Could Brexit leave us in a French Revolution scenario of having no bread to feed ourselves?

Photo: Oleg Begunenko
Photo: Oleg Begunenko

Richard Hackett

Currently, not only do we not grow our own wheat for our own bread requirements, we don’t even mill our own flour to feed ourselves in this country.

It’s practically all imported from the UK. In 2019, this could suddenly look quite a foolish policy and a worst-case Brexit scenario could leave us in a French Revolution scenario of having no bread to feed ourselves.

"We were consistently able to supply milling wheat from the UK cheaper but very little has been grown in Ireland for 30 years. First it was the grain for flour, then it was easier to import the flour."

Cost is the bottom line and most of the milling wheat we use is coming from Canada and the UK, where it's blended.

So where does that leave us now that the UK are opening discussions to leave the party?

While the outcome is unknown, I think what we can say is that whatever restrictions or barriers are applied to our food exports will also be applied to produce currently being imported from the UK to Ireland.

At the moment, bread makers are just concerned with buying cheapest and selling under an Irish flag.

My youngest son recently announced over breakfast: 'After Brexit, there will be no breakfasts'.

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All the cereal boxes in the press (except for the porridge oats which he classifies as more of a punishment than a breakfast) were produced in the UK.

If next year the shutters come down and the ferries stop rolling, it is not an exaggeration to say that there could be a lot of empty bakery shelves.

Sure we will have plenty of butter and burgers to fill the shelves, my young lad will have plenty of porridge in the morning, but the range of produce that we have become accustomed to will no longer be available.

We don’t often talk of a cereal crop in Ireland as a ‘strategic crop’, but with the range of potential risks this country is currently exposed to, a strategic crop approach is something we badly need.

Spring wheat is the best option we have for quality milling wheat production, but it’s not too long ago that winter barley was the poor relation in terms of crop output. It was the preserve of the large grower with insufficient combine capacity.

The industry responded, varieties advanced, production techniques were improved and winter barley has become the shining light of the sector. The same needs to be done with spring wheat. 

Food production

The conundrum now is how to proceed. Do we go about scaling up home production, getting more growers to produce more foodstuffs?

Do we go start increasing (or restarting) the manufacture of basic foodstuffs - milling our own wheat, making our own biscuits, canning our own beans, potting our own jam.

The catch is that if we encourage wide scale investment in production and the status quo is unchanged once the Brexit negotiations conclude, those people that have invested in food production will quickly go bust.

However, I think that Brexit is giving us the opportunity to look with fresh eyes at our food supply chain.

And my young lad can stop worrying about where the breakfast is coming from.

Richard Hackett is an agronomist based in north County Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA.

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