The primary producers carry the entire risk and stress of volatile supply and demand
The recent furore over the lack of tomatoes on our shelves has yet again shown, as if we needed more proof, that our food supply system is broken.
It is interesting to note that if you go into any of the huge supermarket multiple stores, you don’t see many Spanish or Moroccan flags flying, you don’t see many life-size pictures of Moroccan or Spanish growers self-consciously posing for the photo-op.
No, that role is for the Irish growers, they are the ones who are summonsed to appear in some field or other to be dressed as a farmer and hold a fork over their shoulder.
Yet when it gets a bit chilly in Spain or the boats leaving Morocco are an hour late, the shelves here are suddenly bare.
The retailers and their suppliers can shrug their shoulders and without a hint of embarrassment, say it’s a unique set of circumstances and it will be OK in a few weeks when the next cheapest country of production gets going again.
What about all the Irish produce they are so fond of telling us they supply?
It’s not a unique set of circumstances and it’s not going to sort itself out.
Thirty years of treating food as a commodity, of successive intermediaries making a quick buck by undercutting everyone else, of pitching one grower against another, has led to a situation where there are not enough producers and not enough produce being grown.
The recent story has shown that we thought this was just happening to Irish growers, but in fact the supermarket multiples have been doing this with all farmers world-wide.
These farmers have responded by going out of business, reducing production and realising that there is more to life than constantly being the lackey so multiples can maintain shareholder value.
The fundamentals to fruit and vegetable production in Ireland have never been so right. We have a growing population that is demanding more plant-based foods; who need to eat healthier and reduce their shopping bills; demand more traceability and provenance over what they eat; and realise that Irish food production is extremely carbon efficient and water efficient.
Irish fruit and vegetables meet all these trends.
Supply of food and demand of food are not static, they are both extremely elastic. Spells of cold weather, or warm weather, good growing conditions, bad growing conditions and even Instagram posts impact on the supply and /or demand of any particular crop line at any particular time.
The current model is that the primary producers carry the entire risk and stress of volatile supply and demand.
Until this can be addressed, and the risk can be spread across the entire supply chain, and the rewards can be spread across the entire supply chain, there won’t be any new growers or increase in area. That fact is static.
Richard Hackett is an agronomist based in North Co Dublin and is a member of the ACA and ITCA