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Article appeared in issue 4, 2022

The Greening of
Marks & Spencer

Marks & Spencer retail stores depend heavily on meat produced in Ireland. Steve McLean – Head of Agriculture & Fisheries and Business Lead for Low Impact Farming, M&S Foods, tells Erin McCafferty why

 

When it comes to meat and dairy production, Ireland has long had a good relationship with UK retailer Marks & Spencer. It’s a fact that Steve McLean, Head of Agriculture & Fisheries and Business Lead for Low Impact Farming, at M&S Foods, is well aware of. He points out that Irish beef, chicken, potatoes, bread, and eggs are sold by M&S, not only in M&S stores in Northern Ireland, but in the Republic of Ireland, and in many M&S stores in the UK.

“At M&S, we have a proud history of supporting both Irish and UK farming, working closely with our over 1,600 select farm partners in Northern Ireland, to deliver the highest quality and excellent value meat for our customers, which total almost 30 million across the UK,” says Steve.

He mentions that suppliers in Northern Ireland include Dale Farm, Dromona, Moy Park Ballymena, Karro Foods Ltd, Hovis Belfast, Skea Egg farms, Avondale Foods, Lakeland Dairies, Manor Fresh (Glens of Antrim), Gilfresh, Linden Foods, Finnebrogue, Genesis, Mash Direct and Around Noon.

Ireland’s sustainability credentials play an important role in this. “What we look for in a supplier is similar values in quality, sustainability and ethical standards,” says Steve. “We want to build long-term relationships based on mutual respect.”

Increasingly however sustainability has become important, not only to the retailer but to the consumer. “Our customers want to know that we’re offering food that is both healthy, sourced from livestock that are reared in high animal welfare conditions, and coming from farms that are environmentally friendly,” says Steve. “We want to work closely with our suppliers to explore ways to reduce carbon emissions in agriculture – to find the best ways to achieve low impact farming.”

Farming with Nature programme

To this extent, the company has a five-year Farming with Nature programme, designed to provide farmers with industry-relevant, specialist support in the areas of biodiversity, soil health and water usage. The aim is to help them become more sustainable and deliver measurable improvements to their businesses, whilst encouraging the uptake of nature-friendly farming practices.

As part of the programme, M&S has established 17 indicator and innovation farms across the UK, producing dairy, beef, lamb, pork, turkey, chicken, and eggs. The farms are supported by UK M&S-funded specialist industry partners, such as The Wildlife Trusts, the Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group, and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and FERA. All of these farms are currently trialling new ways of farming in harmony with nature and measuring environmental improvements and benefits over time.

“Learnings from these farms will be shared through knowledge transfer activity and farm events with other M&S farmers and the wider industry,” explains Steve. “To support produce growers in the UK and Northern Ireland, we’re also delivering Farming with Nature modules, developed in partnership with LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) Farm to Fork traceability.”

The Farming with Nature programme is being transformed into a low carbon farming programme. “We’re currently working with farmers to listen to their needs and concerns in order to reshape the programme and build on the great work to date,” says Steve. “Our ambition is to have 30% of our products locally sourced and we’re developing the plan to understand how we can achieve this.”

In Northern Ireland, Origin Green, Bord Bia’s (The Irish Food Board’s) pioneering food and drink sustainability programme, has also attracted M&S to suppliers there. “The fact that Origin Green performs audits and verifies the sustainability credentials of farms in Ireland feeds into our Farm to Fork traceability credentials which are all-important to M&S,” says Steve.

Select Farms

M&S has already been operating a Select Farms programme for many years and prides itself on the Farm to Fork traceability of its meat and dairy products. “Our products come from farmers we know and trust, and we have more RSPCA Assured products than any other national retailer,” says Steve. “That means you can rest assured they adhere to our animal-welfare and environmental-protection standards.

“Our Select Farms brand is part of our wider Plan A initiative, which is our commitment as a business to building a more sustainable future. We’re the only national retailer that can trace 100% of our beef back to the farm and animal it came from, we sell 100% outdoor-bred pork and 100% British chicken,” he adds.

M&S is currently driving greater volume for farmers by investing further in its Remarksable range, which includes meat, dairy, bread and produce. It aims to offer these products at value without compromising on the quality, or its sourcing standards and without negatively impacting suppliers.

Inflation

Like all businesses at the moment, it is however feeling the effects of inflation. “We recognise the exceptional circumstances farmers across the UK and Ireland are facing due to rising costs and we’re working closely with our suppliers to provide additional support,” says Steve. “Our priority with any support is to guarantee protection for the farmers themselves. Were also committed to paying our dairy farmers a fair price – for example, since 1999 our M&S Milk Pledge has guaranteed our dairy pool farmers a fair and sustainable price, giving them the security to invest in higher animal welfare standards.”

And while sales of meat and dairy remain high, Steve is aware of the trend for plant-based foods in recent years. “We believe that both meat and dairy and plant-based foods play a valuable role in a balanced diet,” he says. “As a result, we have a clear strategy to grow sales in both categories, but we want customers to eat high quality, high welfare meat and dairy products.”

The relationship between Northern Ireland and M&S is an important one to the company but has been hindered in recent times by Brexit. Steve is however hopeful that a solution can be found that ensures a continued mutually beneficial connection. “Our mindset is that we want to grow our business in Northern Ireland,” he says. “Current arrangements with the Northern Ireland protocol make it that much harder. That’s why we need the UK Government to agree a solution with the EU that takes into account the safety and high standards in the UK, streamlines, and digitalises the processes and removes the burdensome checks on every delivery. Northern Ireland is an important supplier of meat and dairy products for M&S. Let’s hope that continues.”