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.


Does the European Union need more milk?

The following article was published by ARC2020 in March 2018

If one lives in Ireland and commentates on agriculture, a day does not pass without reading about the expansion of Irish dairying. Since the end of the milk quota regime, production growth has been rapid. One would have expected the low prices of 2015 and 2016 to have cooled the ardour, but apparently not. Add in that the Commission had to intervention stockpile milk powder and that much of Irish expansion milk has been dried, one would have expected market signals to have dulled enthusiasm. But no, we hear talk of moving onwards to 10 billion litres very soon. After all, the World population will grow and Africa or China or somebody will buy Irish dairy produce.

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It was back in 2013 that I predicted in the Romanian English-language press that the failure of Brussels and the western EU member states to effectively support the regeneration of rural Romania would lead to the demise of the EU as we know it. My rational was that the arrival of a post-2013 flow of migrants into the UK would tip the balance in a UK referendum on Britain’s EU membership. Given how narrow the vote was, I believe that it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We are now working through the consequences.

After the 2016 referendum result my reaction was that as the consequences of leaving were fully appreciated, the British public would demand a second referendum and that would come down in favour of Remain. Now I do not think that it will be the case, Leave will mean Leave. That said, pragmatism will mean that EU-UK trade will flow freely and so will, by and large, EU and UK citizens.

The reason for my change of mind is because I think that the arch-Leaver, Michael Gove, has hit upon a golden goose when it comes to swaying the British voter. It is a goose that transcends party politics and talks to the many. It is the opportunity to re-write British farming and food policy. The CAP has long been disliked by the UK public as it has been construed as a feather-bed for Range-Rover driving farmers. It may be misunderstood, but £3 billion was a number that they consider large enough to warrant serious consideration. At £50 per head of the UK population, it is not that great and much lower than that paid by the tax payers of its immediate island neighbour. More would have gone to support the CAP’s coffers for payment to farmers outside the UK.

Demonstrating to the British public the positives of leaving the CAP will be driven forwards over the coming months, and it will be done in such a way as to have mass voter appeal. We may also find that many farmers signing up to a much different policy. One can see that it is already swaying some who would be adamant Remainers and no fans of Mr Gove. There are already noises around that the UK, freed up from Brussels, may indeed be the trailblazer for the development of a totally new approach to food, farming, rural and environmental policy. And Brussels may eventually follow.

The development of a separate, stand-alone alternative to the CAP is also coming when there is talk about some renationalisation of the CAP. If such had come earlier and loudly proclaimed, maybe that would that have swayed the 2% of Leave voters to stay and Brexit may have remained no more than a glint in Nigel Farage’s eyes. Then again, maybe that would have required the joining together of too many dots.

Again, back in 2013, I was questioning whether the one-size-fitted-all CAP operating across the EU-28 was truly sustainable. My view was that on the green front leading countries like the UK were being held back by a centralized CAP. Further, I was aware of how CAP payments were being distributed in some locations and if it became widely known that a few received rather a lot, there would be a clamour from contributing member states for change. In the end the 2013 reforms were something of a damp squib and a missed opportunity. Maybe greater CAP reform would have been sufficient to swing the necessary few British voters, or was EU migration the ultimate issue?

From an Irish perspective, any moves to renationalise the CAP will be interesting. If each national budget is established in Brussels and allocation is decided in Dublin, will it make that much difference? It is not as if there is that much debate at the national level, be it in farming or politics, about the direction Irish agri-food is taking. For farming lobby groups, it is about how much their members get and for the agri-food industry it is about the EU/Irish taxpayer picking up any shortfalls that occur in farm incomes from the market not delivering an adequate, sustainable farm-gate price.

What would happen if, as in the UK, the general populace gets a whiff of an opportunity to have a major say in an Irish farming and food and environmental policy? One can see the green lobby becoming highly excited. The Irish taxpayers spend per head is also rather more than in the UK and it is likely that they would want a far greater say in what they get in return for their taxes. Providing support to an industry that feeds the world first and Ireland’s population second may not be considered acceptable. Any further decline in Ireland’s environment, water resources and GHG emissions performance will also not pass muster. In an industry resistant to change, any renationalisation of the CAP must be forestalled, whatever it takes.

Without the UK, a more radical member state, maintaining the CAP status quo should, in theory, be easier. Seeing Michael Gove collecting his golden eggs from the populace may, nonetheless, be too appealing a picture for politicians elsewhere in the EU. It may incentivise those who want to see a much-changed CAP. Judging by the recent CAP reform public consultation, there is much interest in reform from outside the immediate farming envelope and those who have made submissions, otherwise frustrated, may take faith from policy developments in the UK. And, France, may not be the bastion of resistance to CAP change that some may assume. If the political motivation there moves towards supporting farming that is greener, more sustainable and preserves the terroir, it is anybody’s guess where the CAP will be heading in coming years.