Sustainability a key theme at France's giant SIAL food fair
Last week, I got an opportunity to visit the giant Paris SIAL food show, thanks to Bord Bia. Having being over a decade since I last attended anything similar, it was a real eye opener, on several fronts.
These include the brusque enthusiasm of large numbers of companies from the newer EU member states as they play catch-up on more long-standing members, the significant presence and busyness of Chinese buyers, and the increasing interest in sustainable food production.
Living on an island as we do, it is sometimes hard to see the bigger picture and the visit to SIAL, a food fair for the trade with some 6,300 exhibitors and 150,000 international buyers, made me feel that the trend towards environmentally sustainable agriculture is real.
We Irish are inclined to be dismissive of our sustainability programme, Origin Green, that was launched two years ago. Sure, Saoirse Ronan is lovely and, of course, our food is very 'green'.
It's just that the bottom line for farmers is always, well, the bottom line and, so far, the concept has yet to put a cent more into their pockets.
But while plenty of individual companies from other countries are pressing the same buttons, nowhere else is doing it on such a national, scale.
Speaking to a group of journalists, a buyer for Carrefour supermarket, Pascal Leglise, pointed out that Origin Green does not make Irish beef a first grade product, "but it is a value-added product and that is what is needed in a European context". The hope is that, in time, it will translate into better returns.
In the meat section, there were numerous companies displaying various processed pork products and every cut of horsemeat from Romania, white and rosé veal from Holland.
On the beef side, there were various kinds of steaks and burgers but little that I saw in terms of innovation. However, the growth in Wagyu beef, which was virtually unheard of outside of Japan until a few years ago, shows that a product which is premium can capture a superior position in the marketplace.
Apparently, there was a lot of Chinese interest in a few lower-value cuts of beef, and some factory sources see this as taking up some of the slack created by the Russian ban on EU imports.
Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, also spoke to us and conceded that he is "not happy" at the gap between beef producer prices in Ireland (which have fallen by more than 10pc in the past year) and retail prices (down by less than 2pc in the same period).
He pointed out that the structure of retailing had changed, with multi-nationals having supplanted local retailers. A decade ago the primary producer was getting 30pc or more on average of the retail price of food. That figure is now down to around 20pc, and falling.
From what he said next, it was obvious that any hope of tighter regulation of the sector is not on his horizon because he urged farmers to find ways of improving their negotiating power through "very strong producer groups working with a professional negotiator."
"Not only on price but spec, weight, breed, age… depending on the different markets they are targeting. This way we can have a much more transparent and professional relationship between farmers and processors, resulting in better returns for the primary producer," he added.
The Minister first starting talking about producer groups a few months ago as one of the key recommendations of the Dowling report and I think it is fair to say that the response from farmers has been underwhelming.
Why is that?
Is it that farmers are afraid that this is a long-term solution which is going to involve a lot of hard work whereas what we want is a magic wand with an instant solution?
Or is it something deeper?
The first thing is that just about every discussion group has tried to operate some kind of collective purchase or sales arrangement at some point and very few have made it work.
The issues involved are loyalty and trust, which take a very long time to build up but can be shattered in an instant.
There is a long history of distrust between factories and farmers and the experience of the past year has poured more oil than water on this situation. Can this yawning gulf be bridged?
Then there is the question of farmer loyalty to a collective. A producer sales group will only work if every individual in the group is 100pc loyal in bad times as well as good. Is this possible in a group of three, five or perhaps even 7,000 farmers as has been suggested by the Minister?
Or would factories be mischievous enough to try and sabotage a group by offering one or two members a higher price than the rest?
When factories know what cattle they will have coming in, this puts them in a stronger sales position but farmers may fear that this information would be used to control the prices they are paid. Factories have nothing to fear from individual farmers but a collective could be a different story. Have they more to gain or lose from producer groups?
As for the professional negotiator, the best people for this kind of job would possibly be those already working in the industry who know its ins and outs. But would anyone who is good at their job and getting well paid for it be willing to swop security for uncertainty, and turn from gamekeeper to poacher as it were?
It also seems to me that that a bottom-up rather than top-down approach would be needed. So how will these groups be started?
There is an appetite among farmers for change, to find a different way of doing business because the current system is not working.
Hopefully, the Minister has some views on how these obstacles can be overcome. If so, the time has come for him to spell them out.
For Stories Like This and More
Download the Free Farming Independent App