This post first appeared online at on the 17th August 2017

Stephen Carr wrote an interesting article in the Farmers’ Weekly concerning the future of beef in the UK. Those involved in beef farming policy making in Ireland should read it. It may appear to be counter-intuitive but not if you put your ducklings in a line first.

To quote from Friday 28 July 2017’s edition, “In a recent speech to the World Angus Forum, Gavin Hill of Scotland’s Rural College insulted the intelligence of British suckler cow producers by telling them they needed to understand how to calculate their total costs of production”. Strong stuff indeed. I wonder how many Irish suckler beef farmers have had felt similarly?

Stephen goes on to say that “No rational business person would have continued to keep suckler cows since 2005 when beef cattle headage payments were withdrawn… suckler cows have been a financial disaster (I keep 40 pedigree Sussex cows) … Eblex Business Pointers survey has shown consistent losses for suckler cows (often running into hundreds of pounds a cow a year) if unpaid family labour is included in the costings”. So why, then, have suckler cow numbers held up so well given the sector has been losing money for 12 years?

The ‘poor’ performance of the suckler herd is an issue that is being addressed in Ireland with knowledge transfer groups and demonstration farms. It is all about improving ‘efficiency’. It is also not just about farming profitability, it is about our ‘sustainable’ image and reducing GHG emissions; both require ‘improved’ on-farm production performance. And further, policy makers seem determined to replace poor-performing suckler herds with dairy cows and forestry plantations.

Poorly performing, unprofitable and just plain unwanted. So why do suckler farmers continue?

Let us first look at the decision making behind so many suckler farms, and Ireland indeed has many. To do so, one should mention that one has two broad groups; those that are part time and those who see keeping suckler cows as their full-time occupation and primary income source. The time that the farmer can or is willing to commit to keeping cows is a major but much under-appreciated factor when it comes to the way the farm is operated. That needs to change.

A flaw in Irish agri-food policy making in recent years has not been starting from an understanding of what the objectives of the primary producer are. It also ignores the key issue of the resources they have available. It has neither been about meeting farmers’ objectives or providing them with an adequate return for the use of their resources. Net result, a dysfunctional agri-food policy.

To return to Stephen’s article; “the key to the numerical stability of the national herd… is the small size of the average UK suckler herd, which remains stuck at 28 cows… The reason for this average low herd size is that a small herd does not require any third-party labour if the farmer and his family are prepared to do the work themselves… a few cows are not going to lose anyone much money in hard cash terms”. Sound familiar? How many Irish suckler farms continue because the owner’s objectives are not firstly about making money?

Basically, there are many who keep suckler cows because they have a passion for farming but work off-farm. It is also a way of managing the family homestead, keeping the land in the family, providing an escape from urban and/or office life and owning it for its amenity value. It is about enjoying these benefits and minimizing the financial losses. It creates a different mindset.

For some these farms are under-performing, be it in a financial, sustainability or emissions context. For the owners, they may be not. The crux of the matter is that their chosen farming ‘model’ does not factor in the labour or, crucially, the management time necessary to improve ‘productivity’ and ‘performance’. Simply, to commit the resources required will mean that the farm fails to meet the owner’s loss-minimization objective. They are successfully unsuccessful.

So how do policy-makers address this conundrum? Obviously forced land transfer is not an option. De facto, the control of the land is in the hands of farmers with their own ideas about what they want. It is what policy-makers must deal with, like it or not. And, to-date, they have largely failed to do so. One can have any number of policy targets but they are unattainable if the decision-makers on the ground operate with a different agenda. It is this agenda that must first be understood.

The key point is that we must design a farming system that works for Irish suckler beef farmers, be they part time or full. And the former’s less monetary goals must not undermine the latter. Most will remain small scale and that means focusing on producing and selling a high-value product. Irish beef farmers have a passion for beef farming and that is an asset that must be utilized. A farm-to-fork beef system must deliver the multiple product characteristics that the modern premium-paying consumer wants and it must convert that premium into an enhanced farm-gate price. Fundamentally, suckler beef farming cannot be about producing high volumes of commodity beef, albeit farm assured, that ends up as mince and meatballs on the shelves of Tesco.

And last, when it comes to policy and the design of support mechanisms for the suckler beef sector, suckler beef farms should also be evaluated in terms of emissions AND carbon sequestration, their role in landscape management and biodiversity enhancement, and their contribution to the social fabric of rural Ireland. They can and should be many things to many people even if, frustratingly for some, they are not just ‘efficient’ and ‘productive’ profit-orientated ventures.

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This post first appeared online at on the 14th August 2017

I have been around long enough to remember the passing of the UK’s Food Safety Act in 1990, it was when I first came across the Defence of Due Diligence. The timing coincided with the rise of the supermarkets and their dominance of the food supply chains and it was easy to recognize that being diligent was going to be a serious activity for those who supplied the nation’s food.

Those who supply food anywhere in our ‘modern’ world must now be able to demonstrate that they have taken all reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of their food and that they have systems in place to demonstrate their diligence. A consequence is that food retailers need to verify their suppliers and processors their sources of raw materials, thus giving rise to quality assurance schemes throughout food and farming. With concerns about resource use and climate change, they now increasingly encompass ‘sustainability’.

These quality assurance schemes must not, however, be confused with premium quality. They are akin to factory-based quality control systems; they ensure the quality of the product, be it aimed at the budget, standard or premium markets. Probably all car manufactures operate QA systems to ensure that their product meets their own determined quality level. With farm assurance, it is about assuring how the product has been produced, be it of a budget, standard or premium quality.

Quality assurance schemes have become a part of Irish farming. It is difficult to sell animals for meat that do not come from quality-assured farms and milk processors are now demanding that their milk supplies are quality assured. For all but those farmers who process their own milk or have niche markets for their meat animals, de facto, being quality-assured is now obligatory. Such nationwide schemes are powerful market-access tools for Ireland’s food sector but they are just that, market-access tools. It is a misnomer to believe that they will deliver a premium farm-gate price.

The achievement of the QA schemes is that they provide near industry-wide farm-assurance for Irish produce. The question is, do they deliver a wholesale rise in farm-gate price across the industry? Do they enhance the value of Irish produce overseas? Scrutinizing the position of Irish beef in the UK market should provide an answer. My own observations are that they only allow retailers to sell farm-assured, due-diligence-box-ticking products in their standard and budget ranges. The QA schemes do not appear to be providing access to the top shelves.

In the beef sector, the breed schemes do provide another differentiator beyond the standard farm assurance QA schemes. But just how effective are they at delivering a significant farm-gate price premium? Angus is now a global brand, probably more so than Hereford, and it is being developed large-scale in places as far afield as Russia and New Zealand. There is, however, an Achille’s heel with the breed schemes, they have no volume control because of their sire-only requirement. In other words, conformation notwithstanding, any old cow and a straw can, in theory, produce another beef-scheme animal. With no limitation on supply, simple economics means ‘success’ will increase supply and erode any existing farm-gate premium down to a break-even price.

The QA schemes may, however, yet prove invaluable, albeit by accident rather than design, with Brexit looming. One does not expect UK supermarkets and food-service providers to change their position in terms of requiring farm-assured products and Ireland will remain well positioned with that regard, not least because of locality. It is, however, not a laurel we can sit upon for long.

The QA schemes are a success, albeit a limited one. Ireland can deliver farm-assured produce to the corporate players in the supply chain, be they retailers, in food service, or processors. On an industry-wide basis Ireland has been a first-mover, but first-mover advantage only remains for the duration it takes others to follow, and they will. Beyond that, what makes Irish produce unique? Yes, there is a value in ‘Irish’ but that only has real value when accompanied by other characteristics.

Simply, we need to be developing new, more in-depth, quality-assurance schemes that are firmly linked to farming practices that the consumer recognizes as imparting quality, be it eating or otherwise. Their development needs to be farmer driven and farmer owned. The products produced and labelled under these schemes then need to be delivered to the market by supply-chains that the farmer can influence to the degree that they deliver a fair return to the farmer-producer. Only then will quality-assurance deliver the market-derived returns that small-scale, Irish farmers need.

Meanwhile, quality assurance as we know it provides a defence of due-diligence for Ireland’s high-throughput-focused processors; but something more is needed to enhance the economic future of the Irish farming family. Quality assurance does provide a foundation stone for enhancing farm-gate prices, but only that. It comes with a cost and it is a cost that many farmers do not easily recognize the benefit of. Much more needs to be done but one sees little sign of it happening, not least because those who should be striving for more do not seem to realize that they have only just begun the process. Quality-assurance schemes can revolutionize the future of Irish farming but there needs to be changes beyond the farm-gate for that to happen. So, when do we start?

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This post first appeared online at on the 11th August 2017

In a press release this week the ICMSA expressed their disappointment that the Irish milk prices is only 14th in the EU milk price league. They said that there was no logical explanation for the continuing price gap.

There is no question that the ICMSA should be lobbying hard for a better farm-gate milk price. It is what they are there for. It is also sad that in a country where the co-operative ownership of the milk processing sector is held up as an industry strength, a major farmer-representation body feels it is necessary to take the processors to task for not transferring milk market price improvements through to the farmer. Are they suggesting that there is some skulduggery around? Or is the problem that the Irish dairy product mix is such that it can only support a sub-EU-average price?

One should also add that it was only a few days ago that Ireland was shown to have the lowest 2016 milk price of any major milk producer globally! Given the Irish industry’s global aspiration, that should be of much greater concern, not least as it showed a significant price differential between Fonterra and Ireland’s main cooperatives. With NZ, there is at least some milk-production system equivalence, even if NZ dairy farms are multiples bigger than those in Ireland.

An Italian milk processor topped the second league table. Just how different is their product mix? It is almost certainly consumer-product orientated and targeted at supplying consumers all year. They have a significant proportion of fresh products within their range and their longer-life products include Galati and designated-origin Parmigiano Reggiano. Hence, they operate what I would describe as the European model; dairy farming and milk processing that supplies 400 million plus EU consumers with mainly fresh dairy products. Of course, it means farmers are needed to supply milk all year and, typically, prices are set accordingly.

As a note to the above, one can ask why did the dairy price crash occur across Europe? A part of my own rational is that some European processors had begun to use the GDT ‘global’ price within their general milk contracts even though the GDT is more about longer-life dairy commodities. Thus, when that commodity price collapsed with China’s withdrawal from the milk powder markets and oil price falls affecting other significant markets, the pricing mechanisms created contagion from commodity markets to fresh/consumer product markets. Thus, over-supply of ‘low-cost’ milk aimed at the milk-powder market impacted the wider markets. It left unnecessary devastation across swathes of the EU dairy farming sector and the European Commission to pick up a large market stabilization bill.

Hence, to a degree, therein lies the explanation for EU milk market price differentials. Simply all milk is not equal. It is about much more than milk solids, it is about the final product and the price paid for it. A fair transmission of that price through the processing activity should then determine the farm-gate price offered and that, in turn must and should reflect the resources needed to supply that processor. Of course, if that mechanism does not work over the longer term, the processor will have no milk and the market no product. Therefore, if the price gap is due to differences between the Irish and European product mixes, is it a realistic expectation that milk prices should be equal?

In determining what is a fair farm-gate price, we should also look at supply-chain efficiency, its ownership, and the degree of control farmers need to ensure that a fair proportion of the retail price earned is passed back to the farmer. Dairy product supply-chain components cannot be looked at independently, which I fear they have in Ireland, as long-term success and whole-industry, economic sustainability can only be achieved if all parts of the supply-chain make financial sense to those who invest in them. An effective and efficient supply-chain should also impact upon the milk price.

I frequently read comments from Prof. Keith Woodford in New Zealand about how their seasonal milk production model is inhibiting their development of higher-value products. He, like myself, certainly believes that as markets like China evolve, rising consumer incomes will allow consumer demand to move away from the basics like milk powder and into higher-value products. They will often be fresher in nature and their production will stimulate the need for all-year milk supply. It is unfortunate that Ireland has come to the milk-powder party late, possibly too late, and has been investing in a product range that is the one that New Zealand is trying to leave behind.

To hear that there is still talk in Ireland of more driers to meet growing production [itself partly driven by farmers scaling up to try to compensate for low milk prices] is, to put it politely, surprising. It is this investment strategy that ICMSA should be challenging because if it and, frankly, the wider Irish milk model is not challenged they will be complaining about the farm-gate milk price in Ireland for very many years to come. And if so, their failure to comprehend current milk pricing and the signals that it is sending, will mean long-term consequences for their members that will not reflect either their hard work or their recent investments.

Hence, to provide this with a concise conclusion, the most important message to comprehend from the EU and global milk price gaps is that it is time for a serious Irish dairy-sector, strategic re-think.




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This post first appeared online at on the 9th August 2017

So, Lidl provided That’s Farming with a positive response to recent queries about the origins of some pork found upon its shelves. To quote; “We have investigated your query. This is due to the changeover of back bacon from EU origin to Irish Bord Bia approved product. The EU origin joint was supplied into Lidl until a couple of weeks ago… This is part of our ongoing push towards stocking more produce from local suppliers”. Grand, a success for farming’s journalistic fraternity.

One has also noted that the IFA is on the ball, instigating DNA testing of pork on Irish shelves to ensure that the country of origin labelling is accurate and that the Irish consumer is not being misled. Bord Bia has also long since been promoting its product-of-Ireland farm-assurance label.

Now this is fine but I have a small concern over the effort being put into selling Irish to the Irish.

Ireland is only a market the size of England’s south-east counties of Kent, Surrey and Sussex and Irish farming needs to export. True with pork, the domestic market is more important, but with, say, beef how much effort is being expended on promoting Irish beef in a market that accounts for only around 10% of Irish production? Cost-benefit analysis anyone?

While recognizing that the Irish consumer must be able to buy Irish origin produce with 100% confidence, is there also a slight whiff of a red herring around?

Is ‘Irish’ a characteristic that is exploitable to the extent that it can enhance the farm-gate price?

Ireland does have a positive international image and it is good news that the term Irish grass-fed beef has been accepted for use in the USA by the USDA. How is this going to deliver for the farmer? Are the processors going to develop the product so that any market-derived premium is going to be passed back to beef farmers who supply them with accredited beef; or is the beef just going to be sourced from the general pool of beef produced in Ireland to a loose definition of ‘grass-fed’?

The presence of Irish in its primary export market, the UK is also far too weak. Premium prices do not come from occupying the standard and value lines of only three UK supermarkets. It must be farm-assured and Irish is on the label but that does not reflect the quality that most Irish farmers consider to be what they load onto the wagon heading for the factory.

And one must also recognize that when it comes to country of origin labelling, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Lidl also operates a UK-only sourcing policy. Most UK supermarkets do when it comes to, especially, beef. Little Red Tractor operates successfully, not to mention Scottish, Welsh and West Country designated-origin schemes.

Personally, going forwards, I only expect the UK to develop more products that are of UK origin but which also encompass far more characteristics than geographic origin alone. France and Italy have been particularly good at it for years and others are catching on fast. A look at the list of EU registered designated-origin schemes does, however, tell a story. In numeric terms, Italy, France and then Spain are well ahead and others are catching on. In contrast Ireland, with all its food-island aspirations, sits alongside that renown EU food producer, Luxembourg. With all due respect to the latter, that is not where Ireland should be.

So, this is not so much about fake foods; the issue that should be concerning Irish farmers is how are they going to get paid a premium price if what they grow and rear is not going into premium-priced food products? The markets for such are evolving and farmers and processors elsewhere are working to develop farming systems and their derived products with the characteristics that premium-paying consumers want. Yes, geographic origin is important but it is only one single characteristic among several. It is a ball-game that Ireland, with its economy-of-scale-lacking family farms must get involved with but to do so it must produce genuine, multi-character, traceable products. When it does, we will then reach that grand day when we are worrying about how to stop others selling fake versions of market-topping Irish products on the World’s food markets.







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This post first appeared online at on the 7th August 2017

And “the great majority due to agricultural and industrial pollution. Meat consumption is growing fast, encouraged by low prices that do not reflect the true costs… if the costs of pollution, habitat destruction, losses to fisheries and tourism, climate change and impacts on human health were fully accounted for, meat would be a luxury food.” An extract from the Guardian of 4th August 2017.

Now I can almost hear the groans, yet more ‘farmer-bashing’. But is it? Is it too easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to this, or should we be taking a pause and looking a little deeper and thinking about it?

Yes, it highlights meat production again and that is a cornerstone of Ireland’s farming industry. Focusing on cattle has become standard practice when raising environmental and climate change issues, but this is about much more than methane from cattle. Cattle-bashing is a common viewpoint that ignores the vast use of soybeans for poultry, pigs and direct human consumption. The cattle-are-bad dictum also ignores the role of grazing ruminants in carbon sequestration and soil restoration; the latter something that is urgently required due to over-exploitation of tillage lands for plant production, only a proportion of which are used for animal feeds; the rest goes for human consumption and biofuels. It also misses the connection between sourcing high-quality foods from correctly-biodiverse, forage-based farming and a rapidly expanding alternative to animal-derived-products food-stuff, namely palm oil, that also comes with a significant side-dish of externalities.

So yes, the issue is complex and it is far too easy to point the finger at farmers. It is also easy to respond along the lines of ‘people must eat and farmers provide food for 7 billion people and to do so means externalities’. Far better that we encourage people to take the time to understand the multitude of farming systems that exist on our Planet. Some are climatically and resource-using benign and some can even be argued as positive for the environment. Yes, some farmers are striving to create the perpetual-motion answer to food production. They need to be recognized and supported and helped to feed the growing human population. Is there an alternative?

Farmers are feeding the issues-aware campaigners. They consider that in return many environmental and animal welfare lobbyists are not giving them a fair hearing while they feed the very mouths that criticise them. Yes, it is easy to focus on the headline and the soundbite, to promote the sensational and to use industry-tarring advertising. Yes, it may raise awareness of an issue, but is it really being supportive of those who are trying to develop the necessary food-producing alternatives. Strangely enough, very many farmers are also aware of the issue and quietly trying to revolutionize the food system to address them but just how much support are they being given, by anyone?

It is also easy to overlook the fact that very many farmers are themselves victims of what is happening. Just to what degree are rural dead zones being created by the industrialisation of our food systems? The marine dead zones are a major externality of society’s desire for cheap agricultural products [I am not going to say meat as it extends to plant-based products and biofuels] but so are the social costs being inflicted upon our rural communities. Family farms have been driven to the wall by industrial agriculture’s mega ‘farms’ and rural economies have been decimated by the centralization of food processing; they literally have their raw materials extracted from them and processed elsewhere, it is more ‘efficient’ and ‘profitable’. And if that sounds familiar, yes, it is an agri-food strategy that is contributing to Ireland’s very own rural dead zones.

When one looks at family farms in Ireland and family-farm household incomes and the need to subsidize them from public and off-farm sources, one fears for their future. Production expansion is touted as one answer. Efficiency gains are another. The truth is, however, that the system chosen and the products it produces are not the ones that can deliver the needed farm-gate price to sustain family farms. The mantra is that they should get bigger. Fine, but that means less farms and fewer family farms. Simply, Ireland is chasing an industrialized agricultural model that is wholly unsuitable to the needs of its farmers and its rural communities. So even before we respond to the wider questions raised by activists, are we being too passive about a food system that some are advocating for Ireland even though, so far, it seems to only benefit a few?

I have no doubt that there are solutions being developed to create a truly sustainable food system. It is, nevertheless, being done on the periphery of the industry. It is being farmer driven and by farmers who are extremely environmentally aware, technically highly competent and personally motivated. Their ideas are, nonetheless, often in conflict with those of the agri-industrialists, possibly to the degree that their actions are as great a threat to the agri-industrial complex’s future profit streams as the actions of the World’s eco-warriors. The sad point is that there are many farmers around who are being alienated by an ‘anti-farming’ lobby that needs to be far more selective. The lobbyists need to do a wee U-turn and they need to start actively and TANGIBLY supporting farmers who, like themselves, are seeking to drive change.

As I repeatedly say, there are farmers and ‘green’ lobbyists out there who need to become allies, as strange as that may seem, because, if they do not, our planet will just become one single dead zone.


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This post first appeared online at on the 4th August 2017

So, this week it is Dutch and Belgian eggs, allegedly contaminated by farmers using veterinary products created by mixing one insecticide with an illegal other. From the Guardian’s report: “Millions of eggs are being recalled from shops and warehouses in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium after they were found to contain high levels of a toxic insecticide banned from use in the production of food for human consumption… a criminal investigation has been launched as authorities seek to get a grip on the scale of the problem”.

A consequence will be to energize discussion about what our food production industry should look like. Should it be small and ‘family-sized’ or should it be big and ‘industrial’? It will probably fuel the debate although, in this case, it appears to be about the supply of a contaminated veterinary product that could, probably, be employed on farms be they small or large. It may be a one off, but as with the melamine contamination scandal in China, or the closer-to-home, horse-gate scandal, the repercussions can be highly significant and long lasting. By its nature, maybe this one will be debate-fuelling as opposed to driving immediate change within the market and the industry.

Such an occurrence also raises the question of just how valuable farm assurance schemes are. One can keep their veterinary products safely lock away, books in order, cat wormed, but the contents of the secured medicine bottles themselves relies on the integrity of the manufacturer. And if that fails, the scheme offers little protection in an affected market and to the income of the quality-assured farmer. Food scandals frighten the consumer and a few criminals may eventually pay via the Courts, but the main sufferer is most likely to be the innocent farmer, diligently plying her or his trade.

Whether factually based or not, this will most likely be gist to the mill of those who believe that factory farms should be a consigned to the history books that record the years either side of the Millennium. If it transpires that the enhancement of the original medicament happened because of a decline in insecticide efficacy that is traceable to profligate use on intensively-stocked poultry farms, then maybe they will have a sound case. Regardless of one’s animal-welfare viewpoint, there must be concerns for the efficacy of our chemical weaponry resulting from over-use and especially so when it comes to the prophylactic use of antibiotics. In this case, however, for the moment, the jury is out.

A further question that will be raised is, are short or long supply-chains better? With horse-gate it became evident that globalization made traceability difficult. Multiple supply sources also offered opportunity to meddle. Again, this Dutch case sounds like the veterinary product could have equally have found its way onto 10,000 smaller farms or 1,000 bigger ones. Maybe in this case, industrial scale will make traceability and containment easier but, further down the road, will the consumer look at it so? It is trust issue, and where will they place their trust, in the multinational or in the local, down-the-road-farmer? This week’s scandal is likely to only further define consumer preferences about whom they should trust to provide their food; albeit that their actual food purchases will still be dictated by their own household food budgets.

As to the bigger picture, for many modern-day consumers, the scale of Irish family farms hovers around the ideal. They are of a ‘human-scale’ that they can associate with. It should be the basis for any number of Irish brands. And they should be brands that also encompass ‘ethical’ characteristics like ‘free-range’, ‘soil-conserving’ and ‘biodiversity-enhancing’. They are brands that should offer the complete package. Of course, the conundrum for the farmer is how to compensate for lost-scale with an enhanced price and small-scale with reaching distant markets, but they are riddles that should be solvable if the will and government support is in place to help. And, not forgetting, the willingness and desire exists to change. But, at least for now, others continue to help the cause, albeit through their frequent, miscreant, food-scandal-creating activities as such food scandals do create opportunities; if one sees them for what they are and grasps them as they go by.

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This post first appeared online at on the 1st August 2017

Last week an Irish environment lobbyist had the audacity to ‘call out’ Ireland on the country’s Green House Gas reduction performance. Of course, as Ireland’s economy is so dominated by agriculture, the GHG emissions from farming swiftly came to the fore. The country’s on-going dairy expansion is going to flatline emissions and failure-to-meet-targets fines are now looming large.

So, what is the response? Well as we all know it was downright unpatriotic and it was just another example of the anti-farmer, farmer-bashing that some Irish environmental NGOs indulge in. We could do without them and their critical words. We as a farming industry should be left to get on with producing relatively low GHG emissions per unit foods without being inhibited by rules imposed by others. Or should we be asking why the criticism and can we justify the fines to a tax payer who already supports the industry to the tune of €1.5 billion per year?

GHG emissions is, nevertheless, only one issue in a dynamic, troublesome environment. It is not just about emissions; it is about nitrates and the use of finite fossil fuel resources to create artificial nitrogen. It is also about the growing resistance to antibiotics, fungicides, herbicides and wormers, with the former likely to have a massive influence on human health care. It is about the loss of farmland biodiversity. And very close to home, it is about the comparatively poor farm-gate milk price and the weak competition in the meat-processing sector and, hence, the sad state of farm incomes.

On too many fronts, the Irish model is not working and it appears that it requires an environmental lobbyist to say so. My own response was to send him a message and to ask him to elaborate a vision of how the Irish family farm is to create a future for itself given the numerous issues it faces. If he takes up the cudgel, I expect that he will conjure up a vision for Irish family farming that is better than the one that most farm lobby groups are putting forwards! And no, I am not naive.

That may shock readers, but I am finding that many issues-aware lobbyists have a strong belief in the importance of smaller-scale farming and family farming. And that happens to be the farming structure that Irish farming still has. It may be that, if push came to shove, we would get a vision that does put the viability of the family farm first and that would be long overdue. It would be a welcome change to official strategies where farm incomes have been an afterthought. I for one would be happy to assist in developing an environmentally-aware, family-farm-first, agri-food policy.

I pride myself with keeping at the forefront of the evolving issues around food and farming and I am afraid that too little change is occurring in Ireland, period. As I have said frequently, there is far too great a propensity for farming’s leadership to stick their collective heads in the sand. Apparently, they have two roles; the first is to promote the status quo and to forestall any demands for change, and the second is to lobby Dublin and Brussels for taxpayer funds to mitigate the consequences of the first. It is a very worrying approach in today’s dynamic food and farming world.

Although some may consider my views to be as welcome as meeting the Grim Reaper on a moonless night, I am very upbeat about the future of farming. It is an industry whose role is to feed a growing population while mitigating climate change. And there will be a grand future for those who adapt and change to meet these twin demands. The next two or three decades will be full of opportunities, but only if we recognize our current failings first. And too often, I do not see that happening.

At present, there are too many willing to sit on the laurels of a few indicators that say that Ireland produces low GHG per unit foods. What should be of real concern is that the value of that output per unit of GHG emissions is the lowest in the EU. It is about a quarter of Italy’s! If one is thinking of fines and farm incomes that should be ringing the alarm bells. Sadly, just to refer to such is farmer-bashing again; a rather perverse response when it highlights the farm-income issue.

Where I become truly concerned is when I look at the role of cattle going forwards. It is not just about cattle as suppliers of food. The eat-less-but-better campaign is very much focused on animal-derived foods and especially those from cattle. Those products will, however, become differentiated by their production systems and the nutritional properties of the foods created. This is a plus for Ireland, but only if it can adapt its grass-fed systems to ones that are not dependent on nitrogen and are built upon and enhance greater farmland biodiversity. For the Irish family farm, it is then about having a supply-chain that transfers the rewards from change to the farmer.

On a broader note, we must not assume that cattle production in a wet, maritime climate will be the ‘greenest’ option around. It may be. It may also be that cattle become seen as strategically important in the restoration of degraded tillage soils and, hence, the supply of plant-based foods and global food security. If mob-grazing of biodiverse rotational leys in dry climates becomes the norm, it will change the dynamics of cattle farming, its environmental credentials, its value to society and the markets for livestock products. And we are not just talking about the activities of a few now seen as eccentric farmers, we are talking about major changes upon massive land areas. It will be a farming system change whose impact will knock-on to others. Where then for an Irish farming industry that has not prepared for such an event?



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This post first appeared online at on the 3rd July 2017

One can hear the first post-election murmurings about British farming policy after Brexit and one can see that it is going to be about appealing to the highly urban British electorate and the interests of, for want of a better term, agri-business.

Britain is going to raise the standard of its foods whilst producing more. It is about protecting the environment and having less regulation. There will be free-trade agreements whilst not joining a race to the bottom on food standards. It will appeal to the masses and protect the interests of a few. It will be a myriad of finely-balanced juxtapositions!

First up is a moratorium on live exports for (presumably) slaughter. This is only a consolidation of the position already attained by the animal rights movement. It will be popular and it will be an easy political points scorer. Will it even have much impact upon the British livestock farmer?

Will the British farmer, nonetheless, insist that such a no-live-export standard is imposed upon countries that sell into the British market? Probably not in the context of a formal trade agreement as compromises will be reached here, there and everywhere and this will be one. Others will be found to facilitate the signing of trade agreements. In simplistic terms, this will mean that the UK market will be open to, for example, hormone-reared beef from the USA. But will it?

There is the assumption that allowing means happening. Such imports may happen but will they be significant? Nowadays to supply a UK supermarket you almost certainly must be quality-assured. It is not a premium attribute, it is a necessity for market entry. It is why Irish farmers have had to implement pan-industry farm assurance. It costs money and delivers little beyond preserving market access, but it is now a necessity. It is a baseline standard imposed by the food supply-chain.

Free trade does not mean the removal of all market differentiation to the point that only the bottom rung of the ladder exists. Ireland itself has sought to move that bottom rung up a few staves. The QA schemes will stand it in good stead post-Brexit, even if that is only about supplying, as of now, the budget ranges of three major UK supermarkets and the food service sector.

I can see that UK farming and food policy will be about raising UK production standards AND allowing greater market access from outside. The raising of UK standards will relate to all sorts of environmental, food security and animal welfare issues and some will be formalized and others not. The latter will be built into more extensive quality-assurance schemes. The formal will be avoided as it will be difficult to negotiate trade deals, EU accepting, with such standards in place. Hence, it will be about ‘informal’ standards, albeit ones that are tacitly supported by the UK government. It will be about allowing the consumer to choose and, through that choice, supply-chain players imposing the standards themselves. Thus, these will fall outside the scope of new trade-agreements.

I doubt if it will be possible to grow more, sell more and export more whilst standards are raised. Typically, higher quality and higher production are not happy bedfellows. The grow more approach may, ultimately, be sacrificed to the raising of environmental standards and the pursuit of farming systems that the wider populace will accept as truly sustainable. And there may already be too much advocacy power aligned against sustainable intensification for the concept to survive consumer scrutiny as food standards become increasingly defined by consumer perception.

To market liberalists free-trade and allowing comparative advantage to function are ideals. They are also ones that can be met by the export more high-quality British produce line. The cost structure of British farms make competing with global producers difficult so British farmers will be encouraged to adopt higher standards and to export premium, highly-traceable, produce to the rest of the World. At the same time, free-traders will be happy to see basic commodities imported; albeit ones that are produced with baseline farm assurance. It is simple trade theory that can be followed if British producers buy into aggressively raising their own standards in a way that this is clearly understood and supported by British consumers and foreign buyers. UK farmers will supply the higher ends of the domestic and export markets, whilst lower-value commodities are imported into Britain to underpin a lower-cost-foods approach towards a part of the UK population.

So where does this leave Ireland? Does the country wish to be a global player and to compete with, say, Argentina? Or does it wish to compete further up the ladder of market standards? And this is not just about in the UK market, it is about elsewhere as the UK farmer and food producer is clearly going to be pointed at the same premium international markets that Ireland aspires to. Ireland’s first response to Brexit should be to fully comprehend what is happening in the UK and to ensure that it has at least an equivalence of some standards, as it now has through its farm assurance schemes.

It is possible that the UK will raise the food standards bar as it devises a food and farming policy that meets a multitude of objectives. These will impact upon Irish farmers and food producers both in their key UK market and elsewhere. Hence, Ireland needs to understand exactly what is happening in the UK food markets and in how farming and food production and its array of related standards is evolving. Ireland will need to innovate but it will be less about factory-produced products and more about how products reflect rising environmental standards and consumer concerns about farming practices. Ireland needs to be researching all aspects of the food chains, but is it? Or is it going to face a market-knowledge shortfall for which its farmers will pay dearly further down the road?

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This post first appeared online at on the 20th June 2017

So, parts of the Irish farming community have now decided to join the climate change debate. Whether you are a believer of a denier, it was, nonetheless, obvious that it was always going to be a serious issue for Irish farming; more so given the weight that farming has in the Irish economy.

It is astonishing that there has been little engagement in the climate change debate before now. Farming efficiencies have been targeted to reduce the carbon footprint per unit of production, but that was hardly radical. Hence, climate change agreements, targets and penalties now hang, Sword of Damocles like, over the agri-food industry. And it is now rather late to challenge climate-change science as the rationale behind the need to alter farming systems. The time for debate was before and not after agricultural expansion targets were set in stone within Irish agri-food policy?

A broad climate-change consensus is in place so that horse has long since left the stable. It was, however, obvious that Ireland’s much vaunted agri-food strategies were, at best, going to flat line GHG emissions and that should have led to a directional debate several years ago? Not having it has now magnified the problem. As with the agri-food strategies impact upon farm incomes, it appears that ignoring crucial subjects was the favoured, head-in-the-sand, issue-denial approach.

So, is it fair to suggest that there is climate-change denial around? And, if so, should we add this to a list that contains denials about the state of farm incomes and the wider rural economy? And how about the reality of the future of the family farm, are they sustainable without the support of the taxpayer and off-farm employment? Is there also a refusal to accept that a commodity-focus cannot deliver viability for small-by-global-market-supplier-standards farmers? And has the focus on consolidating the processing sector, left farmers with too few options to find more lucrative markets themselves? On the environmental side, what about the decline in farmland birds or the presence of so many green but wildflower-less pastures? Issues denial seems to be rather common.

Despite the emphasis place upon it, climate change is not the only major issue in town. There are others that will impact upon long-term food security. There should be far more debate about the resilience of our later-20th Century food-producing solutions. The efficacy of many are in decline as natural resistance to them builds. Others are too fossil-fuel reliant. It is also possible to suggest that soil degradation and soil health may be a greater threat to food security than climate change itself. But where are the debates on these issues? It is an unhealthy environment where debate is stifled, as it unhappily is in Ireland’s agri-food sector.

The situation is different across the Irish Sea. There the debate about the future of farming and food is typified by the Oxford Farming Conference and the Oxford Real Farming Conference sitting side-by-side. The latter is ‘greener’ and it is questioning the conventions of what has become known as ‘conventional’ agriculture. Its rising prominence is important in highlighting the alternatives.

True, British farmers have the advantage of a large domestic market on their doorstep and, hence, the option of direct sales and making the contact with the consumer that leads to an awareness of what concerns consumers. The direct seller is also often a farmer who wishes to do things differently or who has decided that business sustainability dictates change. Hence, the direct market-place is a fertile ground for alternative ideas. It is helping to bring together farmers and consumers and, funded by those consumers, the various ‘green’ and ‘ethical’ lobbying organisations.

There is engagement between lobbyists and farmers and many lobbying organisations are now putting forward their vision for the future of food, farming, the environment, and rural communities. For Irish farmers who often see environmental lobby groups as an unequivocal threat to their future well-being, it may be a surprise to see that high on many a lobbyist’s agenda is the viability of farming and especially the very family farms that typify Ireland. One would even venture that in the UK the future of family farms is intrinsically linked to support from the ‘green’ and ‘ethical’ lobbies!

Such a conciliatory and positive position between farming and environmental lobbyists must also be reached in Ireland if the country’s traditional family farms are to have a future. There is, however, little sign of the necessary dialogue happening. It is a stand-off that must end soon as there is so much to do and it can only effectively be done together.

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In these are extraordinary political times, we should ask how British farmers will fare.

To begin at the beginning, why was the election called? Was it to strengthen the hand of the British PM in Brussels? Or was the election to enable the eventual passing of the Brexit buck? Was it to allow the PM to say, ‘tough luck, you voted in the General Election for no deal is better than a bad deal and, de facto, you voted for a no-deal exit from the EU’.

One suspects that behind the scenes the numbers were crunched. There was a suggestion aired that more Tory MPs were needed to counterbalance the hard-Brexit cohort of MPs and that more MPs would allow the PM to deliver a ‘softer’ Brexit. I am cynical enough to suggest the opposite, that the soft-Brexit cohort of MPs was sufficient to stymie a no-deal or very hard Brexit. Hence, the question, was this election about internal party numbers and ensuring a hard or no-deal Brexit? And one that the Conservatives could say was mandated by the election?

Well Thursday revealed that British voters did not buy into the no deal is better than a bad deal position. Although other factors came into play, the ‘progressive’ parties message was that ‘Brexit was Brexit’ but it did not have to mean a hard Brexit. And further, no deal was a bad deal and a bad deal is not an option. Did the electorate just spot that a Tory landslide was an open ticket for soft-Brexit Tory MPs to be trodden underfoot as the hard-Brexit wing of the party stampeded the UK out of the EU. And one should add that UKIP’s ballot-box returns suggest that the electorate has also turned its collective back on a UKIP-driven hard Brexit.

After such shenanigans of politicking and such a debacle of an election, an October election should be called. It may delay Brexit negotiations but so be it. As they keep telling us, Brexit is critical to Britain’s future and the UK needs a coherent negotiating position. It did not have one in the run up to this election. Obviously, the political parties need to work out what they are about and, hence, they need time to present a comprehensive vision of Britain outside the EU.

The sound-bite campaign has been an insult to the intelligence of the electorate. Did we have such because the Tory party already new that its own internal balance was taking the UK towards an extreme, no-deal Brexit? Was ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ just an attempt to offer a palatable slogan behind which to hide the reality? Was the slogan to eventually be followed by ‘well we told you no deal was a possibility and you gave us a mandate to leave the EU with no deal’? Maybe some of the electorate worked this out. And maybe others just got the whiff of a rotting rat under the bonnet of that blue campaign bus.

So where does this leave us now on Sunday morning, the 11th of June? The UK is looking a minority government propped up by Northern Ireland’s DUP. The DUP is pro-Brexit but must deal with Northern Ireland’s unique position. A hard Brexit for a Remain population and a hard border are not options for the DUP. Then we have the Scottish Tories. It is their new 12 MPs who are allowing the Tories to hang on. But Scotland voted to remain and the 12’s presence in Westminster will change the ‘internal’ Tory dynamics. The Scottish Tories are already calling for a wider consensus position over Brexit. That will be a lead balloon for the hard-Brexit Tory cohort.

The June election has not clarified the UK’s position over Brexit, far from it. Was it ever even meant to do so? The UK now needs an election campaign with manifestos that clearly present a post-Brexit vision and how that is going to be delivered. Endlessly repeating ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ did not cut it. Will the election happen, probably not as the Tory party will not want it and neither will the Tory hard-Brexit cohort? After all, it is not their fault that the electorate got it wrong.

In all this it is easy to forget that the CAP is the major operational instrument within the EU and that Brexit will have a massive impact upon the farming sector in the UK. Farming and food will also be heavily impacted by the demise of free movement. Neither have mainstream election issues in such an urban country. There are some hard-Brexit supporters who say that Brexit will create a de-regulated Utopia for British farming; one in which they can just ‘grow more, sell more and export more’ but that ignores the realities of food standards for domestic and international trade and the relatively small scale of British farming. And British farmers will not be able to buy sufficient technology to survive post-Brexit, whatever the technology sales-folk might say.

Brexit will mean Brexit but Brexit will mean a negotiated ‘soft Brexit’. Deals will be reached on trade and even free movement. They will have a strong resemblance to what currently exists but they will be repackaged and relabelled. This will, of course, be hard to palate for the hard-Brexit lobby but so be it. It will be an easier Brexit to reach after an election re-run and the installation of a ‘progressive’ government promoting consensus, but do not hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

So, what will Brexit change? What EU instruments will be ‘sacrificed’ to appease hard-Brexiteers? The answer is farming subsidies and the expensive and overly bureaucratic Common Agricultural Policy. Trade and food standards will be about ‘trade’ but who in an urbanized Britain is really going to fight to maintain Britain’s membership of the CAP? It must be the stand-out sacrificial lamb. Hence, most others will get a soft Brexit whilst British farmers will not!

The above should be no surprise as CAP farming subsidies have not been overwhelmingly popular. A major revamp of farming and food policy will also be an easy sell to a growing ‘progressive’ and predominately-urban political class. And the one thing this election has shown is that it is they who are on the ascendency and politicians will have to take a closer note of their views.

One suspects that there is an alignment between those who want a consensus-based soft-Brexit and those who want a radically changed British food and farming policy. Hence, a new repatriated British policy will be ‘green’ and it will be ‘ethical’. Maybe perversely, there appears to be an acceptance that the farming, food, rural and environmental ‘envelop’ should remain similar in financial magnitude to what has been provided via the CAP. That will, nonetheless, be where the similarities end. A soft-Brexit will return British food and farming policy-making back to the UK, but it will lead to very different conclusions. Probably the only certainty in these uncertain times is that British farming needs to prepare for change, regardless of where UK politics goes over the coming months.

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