As Ireland’s milk processors focus on exports and liquid milk price contracts become unattractive to farmers, is fresh Irish milk going to be a premium product available to only a few? After all, so many dairy products are already imported, does it really matter? Is it just symptomatic of an Ireland that imports so much of its food whilst exporting commodities and ingredients?

When so much is spoken of ‘sustainability’ is this a good thing? One hears of Ireland’s desire to be a food nation and a food destination but can it be so when its farming is dedicated to producing raw materials rather than food products? When I think of ‘food’ countries I think of France and Italy, maybe now Austria. Ireland’s lack of EU designated-origin products tells its own story.

As one shops in Ireland; one asks where is the high-quality produce? Just where are the Irish apples and Irish apples with flavour at that? Retail now focuses on appearance and shelf life. It takes precedence over eating characteristics and especially flavour. And one can also ask if visual and durable has also been at the expense of nutritional value?

Obesity and nutritionally-linked diseases are today’s health and tomorrow’s socio-economic crisis. Is a part of the problem that we have become too reliant on sweetness for flavour? Is another the high-carbohydrate diets that we have been brought up with? And have we become addicted to food products created for the time-limited consumer? Have we become too dependent on food from the food industry and not our kitchen? In parallel, local sourcing and understanding the provenance of the ingredients used in the home has fallen by the wayside.

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? There is also now controversy over the nutritional guidelines; will it be more high-carbohydrate / low-fat diets or will we to eating less refined carbohydrates and more healthier fats? If it is the latter, it will require a seismic shift by the food industry.

Health will be to the fore but any thoughts about what we will eat need to encompass issues like consumer demands for local foods and a strong provenance. Will ‘sustainability’ and ‘fair trade’ play an increasing role? Diversity and ‘heritage’ will become common concepts. And will better, as a general principle, mean ‘keeping it simple’?

So, will these changes offer opportunities for Ireland’s farming and rural communities?

Irish agri-food strategy needs to be split into 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 be about local food processing and employment. And it ties in with the provision of local produce to local people [not forgetting product consolidation for larger markets] and diversity and the flavour of the available foods. A local foods strategy should also be about stimulating a food culture that follows through to an improved diet.

Within this context, do we need to increase the diversity of produce available to help people create a more varied and interesting diet? For example, where is the abundance of winter greens [kales, broccolis, chards…]? And why is the potato variety offering so limited? Where are the ‘heritage’ fruits of Ireland. And milk is not just Friesian-Holstein milk!  And should we expect the Government to support those who venture into producing local and diverse foods?

To be sector specific, the Irish fruit sector needs regenerating from both a volume and diversity perspective. It would 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.

We need to return to foods that are rooted in the ‘terroir’ and that starts on the farm and in the market garden. But is this happening in Ireland; are we seeing farmers changing to produce 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 focus is ‘low-cost raw materials for factory-processed commodities’. It is not an approach that will premiumize the farm-gate price and make small Irish farms financially-sustainable and independent of tax-payer support.

Is Ireland exporting commodities whilst importing products that it could produce at home? If so, one assumes that there are strong comparative advantage and balance of trade arguments for doing so. Are there? Or, on a full-cost basis, is Ireland only an average cost European producer?

An indicator of the competitiveness of Irish agriculture can be gleaned from a recent Farming Independent headline [11/10/16], “Ag budget up by 15% to €1.5bn”. If it is so competitive, why is there the need for such an annual injection of money into the agri-food system?

And what does the Irish population gets in return for its annual investment? Food security? An abundance of high-quality, 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? Does the payment ensure that they at least get some return on their labour input? Judging by recent farm incomes, the payments do little more than keep the wolf from the door. Or is the payment just halting the natural evolution of farming where the strong get stronger and the weaker leave the industry?

Or does the payment allow the payment of a farm-gate price below the full cost of production, thus transferring the payment’s value to the processor, exporter, or retailer? Are the beneficiaries of farm ‘support’ the shareholders and executives of entities within the food supply chains? Given the distorted power balance of those chains, one wonders.

Or is the ultimate beneficiary the consumer? Are retail prices lower than they should be? If so, does the Irish taxpayer enable the overseas consumer to pay less for their food? Are they subsidising the consumer in the UK, the Far East or Africa?

The Irish tax payer may choose to understand the role the payments play in the rural economy but will they be happy if they cannot buy fresh Irish milk because the milk is transformed into powder for export to foreign consumers? Would they be even more annoyed to realize that such an export-orientated approach often delivers 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 they get has been broken. In terms of food security, availability, quality, and diversity, should the tax payer expect more? And should the agri-food system be supporting the population to follow a better diet?

Buying and sourcing local is now coming into vogue and with it the assumption that local is better; we just need to ensure that ‘better’ also means dietarily better. Does this mean that there are opportunities for farmers and rural communities to reconnect with food consumers?

So, how do we reconnect farmers with consumers? Farmers’ markets play a role; but they need the large urban populations that, outside Dublin, Ireland lacks. One can see farm shops appearing. Should they [and community shops] be receiving grants? We support the primary producer, so why not the small, local retailer if they can improve the farmers’ access to the consumer? 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. It all needs a more coherent, visionary approach.

We also need to return to farms with multiple enterprises to provide several income streams. Now, income is often only the milk cheque and the payments from government. Does beef even provide the farm household with income these days? Diversity was the classic farming risk-reduction strategy. Today, we specialize and monoculture. Multiple farming activities do, nonetheless, need a structured system of farm-produce selling to exist alongside the dominant, centralized, industrialized, high-volume routes to market. They would also add the local product diversity that would make the task of selling local, farm-derived produce easier.

Eighty or so years ago, there were some 900 co-operatives operating in the country’s rural communities and small creameries were commonplace. They disappeared as they were considered uneconomic when it came to the production of commodities like butter and hard cheeses. It is in contrast to, for example, the Jura Mountains in France where small-scale private processors and co-operatives still produce their famous cheeses. It is a model that has not stopped them exporting their cheeses around the world.

With the rise of free-range eggs in the UK are we seeing new but, ‘old-fashioned’ marketing structures reappear? Are small-scale poultry keepers supplying a local packhouse to consolidate their production for sale into larger markets? It is happening but this time around 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 existed to allow them to be exploited? Should we be re-establishing community-located facilities to pack eggs and vegetables and process milk and meat?

And should we stop with supporting local food-processing and route-to-market initiatives? What about on-farm support? One can think of many ways to support small-scale, income-generating enterprises that will provide foods for local people and ingredients for local processing. And when it comes to selling into a non-local market, they will have a ‘produced-locally’ story to provide them with an interesting and appealing provenance.

An on-farm grant idea to ponder is poultry tunnels and arks. Another would be polytunnels and the infrastructure to grow year-around vegetables. What about support to develop integrated woodland farming systems? Or grants to help farmers to switch to breeds that can provide different product flavours and an alternative 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 idea behind this post is that paramount in any farming and food strategy should be providing the Irish people with a secure supply of high-quality, health-promoting food and an interesting and varied diet. Will this help deal with the many health problems emanating from malnutrition [it is not only a lack of calories]?

Hence, Ireland needs a twin-track strategy; one for the agri-food sector and one to support the evolution of a high-value, premium-foods sector. The latter should aim to enhance farm-gate prices, improve farm incomes, create rural, food-related employment, and provide a diverse offering of foods for those who wish to return to a ‘keep-it-simple’, locally-sourced diet.

Yes, Ireland now has a strategy to address obesity and its consequential illnesses, but should it 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. Ambitiously, the agri-food strategy needs to be written in the context of improving the people’s diet and, consequentially, their health.

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.

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.

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