'Food Wise report is big on aspiration but its lack of detail will dismay environmentalists'
'Steps to Success 2019' is the fourth update on the Food Wise 2025 plan that sets out a road-map for the agri-food sector. Effectively, it is a report on a report, complete with lots of smiling farm families and bucolic landscapes, and is correspondingly light on actual figures.
This is no doubt a reaction by the spin doctors in the Department of Agriculture to their experience of being pinned to a cross of their own making in the years that followed the Food Harvest 2020 report.
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Environmental campaigners made plenty of hay on the back of that document's ambitious targets for growth in the sector, with little or no account being taken of the environmental impact.
Government officials squirmed on the spot every time they were asked to explain how they were able to commit to reducing Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 if targets to expand dairy output by 50pc were achieved during the same period.
So when the current report states that one of its key aims is to increase employment in the food sector by 23,000 without providing any baseline figure to compare against, you can see there's going to be no one feeling the heat on the back of this publication.
Nonetheless, the report sets a tone that's worth taking note of. Environmentalists will be dismayed with the paltry two pages in the 32-page document dedicated to the environmental challenges facing the sector.
They will also note the unwavering stance on climate change held by the report's contributors.
"While accepting its role on tackling climate change, the industry asserts that its focus must be on efficiency rather than a reduction of stock; the latter being seen as an impediment to economic activity in rural areas," it states.
Obviously, that is in direct contrast to the Climate Change Advisory Council's recent report recommending a huge reduction in the suckler herd, so you can expect some fun and games around that tussle over the coming months.
The headline statistic in the report that food exports are up 70pc over the last decade to nearly €14bn also deserves some critical analysis for those with interests inside the farm gate. Impressive as that increase is, it belies the fact that value of primary production has increased by less than 50pc over the same period. So while the value of our food exports has increased by over €5.5bn, the trickle-down value at farm level is less than half that amount.
The breakdown of food exports is also noteworthy. While farm sales of dairy, pig, poultry and cereals almost double in value by the time they are exported out of the country, beef, sheep, fish and forestry barely add a euro of extra value from the point that they leave the farm gate.
Timber exports are actually worth less than their farm-gate value, which suggests that much of the output is being used domestically.
While imported raw materials could also be muddying the waters, it is unlikely to vary significantly from sector to sector.
Is this an issue that beef and sheep farm representatives should be engaging in? Could we be adding more value to our beef and lamb sales?
There are some other unsettling statistics from the report. It reminds us that despite three years of stark warnings about the impact of Brexit, the UK market still completely dominates our food trade.
Some €5.5bn of food was exported from Ireland into British markets last year, which is 33pc more than the total value of our food exports to the rest of the EU.
Admittedly, the likes of China has raced up the rankings in the last decade to the point where it is now one of our top five export destinations. But even this behemoth of a market only accounts for a seventh of our annual sales into the UK.
The US is also one of our top five export markets, but anyone watching President Trump's antics over the last few years will know that Ireland could easily end up falling between the cracks of an arbitrary trade war following a late night tweeting session.
In defence of our public servants in Kildare Street, they have been doing their best to win over new customers everywhere from Ankara to Jakarta during the last few years.
And trade spats between huge entities like the EU, China, the UK or the US come and go. I was reminded of this when I read about the Department's concerns about the Russian embargo on EU food exports back in the Food Wise report. That embargo officially continues, but I don't hear about any of the dire fall-out that was predicted for Irish food exports at the time.
Life goes on, and Ireland will keep producing food. Our focus should be to ensure that we're the best at it.
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