Viewpoint: Farming needs young blood like never before
Published 08/03/2016 | 02:30
The global gathering of Nuffield scholars kicked off in Cavan at the weekend. It's the first time that the annual conference has taken place in Ireland, and given that it represents a collective of the brightest minds working in the international farm sector, it is an event that we should be proud to host.
Ahead of his address to the scholars, Rabobank's Senior Vice President for rural banking, Bart Ijntema, spoke of his concerns about the lack of profitability in farming becoming a major disincentive to getting enough young people interested in the sector.
"The profits along the food chain are not equally divided at the moment," he said. "The retailers, processors and input suppliers are making a return on investment of 15-20pc, while the average at farm level is barely 2pc.
"I think this is a big part of the reason that the average age of farmers is increasing globally. It's about 60 years on average now in the US and Australia, and heading for 65."
The situation isn't much better in Ireland, with 55 often being quoted as the average age of the Irish farmer.
This comes at a time when the world is going to need young, energetic farmers more than ever before.
Mr Ijntema summed it up best with this astounding fact.
"With the world's population increasing to 9 billion by 2050, and a moral responsibility to lift 800 million people out of hunger, the food requirement for the next 35 years will be bigger than the total amount of food harvested by man since time began."
This is part of the reason that he believes that the world's food system is hurtling towards a food deficit rather than a food surplus by 2020.
"First world consumers have been the biggest beneficiaries of European and US policies that aimed at never allowing their continents to go hungry - it basically guaranteed a flow of cheap food. But since 2009, we've seen a flip of the underlying fundamentals of supply outstripping demand.
"Obviously, dairying is suffering from a particular combination of factors at the moment, but we believe that this will change soon," he said.
And it's not just the extra mouths to feed that will underline future prices.
Instead, the Rabobank boss thinks that the supply constraints in global food production from here on in - be it environmental in the Netherlands or New Zealand, high costs in hotter climes, or a lack of infrastructure in the rest of the world - will be bigger than the demand constraints.
He says that this will move prices up in general. In dairying, he sees milk prices increasing by 10pc.
That's welcome news, but will it be enough to put the French off their big push at next week's EU farm council meeting where they are going to seek new production fines to be imposed on processors that increase their milk volumes in 2016. Quotas by the backdoor? You betcha.