Dear Mr Hogan,
One applauds your intention to create a fairer food supply-chain for the farmer and the consumer. But can this really be achieved through regulation? With a food industry dominated by major corporations, can regulation bring about change within a meaningful timeframe?
Is the situation worse in Ireland than elsewhere in the EU? We have polarization in both retailing and processing. And further processing consolidation is still seen as desirable by some.
Regulation must be about enhancing competition. Also, it is not only about providing lower-cost foods to the consumer; that has often been achieved but to the detriment of farm income. We do need a fairer food system that works for all.
For farmers, it is about more competition, both above and below their position in the food supply chain. Will regulation alone create this? Or do we need to proactively facilitate it?
It will take years for regulation to rebalance our food systems; those within it are just too powerful. So let us create route-to-market options for the farmer [and for the consumer to link to the farmer]. These can be simple and we need to believe that oaks do grow from acorns.
Small, local initiatives can make a difference; not least when localization is a rising issue for consumers. To local can add provenance, diversity, healthy, less-processed, and ecologically-, environmentally- and climate-friendly. Local foods linked to the land and processed within the rural community can tick these boxes.
We need to see food production in terms of enhancing the rural economy, premiumizing the farm-gate price and improving farm business and farming household incomes.
Does this require vast EU expenditure to do this? It is not like spending fortunes on, for example, re-balancing a milk market that was distorted by poor market knowledge, the creation of and contract price-linkages to a ‘global’ commodity market and over-investment in industrial milk processing?
We need to think local, not least to improve the flow of market information between consumer and farmer. Farmers need to operate in a more market-information-rich environment. We need more competition and competition needs effective information transmission. What better way to achieve this than by returning to short supply-chains and improved linkages between farmer, local processor and consumer?
For the farmer, a fairer supply-chain is about the competition that comes from having access to multiple routes to market. Preferably, they will have some control over them. For the consumer, it is about having access to a diversity of products. more purchasing options and the ability to directly influence how their food is produced. It should be a win-win scenario.
It was good to read that Minister Creed is talking about replicating the English Market in Cork. Such an initiative would be positive but it needs to be remembered that local and artisan is not just about providing for tourists and the wealthy; it needs to also be about providing everyday foods to the general populace.
What do we need to do? We should provide grants for local/on-farm processing and route-to-market initiatives like community-located packing. We should support small-scale retail. On farm, we should be thinking about poultry tunnels and pig arks, fruit trees and bushes and integrating livestock with trees. We should be grant-aiding the growing of vegetables year around and supporting farmers to use breeds, varieties and farming systems that transmit through to a diversity of flavours and eating experiences. And all this should be done within the context of creating a strong and alternative marketing story?
This is about alternative and multiple income sources for farms and rural communities. It is about creating new routes to market. It is about stimulating competition; however limited that may first appear. It also needs to be done within a designated-origin framework that can allow up-scaling to supply wider and larger markets. It needs imagination but it is possible.
Crucially, we need to ensure that the regulatory and bureaucratic environment supports and does not hinder [including from a cost perspective] smaller-scale, food-chain initiatives. It is reputed that bureaucracy and regulation have killed off many route-to-market entities in Ireland and, ultimately, that was not in the interests of the primary producer, local processor or consumer. The Government should be obligated to reverse this situation.
As I said, this is about simple solutions. We do not need massive EU and government expenditure to create what is necessary. It is not about heavily regulating the major players within the supply-chain, it is about creating options for the farmer and consumer. It is, nevertheless, about ensuring that they are unhindered by unfair practices and it is about using the tax payer’s [the consumer] money to support the small changes from which large ones may grow.
Here is to wishing us all something different for 2017.
Stuart M. Meikle