farms covering all aspects of production. How does this happen?

Data from the new Track One support, whereby we carry out a carbon audit and soil sampling is a start to building the big data we need. This data is anonymised and allows individual farms to compare their status with others on a like-for-like basis. This can and will develop into a wider accumulation of data which will drive much better decision making on the likes of crop and breed suitability, input management, marketing and so much more.

By harnessing the power of big data and collaborating, we are told we can achieve increases in productivity, profitability, sustainability, food safety and security. Climate change and changes in global consumer sentiment pushing demands for change will also come into play.

What can go wrong?

Industry-wide success would require every part of the supply chain, including input manufacturers, advisers, farmers, processors and retailers, to share data.

Can you see this happening?

I can, because the pressures we are under financially and operationally and government dictat over food security and climate change will precipitate collaboration.

How can it be delivered?

We need a trusted independent organisation that can collect, collate, translate and transfer authorised and anonymised data to and from a range of different devices and platforms used by the many and various players to meet current and emerging challenges.

Such an organisation already exists in Scotland – SAOS. They are already looking at what can be gleaned from ScotEID data.

What is not clear yet, to me anyway, is how that data will be used to inform the industry. Will it be up for sale to others who want access to the data or just ‘shared’?

What controls are on its use and distribution outside the industry, eg to processors and retailers?

Big data is highly valuable. As an industry we must not give it away, we must retrieve its inherent value for ourselves and its commercial value to those who wish to access it. No other industry or business gives away its data for free.

Now ... the elephant in the room.

The RMT ran a series of strikes to draw public attention to the position their members were in, not just financially with no wage rises for several years but also having to work considerable overtime to maintain a railway service. This achieved their targets.

Farming is viewed by the public as an occupation with long hours, heavy subsidy and a privileged lifestyle.

When I was working with my uncle as a teenager on his dairy farm in the 1970s, all the staff worked a 40-hour week. Overtime was expected at silage and harvest. Folk had evenings and weekends off, pressure appeared to be less, there was company at work, craic, mischief and everyone had a reasonable wage package and lifestyle.

What hours are farmers in this country now working? How many get the same time off as RMT members? How many make a reasonable wage?

Ok, you may say, many of us are self-employed, but not all. How many farms could operate on a four-day week, to which many of our fellow citizens in this 'progressive' country aspire? Why have we not kept up with modern industrial work practices, terms and conditions? Are we too macho to take that stand? Are we unable to afford to?

NFUS Ross-shire Branch organised a trip to Wester Ross in June. I phoned around some members to encourage them to take a day off.

I was taken aback by one response – I must decline your invitation as I am away behind with work, despite working from 5.30 am to 11 pm every day for the last six weeks. I can’t afford the time off.

On enquiring upon the need for such hours, I was informed the farm could not get staff to help. Indeed, most farms cannot afford the ‘luxury’ of full-time staff that my uncle had 50 years ago. The margins are not there.

During the 1850s, on a typical plantation in the south of the USA, slaves worked 10 or more hours a day, six days a week, with only the Sabbath off. At planting or harvesting time, planters required slaves to stay in the fields 15 or 16 hours a day. Where now our farming colleague of today?

So, is farming currently benefitting from the sustainable food value chain concept? Where is the profit that isn’t underpinned and covered by ‘subsidy’ or ‘support’ payments, what individual, family or society benefits are acquired from hours far and beyond what RMT has negotiated from the government?

Every business requires three things to operate. Time, money and labour. Currently farming is short of all three.

Long hours, tiredness, lack of return, very few young people coming into the industry, poor retention rates, rapidly rising costs, a universally failing supply chain and minimal returns can only mean one thing – food shortages as more and more leave primary food production.

This needs to be brought to the attention of your local MP, MSPs, councillors and communities. We need to work on this together or watch our industry implode. It has already started.

Is there a lesson to be learned from the RMT approach and their use of big data in negotiations? Are their members morally and ethically obliged to run a railway system on long hours, out of date conditions and no pay rises?

Equally, are farmers ethically and morally obliged to grow food for the sustainable food value chain with long hours, out of date conditions and no pay rises? Discuss.

About the Author: Alasdair Macnab writes a regular column in the Scottish Farmer on technical issues affecting the farming industry.


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