When Agri-Food does not mean Farming & Food

This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com in February 2018

Too often, in our days of long supply-chains and dominant trading positions held by those active outside the farm-gate, the return linkages are forgotten.

Agri-food is a much-used word in Ireland. It is one that I have been using for years to highlight the connection between farming and food. In my formative years, studying and teaching at Wye College, the University of London, the farming industry was at a point where those in the know were telling us that farmers needed to become much more market aware. It was about becoming market led as opposed to supply driven; the years of the latter were over, and farmers needed to know about consumer demands and to produce the food for specific consumer-product markets.

When I started my blog about whatever I was researching at the time relating to Irish farming and food, I felt that ‘agri-food’ was an appropriate term. It acquired the tail, ‘solutions’ because I never like to be in a position where I cannot find a positive way forwards, regardless of how difficult the problem may be. Hence, my blog became ‘Agri-food Solutions’.

Nonetheless, as I became to fully appreciate that ‘agri-food’ in Ireland very much relates to the workings of the ‘agri-food’ industrial complex that operates beyond the farm-gate, I rather regretted having chosen the term. Frankly, agri-food solely relates to the processors and exporters of foods. And they often treat farm produce as little more than raw materials, albeit they require that they are quality-assured. It sometimes also uses to import raw materials to create, often innovative, food products. Rarely, however, are the products based upon specific farming practices that can generate a premium price for the farmer. Sadly, it appears that ‘agri-food’ is more about the generation of profits and rewards within the supply chain than enhancing the farm-gate price.

Too often, my own feedback suggests that far from the supply-chains being built on close partnerships with farmers, they operate with antagonistic relationships. At best, it is not a positive position, at worst it is dysfunctional state of affairs. Simply, one wonders how Ireland’s small-scale, family-owned farms can create a promising future for themselves when such exists. It is a position that must change; a common enough theme within my own writings.

From farm-to-fork

We are accustomed to the phrase ‘from farm to fork’; it is about consumers and those within the food chain knowing where food comes from. It is an interest and concern that will not dwindle over time. The farmer, the primary link in the chain, has increasingly been required to assure the consumer, the retailer and the processor, that all is in order. It is verified so. Our food is traceable from field to consumer. Due diligence has been completed. And Ireland has been highly successful at implementing such national assurance schemes. But has all this certification created a system that works for all? Have we created an end-to-end supply-chain rather than a functioning circle?

Too often, in our days of long supply-chains and dominant trading positions held by those active outside the farm-gate, the return linkages are forgotten. The circle is not complete, so the rewards do not find their way back to the farmer. Frequently they are excluded from the value-added within the chain. Regularly the system precludes them from adding value to their own produce. And at times, and importantly, the consumer to farmer, market-research loop fails to function. Localization of our food systems will help, but at all levels, we need to close the circle. We must think ‘from farm to fork to farmer’; it is the key to the future viability of ‘family farming’ where ever it is found.

I, therefore, started 2018 with a ‘rebadging’ of my own Blog. The original Agrifood Solutions blog, with its 100 posts and access to half-a-million words of my writings, is still online here, but I have now decided to adopt a title that more clearly represents my own position. Thus ‘Farm to fork to farmer’ now presents my musings about how to close the circle and, thus, to improve the farmer’s lot. It also archives my published articles. It can be accessed here.

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