The 2016 Agricultural Lecture & Dinner

Annual Agricultural Lecture

Date: 13th April 2016

Start time: 6:00pm

Venue: Merchant Taylor's Hall, 30 Threadneedle Street, London, EC2R 8JB

The alumni of our management, leadership and MBA courses are living proof of the value of all the time, effort and resource our Company devotes to its educational activities. So to see so many gathered for the 2016 Agricultural Lecture and Dinner, held on the evening of Tuesday13th April in the sumptuous surroundings of the Merchant Tailor’s Hall, was inspiring.

Merchant Taylor’s Hall nestles in a seemingly tiny nook in Threadneedle Street, in the very heart of the City of London. Built in the twelfth century and badly damaged but never completely destroyed, by either the Great Fire or the Blitz, it is one of the great halls and one befitting of a Company as old and prestigious as the Merchant Taylors and indeed of an event as important to the Worshipful Company of Farmers, as the Agricultural Lecture and Dinner. Having said this, if you weren’t looking for it, you would surely pass by the hall's self-effacing entrance without a second glance. But stepping-inside, from the hustle and bustle of the crowds of homeward bound, London City commuters, is like entering another, infinitely more relaxed and private world.

One of the hall’s most appealing features is the pretty courtyard garden, the doors to which were open to greet us as we arrived. So it was that alumni, Liverymen and guests mingled, champagne glasses in hand, and chatted in the watery, early spring, evening sunshine; wandering into and out of the little garden that makes the venue feel more like a country house than a London Livery Hall.

The attendance this year of over 180 confirms the continuing popularity of the event, both within the Company and amongst our alumni. Its format – an agriculturally orientated lecture, followed by a black-tie dinner, this year held in the wonderful Great Hall, is formal without being stuffy, serious without being dull which probably explains the wide participation from companies, year classes from the courses and table sponsors.

The speaker for this year was Professor Colin Dennis CBE DL. Professor Dennis’ career in food science stretches back almost 50 years. After eleven years at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich, he joined Campden BRI in 1981 and was appointed Director General in 1988 – a position he held for 21 years. He is currently a Fellow and President of the Institute of Food Technologists (USA) and a Governor of the Royal Agricultural University and continues to advise the food industry internationally as well as the UK Food Standards Agency and Innovate UK.

As a topic ‘Science, Food and Society’ was pretty broad reaching. And the professor’s lecture was equally ambitious. Its main theme was, that in a world dominated by the megatrends of population growth and climate change, the need to safeguard future food security required a focus not just on producing more but on wasting less, through reducing pre and post-harvest losses and reducing food wastage.

He went on to make the case for science and technology having a massive and ever more important role in helping deliver change in all these areas but bemoaned the fact that its role is often poorly or even deliberately misunderstood.

“Farming, regardless of whether it is traditional or modern, conventional or organic, small or large scale, will need more science and technology, not less.” he said.

He pointed out the vast array of scientific disciplines likely to be involved. From bio-chemistry to molecular biology, and from sensory science to social science. The list of relevant areas of scientific endeavour is far longer than one might at first imagine. And he went on to say that it is essential that society as a whole recognises the irreplaceable contribution of science to our future food safety and security.

He provided examples to show that this recognition is sadly lacking and whilst it would appear that food, diet and nutrition are all hot topics in the media, the science of much of what is reported is often ignored, misrepresented or simply not understood.

Professor Dennis ended with a plea, for the contribution of basic science to be given greater value by the ordinary man and women in the street – but he didn’t really have much to say on how this might be achieved. 

The audience was unsurprisingly largely receptive to Professor Dennis’ message. Agriculture has had more than its fair share of being misunderstood and I am sure many of the assembled alumni and Liverymen would wish that agriculture and the science behind it, so necessary to produce good crops and livestock, was better understood by the population at large.

The evening’s lecture was followed by a shortened Q&A session. There were a number of very interesting questions from the floor, and whilst Professor Dennis did his best to respond to these, many had to be left open and were more interesting perhaps in the posing than in the answering. With dinner overdue the Master was forced to call time on the session and  several would-be contributions sadly had to be left for another occasion.

For those of us who had dined at the Merchant Taylor’s Hall before it was not surprising that the service and the meal were both excellent. Crab filo parcels were followed by a lovely piece of Scottish lamb, all accompanied by some excellent Willowglen Australian wines.

The Master rose after dinner to thank our sponsors for the evening – Frontier Agriculture, represented on the night by Managing Director Mark Aitchison and Crop Production Director Charlie Whitmarsh, without whom it would have been difficult to have had such a wonderful evening. He also introduced the farm cart – into which a generous audience placed a very heartening eighteen hundred pounds (and twenty Euros) – all of which will go to the charitable fund that makes our support of the education courses possible.

Chairman of the Education Committee Graham Shooter captured the mood of the evening in his summing-up in which he remarked on how proud he was of the quality of the alumni of the Company’s educational courses and how pleased he was to see so many at this event.

Colin Dennis at Ag Lecture 2016
Professor Colin Dennis