The following is an extract from the submission I wrote for the public consultation on Food Strategy 2025.
Question – How can the strategy for the agri-food sector be improved for the next decade?
As a follow-on from the paper [Annex A] on the success of Food Harvest 2020 and as a result of the conclusions from the broader review of Food Harvest 2020 [AFS FH2020 Review complete report], the proposal is that a twin-track strategy is required for Ireland’s rural, agricultural and food sectors. This was originally presented within a blog posting as per Annex C.
Upon writing this response, the idea has evolved to create a triple-track strategy as in the following:
1. An overall umbrella strategy for Rural Ireland to include the following sub-strategies to:
a) improve the viability of the Irish family farm primarily by enhancing output value
b) increase value-added food processing on-farm and/or within the rural community
c) create efficient routes-to-market for rural, small-scale, premium-product producers
d) integrate environmental and landscape management practices with farming systems
e) increase non-farming/food income sources for farming and non-farming rural dwellers
2. An overall umbrella agri-food processing sector strategy with the following sub-strategies to:
a) improve the returns from the existing farmer-owned co-operatives to the Irish family farm
b) support those family farms wishing to scale-up to supply processors more efficiently, and
c) an overview [to inform 3c/d] of how private-processors see their own ten-year evolution
3. Farm advisory and research and food-sector technical, marketing and sales sub-strategies for:
a) the advisory and research needs of the Irish family farm in the context of 1a and 2b above
b) the advisory and research needs to develop locally-processed premium food products [1b]
c) creating efficient routes-to-market for rural, small-scale, premium-product producers as 1c
d) the marketing and sales activities needed to support private companies and co-operatives,
and, a specific strategy to support the development and maintenance of;
e) a stand-alone food-technology capability to support private companies and co-operatives
As can be seen 3 is about creating strategies for the government-funded support services to agriculture and the food sector. These should be informed by the strategies developed within 1 and 2. It should be noted that 2c is included as an overview as opposed to a strategy document as it is not the role of government to set strategy for private sector companies. It is about allocating the Government’s funds to support the private sector as and where Government deems it appropriate and it is deemed in the interests of the Irish tax payer and the Irish economy.
The above may appear complex but it has to be viewed in the context of the industry that the strategy is meant to serve. It is far more difficult to attempt to produce a single strategic document for the entire agri-food industry as per Food Harvest 2020. One consequence of which was the inclusion of all and sundry issues but the whole being dominated by the post-2015 milk expansion target and the increase-exports indicator of strategy performance.
In the context of creating strategy, the sub-divisions should allow greater focus to be placed on the issues within a specific sub-sector and the sub-divisions within those. It should also allow more detailed analysis to be made of the economic, marketing and technical issues that will impact upon a particular sector [this contrast to, for example, the background paper to Food Strategy 2025 that provides little about the income situation in the Irish pig, poultry, potato and horticultural sectors other than that as they are near market they much be viable].
Essentially, despite its apparent complexity, the above does presents three strategies.
1. a strategy for rural Ireland that focuses on family farms, local food-processing and rural employment
2. a strategy for agri-food that focuses on the co-operative processing sector and scaling-up farming, and
3. a strategy that focuses on developing the support services to the farming and food-processing industries
Further one would add some thoughts concerning the development of strategy. The first paragraph appears to be the Food Harvest 2020 / Food Strategy 2025 approach. The second gives a step-by-step approach; albeit one that is more suited to the creation of the umbrella and sub-sector strategies discussed above.
Agricultural and agri-food sector strategy
There is a trend at present towards be the committee-of-notables approach to establishing strategy and that their experience can substitute for options analysis. This is then allied to a consultation process with stakeholders whereby all interested parties are able to submit their viewpoint for consideration. In its way it is a laudable approach. If this is, however, where the process ends it can be described as a two-legged milking stool of a methodology. The shortfall is that it does not at first identify realistic options then fully analyse them. It relies too heavily on intuition leading to the best conclusion.
Stuart Meikle has spent several years on agriculture and agri-food sector strategy and has evolved an approach to determining strategy that is a little different. It would be for a small team to (i) outline the alternatives, (ii) obtain a consensus as to the most likely viable possibilities, (iii) undertake technical, resource, market, economic and risk analysis of the options and, (iv) present the results to a committee of the ultimate decision makers. In this way a more informed discussion can be had, constraints fully recognized and considered, specific issues addressed, possible conflicts avoided and a strategy developed that is well founded on research and analysis-derived facts. This is an approach that is as equally applicable to an industry, a sector or a private business.