The following is an extract from the submission I am preparing for the public consultation on Food Strategy 2025.
It is understandable that in an agri-food nation that is reliant on exporting that globalisation is given a lot of air time. It is, nevertheless, a fact that most of Ireland’s exports still go to the UK and the rest of the EU. If anything, far too much time and thought is dedicated to the opportunities within the global market place and far too little is given over to protecting or enhancing existing market positions in existing, albeit, mature markets.
Globalisation is probably seen by most people today as the dominant economic force and it is certainly the attention grabber for Irish agri-food policy makers. A quieter force is, however, at work and that is localisation. It is acting in Ireland’s mature export markets and it is likely to also be acting in many an international, high-value, mature markets. Localisation is probably at work everywhere with the possible exception of those premium markets that are not served by their own traditional agricultural sectors and are, therefore, import dependent.
Is localisation important? As is known, Ireland is in the throes of a beef crisis and one of the under-lying causes of that crisis is what has been termed the ‘renationalisation’ of the British beef market. A better term may well be localisation of the British beef market. Horse-gate is often cited as the reason for the re-localisation of the UK retail beef market but it has been a growing trend for a number of years. It has been particular apparent at the top of the UK retail market and it is likely that it is the issues-aware, probably-wealthier [less price-conscious] consumer that is leading the localisation movement. Failing to spot the localisation of the UK retail beef sector has been a serious oversight by somebody in Ireland and it is one that is costing the Irish beef farmer dear.
Localisation is not a British phenomenon; one understands that the French are also encouraging the consumption of local beef. Indeed, within Europe and, quite probably, in many other nations where income and availability do not inhibit choice one can expect the concept to grow amongst the issues-aware consumer. It is certainly an issue that gains momentum with each new food scare. It may also gain further impetus where consumers become more concerned about just what is included in processed food products [i.e. sugar levels, highly-refined carbohydrates and different fats]. Re-localisation may stimulate the organic foods market but it is as likely to stimulate consumers to seek out and source locally. The recent move away from one the one-stop-big-weekly-shop to buying smaller quantities from multiple locations may further encourage what could be a defining shift in food buying habits.
Is localisation happening in Ireland? Indeed it is and it is evident in most food retailers in terms of their promotion of local produce. At the supermarket level this may simply be by promoting what may be the produce of the agro-industrial scale food producers of Irish origin. Produce availability is often the limiting issue but as more farmers seek to develop short-chain routes to consumers one can expect more, not less, alternatives to become available. This is a very issues-aware-driven phenomenon and the Irish public are food-issues aware; albeit many will be constrained by economic circumstance and high food prices from fully involving themselves in re-localisation.
The great challenge for the Irish agricultural and food sectors is how to benefit from localisation when Ireland is an export dependent country. In theory, by definition, export means non-local. One can see from the beef crisis and the UK market, the UK retailer and consumer is not willing to consider Ireland as ‘local’. That may, however, be due to horse-gate but it is also because Irish beef is not presented in the market so as to entice the consumer to buy it. To be blunt, Irish beef does not have much to say for itself other than it is Irish. And ‘Irish’ has suffered badly across the beef sector due to contagion from a limited incidence of horse-meat contamination [it is risky that Irish agri-food policy makers seem to want to pursue in Ireland a broad-brush, put-everyone-in-the-same-pea-green-boat, ‘Irish’ branding]. It also highlights Ireland’s major agri-food problem; a lack of products.
Thankfully, the issues aware consumer is not totally fixated with local. They are also interested in provenance and how a product is produced. They are interested in ethical issues like Fair Trade. They are interested in ecological issues and landscape issues. They are interested in animal welfare issues. And they are especially interested in traceability and origin. It is the likes of France and Italy and, increasingly the likes of the separate countries of the UK, that are best placed to develop sales to these issues aware consumers [who often it appears also inhabit the upper echelons of the food markets] as they have and are evolving their range of designated-origin products. By contrast, Ireland has hardly begun the process of developing high-value, premium, designated-origin products.
As a consequence Ireland is excluding itself from the top-end of the international [be they EU or global] foods markets and, hence, it is also excluding itself from the very markets that could/may produce the returns to the very family farms that so characterise Ireland’s farming industry and who form the bulwark of rural Ireland.
The situation is also made worse in a policy-making context by the continued focused on broad-brush Irish quality assurance schemes. There are lessons to learn from the beef crisis and one of them is that having an all-inclusive farm assurance scheme that everyone is signed up to does not necessarily create a premium-priced product when it reaches the retail market. It is stated that Irish beef is quality-assured on some UK supermarket shelves but that does not translate back to a significant premium to the farmer. Another factor that has also been over-looked in the beef crisis is the differential between Scottish and Irish beef. Scottish beef trades at a premium over other UK beef and is, hence, far ahead of the price that Irish beef commands. Why? The answer lies in the designated-origin status of Scottish beef and the fact that it continues to become more of a product and less of a commodity. One can expect this to be an evolving process that will place Scottish beef at the top of the global beef markets.
A country where Ireland should be able to overcome issues-aware consumers wanting to buy local is the USA. In part this will be due to issues-aware consumers ‘rebelling’ against the way their indigenous food industry operates. There is also the strong, historic links between Ireland and the USA and the vast Irish-origin population in the USA.
That said, it would not be wise to assume that being ‘Irish’ is going to be enough alone; products with traceability and a strong marketing story that tells the real tale of the product will also be necessary to break into the upper echelons of the US market. A factor that, no doubt, will be focused upon in Ireland will be that its beef [and dairy products] are grass-fed. But what does that mean and how is ‘grass-fed’ going to be guaranteed to the consumer? Pasture-fed is already a point of differentiation in the US market and consumers have their expectations and they will not be met by baloney that says that all Irish beef is grass fed or any similar assertion. It will just not ‘cut the mustard’. Worse, by not having specific products with a clearly designated origin, Ireland faces horse-gating its own forays into the US food markets by ‘overplaying’ the quality characteristics of its products. There is a danger that short-term over-selling and thinking that it is all about branding may inhibit long-term market development.
To conclude, localisation will offer interesting alternative market options to Ireland. It will, nonetheless, have to develop the products suited to its associated consumer-aware markets. They will also have to be products that can overcome the ‘non-local’ origins of the product. Thankfully that can almost certainly be done in the international premium foods markets where ‘Irish’ is a good trade name. It will take more imagination within the UK and EU. The rewards for success will, however, be that Ireland will be producing products that may be better suited to providing appropriate rewards to its smaller-scale traditional farmers and their rural communities; be that through directly adding value via the farming system itself or by processing the farm’s produce locally. And who has not read this and assumed that local means local to the consumer; it can also mean local in how it is produced.