Richard Hackett: We should hang our heads in shame at scale of food imports

'Figures of fruit and vegetables imports reveal a country that is unable to feed itself'
'Figures of fruit and vegetables imports reveal a country that is unable to feed itself'

Richard Hackett

The slow bicycle race that Brexit has turned into has revealed some interesting insights as to how our food supply system is operating.

The CSO produces some fascinating information that is readily available on its website.

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Unfortunately, it's a difficult website to navigate and most of the information contained within goes by completely unnoticed.

However, this year, someone has got a new infographics programme and coupled with the interest in all things Brexit, the latest import/export figures released got plenty of attention.

Figures of fruit and vegetables imports reveal a country that is unable to feed itself. In this case, unfortunately, it's not Britain I'm talking about. It is Ireland, the food nation, that is depending on the boat to feed itself every day.

Imports of potatoes, onions, carrots, apples (not to mention bottled water) are at a level that should make everyone in our industry hang their head in shame.

The figures are so large that the CSO tried to put the figures on a 'per capita basis' to try to put some reality to the figures. So in 2017, we imported 7kg carrots, 10kg onions and 13kg of apples for every person in the country.

What the figures really equate to is 62,000t of apples, 72,000t potatoes, 47,000t onions, 33,000t carrots, 29,000t tomatoes, 23,000t cabbage and 15,000t lettuce imported in one year.

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That is 210 articulated truck loads per week landing on our shores, or in other words a complete fill of the Irish Ferries boat Ulysses every week of produce we can very easily grow here. That's before we take into account other fruit and vegetable lines, flour, sugar, biscuits, breakfast cereals and sweets. Burgers and butter we are good at, but for everything else, it seems a quick phone call to the nearest neighbours is the best way to sort it out.

The concept of the EEC was established fundamentally to ensure food security for the citizens of a post war Europe. An essential pillar of that food security is the concept of the single market.

What this means is that there are no imports or exports between member states.

It is as easy to move a pallet of cabbage from the south of Spain as it is from the south shore in Rush.

Over time, the success of this concept has resulted in a very tight concentration of production into areas with competitive advantage over labour costs.

Production standards are EU wide, unfortunately, the oversight of labour laws are still more 'regional' based. So we have the perverse situation where some of the most arid areas of Europe, which just happen to be closest to a ready supply of available migrant labour, supply high-water demanding produce to some of the wettest parts of Europe. Labour forms a much higher proportion of production costs than water does.

So as we head for the Christmas break, we have time to reflect on how this system that we have allowed to develop is so suddenly being disrupted as our nearest traders are ruminating so publicly on their future.

We have allowed food production policy to be dictated by purely business interests, like they decide on toilet roll production policy. This can't go on.

What we have to do is take back control of food production. We are an island, and dependant on another island, which is also a net food importer, to supply us with food or act as a land bridge for food from the continent. Most of the basic foodstuffs we eat, we can grow here. Regardless of the articles you read on trendy items such as avocado, almonds and linseed, generally speaking, culturally we eat what we grow (or grew). Look at any trolley at the checkout counter and they are still full of the staples like potatoes, bread, meat, field vegetables, milk, cheese, etc.

Support has to be given to encourage production in deficit produce lines. The authorities know this and have never been found wanting in supporting food production. The missing link has been in controlling the sale of this produce.

Intermediaries, the people who go between the food producers and the supermarkets, have had a free reign for far too long. They are the key to solving the problem. Until this sector is brought into the fold, willingly or unwillingly to guarantee sale of native grown produce, no sane person is going to invest the huge sums of money required in starting a primary food production business.

That said, I believe that there has been no time in recent history like there is opportunity now to regain control of food production in this country.

Requirements to control emissions from agriculture, to control emissions from transport, for water use efficiency, the search for viable break crops, for food security, the mood of the buying public for local traceable food, all point towards a ramping up of native food production to meet the demands within this island.

Richard Hackett is an Agronomist based in North County Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA

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