Increasingly, women are at the forefront of addressing the dual challenges of profitability and sustainability that affect the UK agrifood sector. DEFRA estimates that women make up 28% of the British agricultural workforce and the number of women running farms has steadily increased to just over 25,000, including a 10% jump between 2010 and 2013, compared to roughly 120,000 men.
There are enormous changes ahead which directly affect the sector, from new technology and changing consumption patterns to environmental issues and increased competition – not to mention Brexit – which are likely to transform the face of the industry. As more women move into senior leadership roles across the industry there is good reason to be optimistic about the future of British agrifood production.
We asked female industry leaders to share their thoughts.
Championing British Food
The election of Minette Batters as the first female president of the National Farmers Union, has focused a spotlight on the contribution women are making at very senior levels in the British food system.
Jane King, CEO of the Agriculture and Development Board (AHDB) said: “Minette has been a wonderful champion of UK agriculture and horticulture for many years. It is fantastic that we have her at the helm to champion the importance of British food at a time when it is really needed.
“We need very strong leaders to see us through this period of change and to help the industry project a different image to consumers. We already have a lot of support from the British public but we now need to build a stronger identity for British food as opposed to overseas imports, and to demonstrate the importance of British food to the country, both economically and culturally.”
In her first speech in Westminster as NFU President last month, Minette Batters emphasised the size of the food and drink manufacturing sector. She said: “I want British farming to be the food producer of choice for every British citizen, no matter who they are, where they live and regardless of their income.
“More than that, British people should want to should want to shout loudly and with pride about the food we, as an island nation, produce.”
Bridging the skills gap
The agrifood industry has a growing skills gap with shortages of skilled workers available to fill vital roles. According to the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), science and engineering skills are needed to improve manufacturing processes and retain competitiveness. It is an issue the sector acknowledges and is working to address through the development of organisations such as the Agrifood Training Partnership. However more needs to be done to improve knowledge and awareness amongst young people and job seekers of the varied and interesting career opportunities available in the agrifood sector.
The food manufacturing sector alone employs 400,000 people across the UK. The Food and Drink Federation has stated that, by 2020, more than 170,000 new recruits - ranging from engineers, food technicians, scientists and other roles requiring STEM skills - are required to fill the void left by those set to retire.
Dr Annette Creedon, Head of Department, Food Science and Agri-Food Supply Chain Management at Harper Adams University, said, “The focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects at school level has helped to attract more female students, but more information needs to be available about the resulting career paths that are available.
“There is a deficit of suitably qualified graduates in science and technology – young people who will succeed in a dynamic, fast-paced and multi-national environment. We encourage our students to learn a second language, as they will be moving around a lot. They can’t just ‘think local’, the industry is much, much bigger than that,” said Annette Creedon.
Jane King added: “Our productivity hasn’t always kept pace with our competitors, particularly compared with Europe, and we are not as good at adopting new technology or developing our skills. We need a revolution in our attitude to ongoing learning and continuing professional development. We are not short of capability, but we need to mobilise our resources and use our knowledge in a joined-up way.”
Encouraging women to enter management
Women have always had a significant role in running farm businesses and are now influencing decision-making at all levels across the industry. But the sector still requires more diversity and in particular, more women, to move into management.
Dr Annette Creedon said: “Despite the stereotype that food courses attract female students, the industry is still male-orientated. Where do the women go? It may be that men are more likely to work across sectors, whereas women may prefer to follow a more linear career path. We do need to see more women in management roles within the industry.”
Women are changing the work environment. Jane King said: “I inherited a mostly male leadership team at the AHDB, which has now been restructured and the result is nearer 50/50 split between men and women. I would like to see more talented women on the six sector boards, to add to the excellent work being done by Potatoes Board Sector Chair Sophie Churchill OBE. Diversity helps build capability and which is essential to the future of the Agrifood industry.”
Farming is part of the solution rather than the problem
Caroline Drummond MBE, Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF) Chief Executive, is keen to foster a new perception of the role of farmers and farming.
She said: “The great thing about farming is that it touches everyone’s life in so many ways: the food we eat - our landscape and nature - our health and wellbeing, to mention just a few. Globally, fifty per cent of farmers are women.
“However, in our increasingly urban and global society the challenge is that we need to engage with citizens in different ways to make our farming and food systems fit for the future. We need to think beyond productivity, exciting science, and technology. Caring for and protecting the environment and improving health will be key.
“There are new opportunities for farmers to be part of the solution to the growing challenges around diet – and integrating farming and food more as integral parts of people’s lives. We need to tap into the diversity and skills of other industries to take farming to a new level .”
The Agrifood Training Partnership, between industry and academia
The AgriFood Training Partnership has seen recruitment of approximately equal numbers of male and female participants onto its training courses. However, there is still some sector-specific bias, with the proportion of males tending to be higher on production orientated courses and this being balanced by more female attendees on the courses aimed at the manufacturing and retail end of the food supply chain. However, the pipeline of talent entering the food industry at graduate level tends to be extremely biased towards females, with around 80% of the intake into Food and Nutritional Sciences undergraduate degree programmes at The University of Reading being women.
Professor Carole Wagstaff, Director of the Agrifood Training Partnership, said: “Whilst it is gratifying to see women increasingly making progress to senior management roles within the food industry we would also like to see a better balance of gender diversity at graduate entry points.
“I think this will only be achieved when the teaching of food in schools is recognised as a scientific discipline that provides a practical application of subjects such as chemistry, engineering and information technology. It needs to move away from its current perspective of being taught as cooking and home economics.”