Moorhouse: Having vision and not chasing fads is key to success in produce

Supply chain model

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Dr. Ed Moorhouse

With a degree in agriculture and a Ph.D. in horticultural research, Dr. Ed Moorhouse is now a business director with a substantial record of success in the fresh produce industry.

Moorhouse possesses a rare blend of technical, innovation and commercial skills as well as extensive technical, farming, supply chain, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and research management experience. In 2016, he set up UK-based Agri-Food Solutions (AFS), a new consultancy company to provide expertise and support on technical, innovation and business issues across the food and farming industry.

Produce Business UK sat down with Moorhouse after the The London Produce Show and Conference and he imparted his wisdom on a variety of topics: how our society is only three meals away from anarchy; the application of precision farming for supply chain efficiency; the hyper-weeding system, and the big question of whether innovative growers and suppliers actually can survive. 

What is the main ethos of the company?

The main area of work and purpose is to provide to growers and suppliers with support to enable them to access new technology and navigate their way through the whole technical challenges of the marketplace.

Our clients are a mixture of growers, suppliers and government agencies.

As a consultancy, how would you articulate your unique selling point?

The real unique selling point are the skills, contacts and experience that enables clients to access technical solutions to current and future challenges. There are a lot of opportunities out there for growers and suppliers to access technology from the UK and overseas, but they don’t necessarily have the mechanisms to do this. In addition, interacting with people in the research community and the innovators can present some unique challenges that AFS is able to manage on behalf of clients.

Many growers and suppliers get taken-in by “snake-oil salesmen,” the people who sell things that sound great but the reality of what they are selling has no value, and the salesmen keep moving around in search of the next customer to hood-wink. The introduction of robust and critical scientific assessment by AFS helps clients to identify new opportunities and avoid unproductive areas, thereby enabling them to increase the benefits from adopting new technology.

Partly, the work I’m doing with my clients is to navigate through this space, to help them to make sure that when they are making investments in new technology, they are basically making robust investments that ultimately will boost their bottom line.

Let’s put that into context. Could you give me an example of a recent work that demonstrates these services:

One of the recent research projects that I’ve been involved in is leading a consortium that aims to develop robotic mushroom harvesting technology. Basically, it links together the University of Lincoln with Littleport Mushroom Farm and two robotics companies in an IUK-funded project. I built the consortium up with the partners and secured the half-million-pound funding for the project, which will hopefully result in new technology that growers desperately need. It is very difficult for growers to manage a project of this magnitude by themselves, whereas I can manage it for them and access different elements required for a successful project.

Do you see any shifts or trends in the way that growers are relating to technology now?

I guess a lot of it is a progressive movement, with occasional step-changes, such as the introduction of robotics or GM techniques. But probably the biggest recent shift is the introduction of data-based systems and services. For example, the availability of GPS, remote-sensing systems and data analytics have enabled growers and suppliers to adopt precision management strategies throughout the supply chain, from field to shelf. The access to precision technology is replacing a lot of the more traditional approaches based on “green-finger” grower skills and delivering improved productivity and consistency.

What other global challenges do you see as affecting the produce industry; for examples, climate change, political decisions etc.

Everything affects it. I guess the key question is actually how do customers respond to the challenges, and will this be a short- or long-term response. So if you look for example at the issue of climate change; If you turn the clock back to the mid- or early- 2000s, where there was a lot of engagement in terms of the greenhouse gas emissions, food miles and sustainability. A lot of time and money was going to local sourcing strategies, provenance and seasonality, but that’s partly gone into “hibernation” as a strategy since the banking crash. Prior to this point, growers were actually thinking about building increased capacity closer to the market because that was the message getting through from the marketplace. But since that time, it has got much more focused on low cost, and some of the more progressive and sustainable strategies have sadly been shelved.

Within a UK context, ultimately the major driver at the moment is cost. There are options that would have a much more beneficial impact from a long-term environmental perspective, but there is a much bigger driver now, which is basically “living today”: who’s got the cheapest offer is basically leading the business. The fact that you might have a more sustainable model is a bit irrelevant when measured through cost price alone, which is a very dangerous place to be, but unfortunately that’s the reality.

In my opinion, there’s a lot of hot air being churned out, and despite all the PR cares and concerns that one might have, when one looks at the hard decision-making, basically it’s a race to the bottom. So to answer your questions, when you have a race to the bottom, it’s very hard for businesses to have a long term view, it’s all about survival. A long-term view can mean that you’re actually less competitive in the short term because you need to invest in sustainable supply chains, which frankly, the market doesn’t appear to be too bothered about. You would have to be a very brave investor to stick by your values in the belief that the long turn plan is the right plan, but thank goodness there are still some businesses that still have a long-term vision. This is particularly the case with farming because this is an industry that is based on generational change rather than short-term consumer or political fads.

You mentioned this retail hot air. There seem to be a lot of buzzwords and trends that people are following, but they can’t really articulate them either. Do you think that is something that has become an increasing issue for the produce industry? Are we subscribing more now to big claims than before?

The problem is that people are disconnected with their food supply. Their understanding of food and their systems is incredibly poor. So consequently, they are very vulnerable to scare stories and fads that come out.

If you take a current example such as the enormous backlash against plastics. There is no doubt that there is an issue that needs to be resolved, but we will not necessarily solve it with the current direction of travel.

Everybody is failing to focus is the ultimate purpose of plastics and they are also missing the point that the real problem is uncontrolled disposal. Technologies are available to reduce impact, such as the use of different materials and effective recycling schemes, but these need consumer buy-in and it is difficult to deliver these where there are cost implications

Basically, there should be a much wider debate about plastics. The best materials used in the right situations with effective disposal will provide the optimal solution, and encouraging supply chains to remove all plastics could have unintended consequences that are worse than the plastic that has been replaced! For example, removing bags from lettuce will significantly reduce product life and increase wastage through the supply chain – is this a sensible option? 

When you actually do the full economics and lifetime assessments of those decisions, suddenly what people are trying to achieve is not what people are going to achieve because they don’t understand the whole equation.

That’s why I believe that growers and suppliers need to understand the whole picture.  The short-term noise will eventually be replaced by new concerns, and ultimately long-term strategies will prevail. I view that as a great opportunity to use technology to produce a more robust strategy that will ultimately win, but it’s not that easy for growers and suppliers in the short term.

One of the challenges for consumers is that certain issues can be very counter-intuitive.One example of this if you ask a consumer, what would they rather have – a spring onion coming from the UK, Spain, Mexico or Senegal? A natural reaction would be from their garden or within a few miles of their house, but that is not necessarily right. The best option in the UK season might be another UK location that is hundreds of miles away due to soil type, climate, production efficiency, etc. The situation is even more confusing with the import season because Spain is not the best, even though it’s a lot closer to the market. When you actually do the full analysis, Spain actually has much lower carbon footprint than Mexico, but a much higher carbon footprint than Senegal, due to supply and transportation issues. When you actually focus on a simplistic measure such as food miles, you can end up making the wrong decisions.

It’s almost like there is too much information out there but not enough knowledge.

Yes you are right. Also there are so many different lobby/interest groups out there, lobbying for all sorts of purposes. It doesn’t necessarily suit them to present all the facts because it doesn’t necessarily help their case. They will naturally and selectively choose which facts they want. From a grower’s point of view, it can be hard to cut through the noise, but ultimately the facts will prevail in the end.

In making investments, particularly for growers, you have to make investments on a 10-30 year period, depending on the situation. If you invest based on public hype now, then what happens in five years’ time when thinking has moved-on? A fad you based an investment on may no longer be in demand and you could end up in totally the wrong place.

This can certainly apply to any industry in fact.

Yes, but it’s more challenging I think in food and farming. There is a lot of power concentrated in the hands of the retailer, and the consumer is mainly connected to the retailer, not with the source of supply. It is very disconnected. The big retail machines out there recognise the value of images and labels as part of their branding, but these don’t necessarily reflect current farming practices that can exacerbate the problem of poor consumer understanding.

The main thing actually is to get both consumers and retailers to base decisions on good science, and proper understanding, not get swept up into the hype or PR, and to really focus on what’s important.

And how do we do that?

Very good question. In some respects, it’s cutting through some of the hypocrisy. So actually challenging people who are making statements that have no validity and starting to get rid of some of this noise. It’s important to get the real facts in front of people, to get them to understand where their food comes from and to truly understand and value the importance a sustainable food supply chain.

If you take for example the whole evolution of GMOs where as an industry, we’ve been completely held back by people relentlessly raising fears about a wide range of impacts arising from the use of GMOs and ignoring the benefits. Then as soon as you start to use GMO technologies for public health, then all of a sudden this is absolutely fine! So there is a consumer shift there.

It’s easy to say I don’t like something when it’s somebody else’s problem. But once it’s their problem, then their position can change very quickly.

It’s pretty much how it is when we say we love cheap food but we don’t want to be associated with the impact of cheap food. You can’t have it both ways. If I had a magic wand, it would be hoping that people take much more responsibility for what they purchase and to recognize the importance of having a sustainable food supply system that enables everyone in the supply chain to get a fair return on their investment and effort.

Do you notice any idiosyncrasies particular to the UK, that differ from the rest of Europe, or even the USA?

UK retailers are phenomenally powerful and have a much greater influence on their supply chains than in other European countries. The UK population is much more disconnected with food than in France, Italy or Spain. There is still a significant “foodie” culture in the UK, but this tends to be over-represented in the media and does not really reflect the “average” consumer. People on the continent appear to have a much stronger connection to the land and the food supply. They get it. They get it about quality and provenance.

The irony within the UK is that the UK consumer actually gets it about the quality of wine. We don’t have massive debates about the good quality of wine versus the poor quality of wine, because they get it – when was the last time that you saw an advert promoting everyday low price for wine? It’s the same concerning the quality of cars and electrical goods. Consumers are happy to buy a BMW or an iPhone because of the quality.

When you get into food, the whole quality connection gets very disjointed.

People actually are quite confused about quality. When I say quality, I am referring to this aspect in its broadest sense and I’m talking about the whole production system and the operations that lie behind it. Many of the elements of the wider definition of product quality are very difficult for the consumer to measure, which results in a dominant focus on the values that are very simple – price and weight/volume. Certain brands, such as Fair Trade and LEAF, help to raise the profile of other factors, but it is difficult for them to gain traction in a market that is dominated by the simple price/weight metrics.

So that would probably be the real difference in the UK ... that we have trained consumers to treat food as just a commodity; it’s just fuel. We go to a retail store/on-line shop, once a week or once a fortnight, and we are just buying fuel.

As such, it’s no difference to buying electricity or petrol, we are just looking for the cheapest because it’s all pretty much viewed as the same thing.

 It’s quite difficult to access information about quality and where things come from. Supermarkets could pioneer and lead that perhaps.

Yes but in fairness to them, they have in the past supported various initiatives, which have enabled consumers to look down the supply chain, through QR Codes and pack labels, to actually understand where their food comes from. However, the number of hits they got into their system was absolutely minimal.

So when you go to the effort of providing information, there doesn’t appear to be much interest in it. People have the attitude that “My life is too short, and I don’t have the time to worry about these issues, and the food supply chain is the least of my worries. I’m not actually going to get terribly engaged in this arena.”

I’ve been involved with previous initiatives where we were tempted to make websites to give people information down the supply chain. But they haven’t taken it up in the way that we hoped that they would.

Could it be connected to what we talked about earlier: this sense of instant, not planning 5 years down the road? It’s for businesses as much as its for consumers.

There are other issues as well., taking a broad-spectrum view on things the media thrives on scare stories and emotive headlines. For example, the scare stories about pesticide residues make a great headlines because some lobby groups hate pesticides and believe they should all be banned. So if we scare consumers about pesticide residues, then what you do is to put the idea in consumers' heads that fresh produce is getting poisoned and they then eat less fresh produce. Replacing this with highly prepared and processed foods with their associated issues can result in a significantly worse outcome for the population. We have inadvertently replaced an issue where the risks are infinitely small and highly controlled with an alternative that has much higher risks and proven long-term health issues.

It’s another example of completely unplanned consequences and ill-informed decision-making. It is so cheap to go and buy processed foods, and people feel safe. The irony is that many of the components of these foods are the same as on the fresh produce shelves, but the foods are more complex and difficult to target. 

The produce industry doesn’t have strong branding, which makes it very difficult to manage the media and compete for consumers’ attention when you’re up against the brand giants who spend a huge amount of money cultivating brand image. No one is really cultivating the brand image around fresh produce, which is sad considering that this can have one of the greatest impacts on human health. This is clearly a situation that needs to be addressed, and the government needs to take some radical steps and we need to re-think the current marketing system, which results in many people having worse diets.

Everything is about short term; it’s about the here and now. Food has very much lost its perceived value. I love the some of the statistics, such as the price of mineral water vs.a pint of milk. Why is it that consumers are happy to pay a certain amount for a bottle of water, milk is felt to be somehow grossly overpriced? The two products do not compare in any shape or form and yet the simple product (which is 100 percent water!) costs the same or more than the more complex product.

People have just lost the sight of value and the long-term impact on food supply chains. The whole High Street is just competing to be the lowest cost. This simply cannot continue, indefinitely, and unfortunately we are going into an arena where everything is becoming so short term. It’s actually creating a very unsustainable food supply chain.

Now you can get whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want. Whether it’s blueberries or asparagus all year -ound. Who do we blame for that situation? Do consumers drive retailers or do retailers drive consumers?

The reality is that retailers are businesses like any other businesses and will adapt themselves to whatever they see are the immediate requirements of the market. I don’t think that it is right or fair to blame the retailers for all the issues since we are all responsible for what we buy. However, I think that everyone needs to understand that our food supply chain is under great pressure and needs to be properly valued to ensure that we can feed the expanding global population without destroying the planet. This will require some major changes in current practices and the application of a wide range of new technologies.

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