We are often being told to innovate to create new processed products and to become more efficient on farm, but where does this strategy lead? We have long since known of the treadmill of technology in agriculture; we run faster and faster but to what avail? Is it time to get off?
I have been around agriculture long enough to be able to look back and ask whether all the advances in agricultural and food technology have led to a better quality of life for farming communities. Yes, the growing urban communities have been fed and at a cost that has allowed them to spend less on food and more on property, on entertainment and on all kind of consumer consumables. But I find myself asking whether we have not been indulging ourselves in the greatest experiment in human history; that of how we cheaply feed the hundreds of millions whose lives have become totally reliant on a technology-focused food industry.
I can understand how Ireland’s agricultural industry became to be seen of minor importance within the Celtic Tiger. It was not then about creating employment and ‘low-grade’ economic activity within the rural regions; that was for those with less dynamic, less modern economies. Now times have changed. From sunset to sunrise industry in a handful of years. But what of the legacy of those years? It is a legacy of taking the raw materials from the farm and processing them in a highly technical, capital intensive, labour efficient, centralized fashion that shows little concern to the welfare of rural communities. True, in some ways the processing industry created during the ‘boom’ is highly successful, but is it an agri-food model that has led to sustainable farm businesses? Or is it a model built upon weak and now crumbling foundations?
Is it time to ask if this model has run its course? Does it have a time-defined limit on its future?
Is there a problem in that as it becomes more ‘advanced’ it has become less tied to a specific raw material supply base? Is it so dependent on Irish-farm produced raw materials that it can afford to pay a premium for Irish raw materials? Or is its ability to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse [as it has successfully done with whey] mean that it needs to find the lowest cost supply so as to enable it to compete on global markets?. Is it a race to the bottom when it comes to supplying raw materials to such a technologically-advancing processing industry? Is this why we constantly hear the cry to consolidate farming and for farmers to become ever more ‘efficient’?
We do not seem to stop to ask whether this is the best solution for the Irish farming industry. It just seems to be accepted that it is all about accepting what is best for the processors.
If one starts from the premise that the Irish agri-food sector can only be truly sustainable by being economically viable within the natural and ownership constraints placed upon it, does one need to rethink the whole innovation / invest in ‘modern’ technology approach? Is it really appropriate to adopt an agri-food strategy that seems to want to start from somewhere else? A somewhere else that does not have a fragmented, immobile land base and small family farming structure. Is it right to adopt an agri-food strategy that asks farmers to accept a policy that requires most of them to exit the industry? Or should we look for solutions in another direction.
Having spent much of the last year observing and assessing the Irish farming and food industry, my deduction is that there are some deeply embedded characteristics that one has to work with. I find that I have to ask if characteristics are really well suited to Ireland being a low-cost producer of raw materials to an agri-food processing industry focused on what can be best described as ‘premiumized’ commodities that are focused on global markets? I, and I suspect many within the farming industry, would say not. Instead, should we develop an agri-food strategy that builds upon the strengths of Irish farmers as opposed to eradicating them?
But why mention the music industry? Well I was listening to some tracks that back 30-plus years or so ago we would have expected to disappear into the mists of time. But no, it is still with us. Looking back, did we not reach a peak in the 1960s and 1970s in the evolution of a particular genre of music? Sure the music industry has not stood still since, but how many of us would have predicted that the stalwarts of those days would have been so with us today?
And to illustrate my point a video of a definitive song of the 1960’s but recorded in 2006 Yes its presentation has evolved but to many of us it is still a product with am unquestionable heritage.
So I am asking myself just how great is the desire for ‘heritage’ products in the food sector? And just how great is the desire for the simpler, less processed food products of yesteryear? Should we be innovating by looking backwards instead of interpolating forwards the buying trends for ‘technological’ food products. It is often wise to think outside the box when making predictions as it is not always about using what I term ‘straight-line economics’. There lies the way to buy into an about-to-go bust property boom; although for some that is still an unlearnt lesson.
For a small [being honest in a global context] producer like Ireland, is not the future about creating products that meet the demands of that part of the population that desires traditional, ‘old-fashioned’, less-processed but still premium products? And if so, are those products not products that are best created via the adoption of ‘new’ quality-orientated farming systems and more ‘artisan’ and smaller-scale processing? They will not be the same products as offered many years ago; they will in various ways be brought up to date. But they will be products where the value is created on-farm or within the local communities; and that is what is required to create sustainable farming and rural communities in Ireland.