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What Next for AHDB?

After a torrid 2021, what will 2022 look like for AHDB and for you, the levy payer?

In December 2020 AHDB announced it was holding a ballot on the future of its Potato and Horticulture levy. This was triggered by some unhappy businesses who had written to request the ballot: as they are entitled to do under current legislation (if more than 5% of levy payers from each sector request a ballot within a 3-month period to be exact). A ballot was held, asking if the levy should be continued, and voters answered with a resounding ‘no’.

The potato vote was a ‘no’ in Scotland and England, with most large and small businesses across both countries voting the same way. Horticulture was a similar story, except larger businesses were more likely to vote ‘yes’. According to one source, if the vote was weighted towards business output, then the horticulture vote would have been a yes. But that does not matter: George Eustice swiftly stated the vote would be respected, and that AHDB Horticulture and Potatoes would be wound down.

Because the levy is mandatory, AHDB is technically a public body with legislation sitting behind it. Winding down the Potato and Horticulture sections requires a legislation change, and all legislation changes must be consulted on, which is what Defra are doing now. Why waste a consultation with a few simple questions about winding down horticulture and potatoes? Defra might as well ask a few more questions. While they remove the horticulture and potato text in the legislation, they can make other changes at the same time. And they are asking questions. Should AHDB be able to carry out commercial work? Should AHDB be expanded to include other sectors (like poultry)? Is the 5% figure the right one to trigger a ballot? Should levy payers get more of a say on what funds should be spent on?

The last question is an important one. The Horticulture and Potato vote result, and the NFU Scotland work that followed it showed that AHDB Horticulture and Potatoes were seen as too big, too distant, and too out of touch. If the other AHDB sectors are viewed the same then it is important it actually listens to its levy payers, show it is listening, and demonstrate better value for money.

In Scotland, the two remaining AHDB sectors relevant to NFUS members are Cereals & Oilseeds, and Dairy. NFU Scotland have listened to your representatives on both the milk and the combinable crops committees to respond to the consultation.

There is a cautious agreement to allow AHDB to carry out commercial activities, provided they do not jeopardise AHDB’s neutral position and do not distract from other activities. If a distinct entity is set up in the right way, then this should be avoided.

There is definite support for the proposed levy payer engagement. But it must be meaningful and must reach a lot of people. It should not just be a presentation by someone high up in AHDB, followed by a few questions at an event. They will have to get out and about and listen; finding out what is most important to levy payers’ businesses, and then putting in place activities to support development of these businesses.

You might be aware of an online AHDB portal where you can register your interest in this engagement. This is not to be confused with the Defra consultation. As a levy payer you can engage with AHDB and tell them what changes you want by registering through the portal. As a membership organisation, NFU Scotland is responding to the Defra consultation.

There is also a desire to maintain the ballot triggering mechanism of more than 5% of levy payers requesting a ballot within a 3-month period. This should keep AHDB on their toes and listening to levy payers. But if more ballots are triggered, and levy payers vote ‘no’, what is the alternative? We can look to potatoes and horticulture to see what happened there.

NFU Scotland’s horticulture members want AHDB Horticulture to wind down. As an alternative, they want a smaller mandatory levy to put in place to support pesticide authorisations. They hope that in time this could expand to value-for-money and relevant research and research services. These will be missed, and a loss of pesticides in the absence of an AHDB alternative could be keenly felt next season.

The potato story is a bit more complicated. NFU Scotland’s members want AHDB Potatoes to wind down. And they certainly do not want a mandatory levy to be put in its place. NFU Scotland have engaged with potato members through survey, a workshop, and its potato working group. There is definitely a desire for many of the functions that AHDB Potatoes carried out, but through a very different organisation: a farmer-led association or co-operative with voluntary membership and a close relationship with its membership. Industry engagement has made it apparent that seed and ware are becoming increasingly separate sectors, and it could well be that separate bodies get set up. Fragmentation is a good thing if it enables very responsive and relevant value-for-money activities for its members. But it could be a bad thing for bigger picture, whole-sector issues, like responding to unfair press articles, ‘blue sky’ research that benefits everyone, and pesticide authorisations.

NFU Scotland are working to get potato growers together to assess all this. We want to support some pioneering farmers to put together the bare bones of a new organisation that will benefit the whole potato sector in the new year.

So what will 2022 look like for AHDB and whatever replaces it? That depends on you. If the industry engages with AHDB, and if it works together to support alternatives for horticulture and potatoes, 2022 could be a turning point. Get involved and get engaged!

Author: David Michie

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About The Author

David Michie

David has been involved in the agricultural sector for the last two decades where he has worked on his family farm, at an agricultural science agency, as an agricultural and rural business consultant, and for an environmental food and farming charity. He joined NFUS in 2021 as their crops policy manager, where his role includes working with the arable, oilseed, potato, soft fruit, horticulture, and ornamental sectors.

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