Champagne corks must have been popping in Bord Bia’s head office in Dublin last week as the agency announced another record year for Irish food and drink exports despite the impact of war in Ukraine, inflationary pressures on producers and global supply chain issues related to Covid-19.
The agency’s latest annual performance report shows producers here exported €16.7 billion worth of food, drink and horticulture products last year, up 22 per cent or €3 billion on 2021.
Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue said he was “proud to announce today’s excellent results”. Bord Bia’s chief executive Jim O’Toole said they were “testament to the resilience of one of Ireland’s most important export industries”.
Contrast those sentiments with the spiky response issued by Pat McCormack, the head of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA), the organisation that represents dairy farmers and those responsible for the single biggest component of this trade (dairy products accounted for 40 per cent of the total).
“It’s nearly amusing to see politicians and some elements in the media cheering these record figures and even – in some weird way – appearing to take credit for them while, almost literally over their shoulder, we can see their teams of civil servants and advisers preparing the next round of curbs and regulations, all designed to restrict Ireland’s farmers: the group most directly responsible for building up the food exports that those same politicians and policymakers are now intent on dismantling. This cheering of the food exports is at stark variance with their dismantling of the food producing farm sector,” McCormack said.
And remember, this booing of a good news story for the Irish economy is coming from the most prosperous segment of farming here. Dairy incomes averaged €148,000 last year, according to farming advisory body Teagasc, double those in the next best sector, tillage (€64,000), and nearly nine times more than those in the beef sector (€16,900).
The dairy industry has been on an expansion path since the lifting of EU quotas in 2015, one that is, however, incompatible with the State’s new Climate Action Plan and the drive to curb agricultural emissions.
As part of the plan, the Government is expected to adopt more swingeing nitrate regulations that will reduce the number of cows dairy farmers can maintain on a given patch of land, which the industry sees as a backhanded cull of the national herd.
That’s what McCormack’s “curbs and regulations” refer to. Dairy is the most powerful farm lobby in the State and it’s no surprise that it is voicing the loudest opposition to incoming regulations.
On another level, however, McCormack’s comments speak to a growing disconnect that exists through many segments of Irish society, between celebrating output milestones – GDP, consumption, exports, airport passenger numbers – and any consideration of the impact these bigger and bolder figures are having on the input side.
Farmers complain that they are increasingly painted as villains in the climate game, and by an increasingly Dublin-centric media, while consumers purchase cheaper and cheaper food with blithe indifference to how it is delivered.
Broadcaster and former Fine Gael minister Ivan Yates gave a presentation to ICMSA members last week in which he said the lack of political support for farmers when they feel besieged or attacked by the media was merely a function of their decline as a percentage of the electorate. In other words, they’re just not that important in electoral terms any more. That might be overstating it.
The Irish Farmers’ Association is still seen as one of the most powerful lobbies in the State and successive governments have baulked at placing any curb on the current dairy expansion despite a worrying decline in water standards.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that about half of Irish rivers and lakes fail to meet minimum environmental quality standards due to high levels of polluting nitrates and phosphates, most of which come from agriculture.
We have never, as a society, been so obsessed with food – the cooking of it/the preparation of it – but conversely we’ve never known less about how it is produced or who is doing the producing.
“Most consumers begin their mental supply chain in the retail outlet – not on the farm,” one insider noted.
“Thirty years ago most of the gardaí, teachers and civil servants who settled in Dublin suburbs like Ballinteer and Castleknock came from farming backgrounds and so visits to grandparents’ farms were completely normal,” he said.
“Not alone did they go back regularly, but their kids might have gone back for a fortnight during the summer holidays. Does that still happen? I doubt it.”
The disconnect between the output and input side of the food economy is perhaps a universal aspect of urbanisation but it plays to an increasingly fractious politics that pits urban against rural interests when we need to be thinking of food in the round, as a circular system rather than a fragmented one.