Farm Ireland

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Comment: We need a fresh debate on how we can become a real 'food island'

Cousins Julie Barrett, Natasha Barrett, Jack Barrett - all cousins pictured with their calves at the Cork Summer Show 2017. Photo: Clare Keogh
Cousins Julie Barrett, Natasha Barrett, Jack Barrett - all cousins pictured with their calves at the Cork Summer Show 2017. Photo: Clare Keogh

Richard Hackett

My youngest son is an avid reader and is currently pursuing the well-worn path of reading the cereal boxes every morning, probably more as a delay tactic in getting ready for school than improving his nutritional knowledge.

The other morning as he read through the boxes he proclaimed: 'After Brexit, there will be no breakfasts'. He has a point.

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 and, unfortunately it doesn't stop there.

Most of the food that we eat and drink in this country on a daily basis is directly imported from the UK. As well as breakfast cereals, the bulk of the biscuits, frozen food, canned food, confectionery, flour for bread and most other prepared foodstuffs we consume comes across in the ferries every morning.

What really sticks in the craw, however, is the amount of basic produce like vegetables and potatoes that are imported into this country from the UK.

The value of vegetables imported into the country from the UK is equal to the value of the mushrooms exported, at approximately €100m per annum each way. The value of the potatoes imported (€90 million) is almost twice the value of the peat exported (€50 million) to the UK.

There can be plenty of discussion around the validity of these figures, some of this produce may well have originated somewhere else, like bananas or salad potatoes which are moved through the UK, but the figures give an example of our dependence on the UK for basic produce. Indeed in 2016 the total agri food exports from Ireland to the UK totalled €4.8 billion, while the scale of imports of the same produce was €3.7 billion.

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

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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.

This may create further problems for us in the short term, but in the medium to long term, it also has the potential to open up a huge new market in food production for our own consumption.

If in two years time the shutters come down and the ferries stop rolling, it is not an exaggeration to say that there will be a lot of empty shelves in the supermarkets, it's at that scale.

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.

Food production

The conundrum now is how to proceed. Do we go about scaling up home production, getting more growers to produce more foodstuffs? More seed potatoes, more chipping potatoes, more cabbage, broccoli, milling wheat, eating apples?

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.

We have been sorely lacking in designing and implementing a food policy in this country, or putting in place a blueprint of how we feed ourselves.

The entire discussion surrounding Brexit and Irish agriculture has to date focussed on one thing: the amount of milk and meat exported from here to there. The debate has to move on.

Our main customers may or may not be changing their purchasing habits and like any business we have to get over it and adapt. We did it 20 years ago during BSE when all our customers 'stopped returning our calls'.

We have to grasp the reality that no matter what happens with Brexit or any other event in the future, we have to become a real 'food island'.

First and foremost, we need to make the most of the ideal conditions we have been blessed with in this country in which to grow food to feed ourselves.

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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