One frequently reads about the plight of liquid milk producers in Ireland; about how the price that they are paid does not meet the extra costs of producing milk all year and that this is jeopardising their future. Is fresh Irish milk going to be a premium product available to only the few that can afford it? Is drinking imported ‘fresh’, longer-life, ultra-filtered milk going to be the norm?
It is simple, for industrial-scale milk processors the numbers just might not add up when it comes to supplying liquid milk to the Irish population. It is a commercial decision. With such an emphasis on producing milk powder post quotas, one can see the demise of fresh Irish milk as a consumer product. The dairy farming establishment has pushed the New Zealand style of seasonal milk production off cheap spring grass; will they shed a tear when the Irish consumer must buy milk produced in Wales or England or Brittany? Ask yourself, just how cheap is liquid milk in New Zealand? And, after all, as so many dairy products are already imported [whilst Ireland exports longer-life powders, butter and hard cheese], does it really matter?
Is this an outrageous scenario? After all, one has read recent postings about only one apple in 20 eaten in Ireland being grown in Ireland. When so much is spoken of sustainability and the likes of food miles, is this a good thing? One also hears of Ireland’s desire to be a food nation and to be a food destination. Can it truly be so when its agriculture is dedicated to producing raw materials for industrial-scale processing? When I think of ‘food’ countries I think of France and Italy. I am hearing and reading more about Austria. A few of the food ‘elite’ may believe that Ireland is already a ‘food destination’ but is there really the product range that is linked to the land, to the ‘terroir’, to justify the use of such a term? Ireland’s woeful lack of EU designated-origin products tells the story.
It is a different when one shops for food in Ireland; where is the high-quality produce? Just where are the Irish apples and Irish apples with flavour at that? I found some in a private orchard recently.
And does ‘grown in Ireland’ means bred in Ireland; or does the genetics emanating from, say, Holland [the country that has produced the perfect looking rose; albeit one without scent]? Retail consolidation and long-supply chains has led to appearance and shelf life taking precedence over eating characteristics and especially flavour. One is reminded of the tropical durian fruit; its smells like Hell but tastes of Heaven. Too much on our shelves now looks Heavenly but is, frankly, bland and tasteless. And one can also ask whether visual and durable has also been at the expense of nutritional value? The latter may have also declined over time.
We are in the grip of a major and rapidly evolving health crisis at the centre of which are obesity and nutritionally-linked diseases. Is a part of the health problem due to our reliance on sugar for flavour? As the animal fats have been demonised, have we replaced their flavour with sweetness? And now we are replacing sugar with other ‘artificial’ sweetener to feed our addiction to sweetness. I am still awaiting the arrival on our shelves of the first ‘low in sweetness’ label. Now that would be a major step forwards for the health of our population.
Have we also become addicted to food products created for the time-limited consumer? It has created a dependency on food that emanates from the food industry and not the domestic kitchen. Just how many of us read the ever-longer ingredient lists; let alone understand what half of the ingredients are? For me bread is flour, yeast, a little salt and water. Like German beer, I would have liked to see ancient legislation that limited the ingredient list to such. In parallel, local sourcing and understanding the provenance of the ingredients used in the home environment has also fallen by the wayside. As a population, we have become reliant on the food factory and it is the factory that really dominates the Irish food scene. It also dominates Irish farming.
Is a radical to suggest that promoting food with flavour can help with the obesity crisis? Should ‘eat less but eat better’ be to the fore? Will access to foods with more flavour help people reverse a sweetness addiction? I am sure food tasted better in my childhood and as I do not eat with my eyes, I have long been disillusioned with the current supermarket offer. One can find high-quality food but it is a labour of love to do so whereas it should be readily accessible AND affordable.
As a short aside, when I use the term ‘quality’ I am talking about the eating experience. It is different from how the word ‘quality’ is often used in Ireland. Here it appears on a food label to state that the product has met the minimum production standards of the near-national, quality-assurance scheme. In this case ‘quality’ is used as per ‘quality assurance’. QA schemes were developed within industry to ensure that the product met the specifications established by management and/or an industry regulating body. In such circumstances, a product can be ‘quality assured’ regardless of whether its ‘quality’ is that of a budget or premium product.
I live on a low-sugar / low-refined-carbohydrate diet. Hence, I search the supermarket shelves for foods that meet my own needs. At a time when diabetes is becoming a massive health crisis, just where are these foods? Gluten-free is everywhere now but low-carbohydrate, low-sugar and low-glycemic-index foods are scarce. One is aware of the current controversy about nutritional guidelines and we may be at a crossroads. Will it be more high-carbohydrate / low-fat diets or will we be told to shift to eating less refined carbohydrates and more healthier fats? If it is the latter, it will require a seismic shift by the food industry.
We are now inundated with food programmes but I am often left wondering where to find the ingredients for the recipes presented. Does one need to move to France? There is a lack of street markets in Ireland and sources of local and diverse products in general. I often compare my old home town of Bury St Edmunds with Kilkenny; the former still has a vibrant twice-a-week street market that the latter should aspire to. Yes, a few more farm shops are appearing but for them sourcing is not easy. And how much of what they do stock is locally-grown ‘commercial’ varieties? And are their locally-produced food products from non-local ingredients?
A food programme word I often hear now is ‘heritage’ as in ‘heritage tomatoes’ so one can expect that the likes of Waitrose in the UK are looking at sourcing such for their customers. One does, however, wonder which supermarket chain in Ireland will pick up the ‘heritage’ baton? Or maybe we will see ‘heritage’ products become a more common sight in our evolving farm shops?
I am a strong believer that a part of dealing with dietary-caused illness is to encourage people to focus on eating less but eating better, more flavoursome food. Yes, it probably means more food preparation at home. Maybe our celebrity chefs could help by focusing a little more on how to keep it simple? Or has the TV-cooking culture so fed consumer aspirations that it has led to a food industry that attempts to offer high-end-food look-alikes at low-end prices? Realistically, that is not achievable. So, I return to my usual conclusion, simpler is better and better means ‘keep it simple’.
I believe that Irish agri-food strategy needs to be separated in two; one for the agri-food industry and another one for the farming and rural sectors. The latter would be about farm incomes and premiumizing the farm-gate price. It would also be about local food processing and creating employment creation within small-food businesses. It ties in nicely with the provision of local produce to local people [not forgetting that it must also allow product consolidation for larger markets] and improving the diversity [and flavour] of the foods available. A local foods strategy should also be about stimulating a food culture that follows through to an improved diet.
Do we need to increase the diversity of produce available to help people create a more varied and interesting diet? For example, how great a variety of winter vegetables could be grown in Ireland? Is it a chicken-and-egg situation; is it the lack of availability that means one cannot find an abundance of winter greens [kales, broccolis, chards…] or the lack of a demand to stimulate their growing? And how about increasing the variety of, say, potatoes on offer? The rise of ‘heritage’ will most likely trigger the growing of a greater diversity of vegetables and fruit and one hopes that when it does the government sees the sense in supporting those who venture into growing them.
I mentioned heritage tomatoes earlier, but there has been increased interest in traditional [heritage] beef. And one can return to apples where only one in twenty is grown in Ireland. This is a shocking statistic but it is sad that aesthetic appearance, shelf-life and economics have denied us access to the treasure-trove of flavours that are to be found within the wider catalogue of apple [and fruit] varieties. The Irish fruit sector needs regenerating from both a volume and diversity perspective. It will all add to the diversity of flavours available and maybe it will help us all move towards our five-a-day targets and improve our general health.
The lack of diversity reminds me of a recent Facebook conversation about milk processing. I had been writing about the quality of [water] buffalo milk and the products that can be produced with it. I was asked what dairy products I would produce [on farm] with ordinary milk. As I expected ‘ordinary’ milk was confirmed as that from Holstein-Friesian cows. My response was an honest one; that in 15 years of working on milk production and processing I had never once considered using ‘ordinary’ milk. You can produce good clean milk from Holstein-Friesians but it is not what I would choose to use as the raw material for a premium dairy product, there are just other choices that can impart both more flavour and a stronger marketing story to the product.
It is an issue that I will keep returning to; that the upper echelons pf the food markets are occupied by products that are rooted in the ‘terroir’. Ask any chef if they can produce great dishes without great ingredients. Great chefs are only as good as their suppliers. A number go to the extent of growing it themselves. True the food industry does its best to create affordable replicas of what the chef can produce but, ultimately, one needs to look to the French, Italians, Spanish, Austrians… to see how to produce premium foods. It starts on the farm or in the market garden.
Is this happening in Ireland; are we seeing farmers changing their systems to produce the raw materials for specific premium products? Sadly, not really. There is little market feedback to encourage them to do so and the establishment’s strategic line is about producing low-cost raw materials for commodities processed in industrial-scale, consolidated processing-units. It is not an approach that is ever going to premiumize the farm-gate price to the extent that will make the small-scale Irish farm financially-sustainable and independent of tax-payer support.
If Ireland is not focused on feeding its own population but on exporting commodities whilst importing products that it could produce at home, one assumes that there are strong comparative advantage and balance of trade arguments for doing so. One questions whether these exist or even if they have been thoroughly investigated prior to the setting of Irish national agri-foods strategy in stone. One is aware of the international comparative work done by Teagasc and published in 2011 that said that, on a FULL-COST basis, Ireland was only an average cost European milk producer. It is only a low-cost producer of milk when it comes to the variable costs of production and this is negated by the fixed cost structure of the country’s small farms. Is it all a house of cards?
The author also wonders whether the legendary cheap grass-based system will remain competitive as resource costs rise when compared with countries that have extensive areas of low-cost land, cheap labour and can produce and abundance of forage legumes to supplement summer grass. A fixation with New Zealand may mean that there is a lack of understanding of all the World’s production areas and particularly those in the eastern EU-states and the former Soviet Union.
An indicator of the real competitive position of Irish agriculture can be gleaned from a recent front page headline in the Farming Independent [11/10/16], “Ag budget up by 15% to €1.5bn”. Given that Ireland is hardly a net beneficiary of EU funds these days [and less likely to be post-Brexit], this cost is borne by the Irish tax payer. To what degree is the true competitive position of Irish farming disguised by such an annual injection of money into the agri-food system? The €1.5 billion equates to about €300 per man, woman and child residing in Ireland.
Should one be asking what the Irish population gets in return for its annual investment in its farming and agri-food sector? Food security? An abundance of high-quality and affordable local produce? Apparently, judging by what is happening with the deteriorating financial sustainability of the liquid milk sector, neither. So, who does benefit from the taxpayers’ money?
To what degree does the farmer benefit from taxpayer-provided funding? At times, it appears that the farm business only needs to break even whilst the farmer lives on the payment; that the farmer should not have to dip into the payment to support the farm. Does this approach accept that the farm business cannot sustain those who rely on it for a living? It falls in line with the common partial costings that approach that ignores farmers’ labour, management and a return on their assets.
The question is, does the payment enable farmers to continue to produce at a farm-gate price that is below the cost of production? If so, some will say that the payment is halting the natural evolution of the industry. Maybe it is but with the slow-moving nature of the Irish farmland market, just how fast would consolidation occur without the payments? And would it be at a pace that would transform Ireland, based on scale, into an internationally competitive foods producer? Given the reality of current farm size, one should not expect the latter to happen anytime soon.
Or does the payment allow those who are paying the farm-gate price to pay the farmer a price that they know is below the full cost of production, thus transferring the payment’s value to those further along the supply chain; be they processor, exporter or retailer? Are the ultimate beneficiaries of farm ‘support’ the shareholders and executive management of those entities who inhabit the food supply chains? Given the distorted power balance of the food supply-chains, one wonders.
Or is the ultimate beneficiary the consumer? Are retail prices lower than they should be? If so, is it the case that the consumer / tax payer recovers some / all their outlay via lower food prices? It is an interesting question to pose for a country that exports most of its produce as the consumer and the tax payer are not then one and the same. Does the Irish taxpayer enable the overseas consumer to pay less for their food? Are they subsidising the consumer who buys their beef from the lower shelves of Asda, Sainsbury and Tesco or the European burger buyer? Are they subsidising the milk powder users in the Far East or Africa? If so, they are they unaware that they do?
The above questions are definitively unanswerable. If, nonetheless, I was the Irish tax payer I would be asking how I benefit from my contribution to the EU and Irish Government’s agricultural support budgets. Maybe I wish to understand the role the payments play as they circulate in the rural economy but will I be happy if I cannot buy fresh Irish milk because the post-farm-gate supply chain has decided to turn the milk into powder for export to consumers elsewhere? I would be even more annoyed to realize that such a processing and marketing approach also delivered a below-the-cost-of-production price to the farmer; increasing their need for the payments themselves.
Somehow the link between what the tax payer pays and what the tax payer gets in return has been broken. In terms of food security, food availability, food quality [if one dare suggest that it is not as good as it could be] and food diversity, should the Irish tax payer expect more?
A question that we should ask in light of their contribution to the agri-food system’s budget is; should it be providing the Irish people with a more diverse and interesting diet? Should it be supporting the population to follow a better diet? Although, at present, one cannot be specific about what a ‘better’ diet is. My own seems to contain about half the recommended carbohydrates as specified on Irish food packaging [about 260g for an average person (who needs 2000 calories [per day)] but I am in no position to say that my own is right or wrong. Such a diet does, nevertheless, allow me to consume more fats and proteins and, I find, create a more interesting eating experience than if I was consuming more white bread, pasta, rice and potatoes.
What I do find is that my dietary approach is not supported by the offer provided by the food industry. There must be major food-sector changes [probably greater than any we have seen before] as diabetes is a massive health crisis and too many products are either too sugar-loaded or are based upon other refined carbohydrates. Eating less carbohydrates means that I look for what I perceive to be better fats [including from grass-fed cattle (I do, nonetheless, miss the flavours that I have experienced elsewhere when grass-fed has meant grazed on herb-rich, plant-diverse pastures)]. We are also lucky in having access to high-quality but limited range of seafood. And, yes, nuts, pulses and vegetables play a part; although with the latter I am disappointed by what is readily available.
Simply, I find that few of my requirements are met by the food-provision systems operated by the supermarket chains. Does this mean that there are opportunities for farmers and rural communities to reconnect with food consumers? Local is coming into vogue and with it the assumption that local is better; we just need to ensure that ‘better’ also means dietarily better.
An unanswered question in Ireland is; how do we reconnect farmers with consumers? Across the water in both the USA and the UK, farmers’ markets are playing a role; but they do have the large urban populations that, outside Dublin, Ireland lacks. There are initiatives to place artisan products in supermarkets and one cannot comment on how successful they are. That said, we need a more coherent, visionary approach. What there is are mere pin-pricks that play no more than lip-service to the idea of developing an artisan alternative to the industrial-scale food chains. The idea that small-scale, local and artisan could improve the availability of high- quality food to the Irish people is hardly on the radar screen of the agri-food-orientated establishment.
One can see some farm shops appearing. Should they and community shops be receiving grant support? We support the primary producer, so why not the small-scale primary retailer if it can improve the farmers’ direct access to the consumer? Personally, I believe that with a widespread rural population, it needs permanent retail sites as sales via farmers’ markets can be sporadic and on-the-day weather-dependent. And one should add that establishing the sourcing for a farm shop is no easy task when there is so little diversity within the local farming systems.
We need to return to the days when farms employed multiple enterprises to provide several income streams to the farmer. Now it is often only income from milk [for milk powder] and the payments from the government. One could add in the income from beef or lamb but how often does that provide the farm household with income these days? Multiple income streams were [still should be] the classic farming risk-reduction strategy. Today, are we too focused on specialization [because the business schools say we should] and reliant on monocultures in every respect? Multiple farming activities do, nonetheless, need a structured system of farm-produce selling to exist alongside the prevailing, dominant, centralized, industrialized, high-volume routes to market.
I have previously written up ideas on how to do this so I will not go into detail. I do, nonetheless, believe that, with imagination, Ireland can develop a top-end range of food products that have ‘quality’ characteristics that encompass flavour and a story that links the product to the land. I will not add ‘more nutritious’ as that can be a controversial claim. It can also be done so to premiumize the farm-gate price [my own phrase which has not yet, as far as I am aware, made it into the press or into the mindset of the establishment]. It is sad to note that one of the main handicaps facing anyone with ambitions to do such is a lack of funding. There appears to be little determination to reconnect the farmer and the consumer [the taxpayer] even though the tax payer is, de facto, footing the €1.5 billion a year cost of supporting the Irish agri-food sector.
We economists instinctively use cost-benefit analysis on almost everything; the agri-food sector should be grateful that the tax payer [apparently] does not. If they did, they might start demanding more direct benefits from their investment than the quotation of export statistics or generalizations about jobs created in new, industrial food-processing facilities.
One hundred years ago, the co-operatives were developed in Ireland. Over 900 individual co-operatives operated throughout the country’s rural communities and small creameries were commonplace. They, of course, disappeared as they were considered uneconomic when it came to the production of commodities like butter and hard cheeses. Some believe that consolidation must still must go further. It is a contrasting history to, for example, the Jura Mountains in France where their famous cheeses are still produced by small private processors and co-operatives. It is a model that has not stopped them exporting their cheeses around the world.
Hence, given that there is a move in higher-value food markets towards localization and products with a strong provenance, should we be looking backwards for a way forwards? I can remember from my childhood delivering our eggs to a local pack-house. With the rise of free-range eggs in the UK are we seeing this begin to happen again? Are we seeing small-scale producers again supplying a local packhouse to consolidate their production for sale into larger markets? It is happening but this time it is important that farmers do not then give away their re-found control.
Just how many potential income opportunities are there for Ireland’s small-scale farms if the primary processing and marketing allowed them to be exploited? Should we be looking to re-establish community-located facilities to not just pack eggs but also vegetables? And what about artisan-scale milk and meat processing? All of them are possible if the will is there [not least from those who administer the food-safety bureaucracy]. It is about how to create routes-to-market and to give farmers greater control over what happens outside the farm gate. Reconnecting the Irish farmer to the Irish consumer is an activity that should receive grant support and a tiny portion of the €1.5 billion would, if studiously spent, make a difference.
And should we stop with supporting local food-processing and route-to-market initiatives? What about on-farm support? One can think of any number of useful ways to support small-scale income generation enterprises that will, in-turn, provide local foods for local people and local food ingredients for local processing [and thus start a movement towards more products that have a link to the land]. And when it comes to selling into a non-local market, they will also have a ‘produced-locally’ story to provide them with an interesting and appealing provenance.
One grant idea to ponder is poultry tunnels and arks. Another would be polytunnels and the infrastructure required to grow year-around vegetables. Or grants to help farmers to diversity into breeds that can provide different product flavours and a different marketing story?
Or what about grants to plant fruit trees and bushes? Should a grant-aid target be to produce at home at least 50% of the apples consumed in Ireland? And as one Irish apple grower has said to the author before now; just how great would be the climate change emissions implications be if Ireland focused on planting fruit trees rather than keeping more cows?
The overall idea behind this post is to suggest that paramount in any farming and food strategy should be to provide the Irish people with a secure supply of high-quality, health-promoting food and an interesting and varied diet. Whether the food industry, from end-to-end, is meeting these objectives at present is debatable. More so, if one considers the growing impact of malnutrition [it is not only a lack of calories] on the health of the population becomes more evident.
Yes, Ireland now has a strategy to address obesity and its consequential illnesses, but is it another case of needing to join the dots? Should the problem also be addressed within the national agri-food strategy? The latter remains food-exports focused and that needs to change. Not only is the strategy failing to deliver better farm incomes but it does not place its targets within the context of climate change, now Brexit, or the role of the agri-food industry in feeding the Irish population. Sadly, all we hear is the importance of sticking to the plan. The World changes and success is achieved through adaptation to change; the exception to the rule seems to be Ireland’s agri-food strategy.
One of my earliest conclusions about Irish agri-food strategy was that it needed to be a twin-track strategy; one for the strategically important agri-food sector and one to support the evolution of a high-value, premium-foods sector that could enhance farm-gate prices, improve farm incomes and create food-related employment in the rural economy. The more I write about the subject, the more I realize that the reasons for developing the second part of the twin-track strategy are multiplying and the need for a more expansive, broad-thinking, visionary, second track are now even greater. Sadly, the establishment does not seem to share my views.
Highlighted within the second track needs to be a methodology for how we go about reconnecting the Irish farmer with the Irish consumer. Ambitiously, it needs to be done within the context of improving the people’s diet and, consequentially, their health. For all the weight-loss-focused diets around, have we still lost sight of the importance of nutrition and how it impacts upon health? If so, we are going to have to relearn about the food-health connection and fast before the consequential costs swamp our health services and suppress the wider economy.
If Ireland is to be the ‘food island’ that many aspire to, surely its farming and food sectors must first provide its population with a premium-quality supply of food that has nutritional value, diversity, flavour and fully-traceable origins? It is no great advert for any food nation if its population is a World-leader when it comes to obesity and nutritionally-related disorders.
At present the Irish consumer is, however you look at it, subsidizing products that go to consumers living overseas? It is time that their funds went on ensuring that their own farming and food industry provides what they need first. After all, he who pays the piper calls the tune. Well that is the theory anyway. And, at least in the opinion of the author, that means supporting farmers and rural communities to produce a diverse range of interesting foods that are full of flavour, nutritious and, in time, provide a sustainable, market-derived, living for the producer.