A soils-first food and farming policy

Food production must account for climate-change and GHG’s, provide good nutrition, ever-improve animal welfare, minimize pollution, enhance biodiversity, reward farmers and rural communities, and, too rarely mentioned, restore and maintain soil health and fertility. But it is only through the latter that we can link everything else together to create a truly sustainable food system.

If there is a universal panacea for our food systems, it lies within the way we now go about restoring the health and productivity of our soils. By saying such one could however be guilty, as is often the case, of allowing a single issue to dominate, whereas identifying a sustainable food system, differing as they must region by region, is a complex process that requires the joining of numerous dots across a broad canvas. Focus on one issue alone and consequences happen elsewhere. Nonetheless, as one looks at soil regeneration, the solutions for many of our other problems emerge.

Click on the link below to read more [downloadable pdf]

A soils-focused food and farming policy

The paper was first published on the http://www.ARC2020.eu website.



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.


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.


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

To quote the Woodland Trust on the 7th January 2018, “We’re thrilled to announce that… we plan to create an exciting new Northern Forest”. No, despite some local communities thinking otherwise, this does not relate to any unofficial plans for Counties Leitrim, Cavan, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo but a project that “will embrace the major cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Chester and Hull as well as major towns across the north [of England]”.

One assumes that as the Northern Forest will “deliver major environmental, social and economic benefits that complement the significant growth, investment and new infrastructure that is planned for the north of England” that it will be broadly welcomed by the region’s communities. The Trust goes on to say that “It will deliver a better environment for all by: improving air quality in our towns and cities; mitigating flood risk in key catchments; supporting the rural economy through tourism, recreation and timber production; connecting people with nature; and helping to deliver improvements to health and wellbeing through welcoming and accessible local green spaces”.

In contrast, two Irish MEPs, Marian Harkin and Mairead McGuinness have been visiting localities in the north of the Republic who are seriously concerned that their communities are disappearing into newly planted tracts of commercial softwood forestry. It is a situation that is only likely to get worse as more planting is encouraged to help meet GHG emission targets. And that planting will happen where economic values of land are lowest and where alternative land uses cannot compete.

One would imagine that the environmental lobby would be happy to see more tree planting but no they are fickler than that. Apparently, they like monocultured conifer plantations only a tad less than Ireland’s failure to halt rising GHG emissions. Frankly, conifer plantings are a pretty blunt instrument to address GHG emissions with, but they are indicative of Ireland’s response to climate change.

Extensive, typically suckler beef, has been identified as the sacrificial cow with respect to land use change. She is an easy target when you do not account for the carbon sequestration side of her grazing. As we move into an era of fines linked to GHG emissions, the economic output of land using activities will become an increasingly important factor [and one that over-rides the ‘we have low GHG per unit of food’ argument] and that will focus more attention onto extensive beef production. Complicating the scenario is, nonetheless, how do you value the role of cattle in managing our landscapes and preserving/enhancing the biodiversity that they encapsulated within them?

Simply, conifer plantations are a poor-quality, knee-jerk reaction to Ireland’s GHG situation. It is one that avoids looking too closely at the sacred cow. One has also heard the plantings being justified on the basis that Ireland has a natural advantage when it comes to producing softwoods, because they grow fast. That high-quality softwoods come from much higher northern latitudes where land values are low, and thus where trees can be grown very slowly, is a fact that seems to have slipped under the radar. Unless cheap is a primary motive, you buy Scandinavian or Siberian.

A common complaint from those in the way of the New Irish Northern Forest is that commercial plantings are competing for agricultural land with local farmers who are trying to grow their businesses. The blunt response is, of course, to say that it is simple economics, if they cannot pay the asking price they cannot access the land. It is a line that is not going down well with local communities who see farming as the fundamental centre of their existence. As that is the case and with such at stake, this debate needs to move up a level or two.

As an aside, are we fully exploring the agroforestry options? Although most land will not be well suited, should we be planting fruit and nuts, either as orchards or integrated with livestock systems? If GHG mitigation is crucial, maybe we should again be planting fruit on the best land, rather than keeping cows to produce milk for milk powder for export to whoever can be found to buy it. Maybe Irish folk would appreciate the chance to buy a more diversified range of local produce? And then we should be looking at how we can integrate forestry with extensive meat production.

There is, of course, a fundamental weakness when it comes to producing more specialized food products either on valuable landscapes or within agro-forestry systems, and that is the lack of routes to markets for such produce. If all farm produce is reduced to a commodity by the supply-chains, whether it exits the farm gate as premium or not, what chance is there to obtain a market-derived, premium price? The fact that food processing seems to be excluded from rural development funding programmes, only makes this serious shortfall situation worse.

Irish farmers on tough terrain need to be producing valuable produce, period. Their local communities need to be able to process, enhance and add value to that produce. It is the systemic extraction of the very raw materials that local communities need to be processing that is destroying rural Ireland, albeit that those communities on the marginal lands are going first. It is nothing new and it is happening in upland and marginal regions everywhere. Whether one chooses to address the problem head on or not is another matter.

There is an on-going, probably deepening, rural crisis that can only be addressed through highly coherent, economic and environmentally-focused rural development planning that has farming and food at its centre. It is not happening. It is a policy failure that needs to be called out. Instead we are choosing to sweep many Irish communities under a carpet of conifers. There must be room for more trees, for more woodlands, even forests, but they must coexist with thriving rural communities.