As AHDB undergoes significant change, levy payers will have a chance to set out what they think their levy should be spent on. AHDB Pork sector strategy director Angela Christison tells ALISTAIR DRIVER why it is so important to take this opportunity
AHDB is in the midst of significant change and levy payers will soon have a chance to shape its future direction.
Among AHDB’s sectors, the pork team has relatively strong support among levy payers. Its remit for the pork sector certainly covers a wide range of activities – from export development and domestic promotion to data gathering, animal health and welfare and environmental services, training and leadership initiatives and actions to improve productivity and efficiency on farm.
But it is not without its critics within the pork sector, particularly during the current crisis, during which some levy payers believe it could have been more proactive and innovative in its use of levy funds to try and ease the backlog and support producers.
More widely, some in the industry have questioned whether they could be getting better value for their statutory levy payments, which totalled £9.6 million in 2020-21.
However, supporters and critics alike can soon have their say on what AHDB Pork focuses on in the future.
AHDB is currently undergoing a Change Strategy, announced by Defra last year following a ‘Request for Views’, which clearly highlighted levy payers’ desire to have a greater say in how their levy is spent, and for changes in how AHDB is run to make it more accountable and effective.
There has already been some dramatic fallout. Votes early last year to end the potato and horticulture levies have shaken the levy body and even raised questions about the future viability of its four remaining sectors.
In April, the first five-yearly votes on the how levy is used by the four remaining sector councils, as they are now known, will take place.
“This is a great opportunity to shape how AHDB uses your levy. But you need to register to vote by the end of March, so please do sign up,” she said.
Unlike the potato and horticulture votes, the Shape the Future votes will not be straight ‘yes/no’ verdicts on the levy.
“AHDB can’t decide its own existence. That’s something only industry and Defra can do. This is not about whether a levy is collected, but what is done with it,” Mrs Christison said, pointing out that the option for a yes-no vote remains at any time, if 5% of levy payers submit requests for such a vote within a three-month period.
She acknowledged that some levy payers might be wondering what the point of the vote is.
“I think it’s really important just to take a step back and consider why we even have a levy,” she said. “It is there to address things that the sector needs but that can’t or won’t be done by individuals or commercial operators.
“Other countries competing for our domestic and export markets tend to have a central funding organisation that supports their pork industry in this way.
“As we compete more and more on the international stage, it’s vitally important that support for the sector remains to ensure we’re not at a competitive disadvantage.
“The Shape the Future vote is about what the sector wants to do with its levy funds. I would say to levy payers your voice needs to be heard by your sector council so they can ask the AHDB team to do the most valuable work for you.”
How the vote will work
Levy payers will get to vote on AHDB’s Pork sector council’s overarching priorities for pork and its key activities.
Five sector ‘needs’ will be laid out:
- Selling all parts of the pig for the best value.
- Protecting and promoting the reputation of pork and the pig industry.
- Work on animal health and welfare.
- Work on the environment.
- Supporting profitability of farm businesses.
There will also be a list of nine areas of work to address these priorities, including exports, domestic marketing, educating young consumers, defending pork’s reputation, animal health and welfare, environmental work, skills development and market intelligence to inform both the industry and government.
Levy payers will get to rate each priority and area of work from 1 to 5 in terms of the importance to their business. Importantly, there will also be open boxes for comments.
Levy payers will also have the opportunity to ratify the appointment of the sector council members that have joined this year.
The sector councils, which have replaced sector boards, will then propose the work that needs to be done on behalf of levy payers to the main AHDB board, which will be responsible for delivering it efficiently.
Ms Christison stressed that by deciding on what activities AHDB should and should not focus on, levy payers will effectively get to propose the levy rate. “The sector council will propose what work is commissioned by the AHDB team and what levy rate is needed to fund it, a pretty significant development, which puts the sector more in control” she said.
Register to vote
From April 11, levy payers will get to vote on the priorities they want AHDB to focus on in the future.
- In order to vote, levy payers must register by midday on March 31. You can find out more and register here: https://ahdb.org.uk/shape-the-future
- Call 02476 016237 if you require help registering.
- Each eligible business gets one vote per sector.
AHDB is hoping the changes it is making to its structure and the opportunity for levy payers to have their say will help shore up its industry reputation.
AHDB Pork employs approximately 66 staff, although it has lost a number of high-profile figures in recent years and is currently working across various fronts in the midst of significant internal upheaval and, of course, the industry crisis.
“Some good people have left AHDB and other good people have joined, and we are obviously going through a major development in the organisation”, Ms Christison said.
“But it is all in the context of this massive industry crisis – we’re not thinking about what is happening within our organisation as we are focused on what’s going on for our levy payers and how we can help.”
Ms Christison acknowledged the criticism levelled at AHDB during the crisis but pointed out that it is sometimes limited by the rules governing it in terms of what it can do.
“Some people wanted targeted support for the most affected farmers, but unfortunately we were unable to do this. However, we held a levy holiday in November which meant we didn’t collect £800,000 from the sector, as we recognised many producers were and still are struggling financially,” she said.
“I know some people were frustrated by what we couldn’t do but please remember the work AHDB does, for example in boosting the demand for pork.”
She highlighted the importance of AHDB’s work on pork exports, which generated £567 million for the industry last year, while also helping to balance the carcase
Domestically, there are the marketing initiatives to generate demand for pork, including the current Mix Up Midweek campaign on TV, and the pulled pork campaign that ran in the autumn, which she said ‘really hit the mark’ with consumers during the pandemic.
Pointing out that in 2021 pork retail demand had grown by 2.5% in volume versus pre-pandemic 2019 levels, she added: “Most of the retailers want their fresh product to be British, so that marketing stimulation is absolutely vital.”
Closely linked to this is AHDB’s reputational work, currently centred around the cross-sector We Eat Balanced campaign, which highlights the benefits of vitamin B12 in meat and dairy, and the high standards to which British meat is produced. AHDB has also won some important victories against misleading anti-meat and dairy advertising.
This is just part of AHDB’s work. But Ms Christison acknowledged levy payers are not always fully aware of what the organisation delivers, particularly some of the technical and evidence work behind the scenes that informs both the industry and government. “Maybe, sometimes, we just need to say what we do more clearly and more often,” she said.
April’s vote, she added, will be an opportunity to help forge a ‘clearer contract between us and the sector’.
“The aim is to get that central kitty, the pork levy, working as hard as possible for the sector so that we are as competitive as we can be at home and overseas,” she said.
“But we need the industry’s input, so it’s in every levy payer’s interest to register and vote so you can tell your council where best to target that money to help your business.”
- This article appeared in the March issue of Pig World.