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The launch of the draft report of the 2025 Agri-Food Strategy Committee, entitled Food Wise 2025; Local Roots Global Reach, presents a valuable opportunity for the entire food industry to build on the experience gained during the implementation of Food Harvest 2020. The 2025 Strategy Committee has established new and ambitious growth targets for the agri food sector including increases in the value of primary output by 65%, value-added outputs by 70% and overall agrifood exports to €19 billion. It also envisages the creation of a further 23,000 jobs in the sector.

Particularly in the dairy sector, where Food Harvest 2020 predicted and encouraged a 50% growth in milk volumes leading up and following the ending of milk quotas, the new strategy presents a more nuanced vision, focussed on increasing innovation and value added to ensure that all the extra product is produced sustainably. It was quite understandable that the Food Harvest document aimed to capitalise on the pent up demand for expansion, particularly as farmers were allowed to produce milk without having the pay for quota, or risk super-levy fines. The vision for the 2025 strategy, however, is to build in our wisdom gained to date, and to invest wisely to develop resilient production systems which can deliver livelihoods and incomes that are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. As we endure an entirely predictable period of weak dairy markets, it is important to ensure that we don’t just pursue volume for volume’s sake, notwithstanding the efficiency benefits of scale, and instead we pursue innovative ways of producing, processing and selling our products, to countries and markets that value them most.

The Irish countryside and our natural resources are vital to the integrity of our food production systems and it is vital that we ensure that our additional production doesn’t endanger the environment. We need to protect biodiversity, water quality, and to minimise emissions of Greenhouse gases. It is also important, however, that we win the political battles which will be fought as we approach a global climate deal later this year. Our biggest disadvantage is the current principle, whereby, effectively, our agricultural emissions are calculated per head of population; dividing them by the 4 ½ million people in the state, not by the 30-40 million people we feed. It has been proven and accepted that Irish greenhouse gas emissions for milk and beef production are the lowest in the world; therefore there is absolutely no point in penalising Irish production and having that food produced in countries with higher emissions. The government has, thus far, achieved significant concessions in Brussels to recognise the merits of our food production systems, but we can’t depend completely on political solutions. We also need to invest in technologies and innovative systems to reduce our emissions per kg of milk and beef still further.

Co-ops have a vital role to play in helping farmers to produce quality food in a sustainable way. Dairy Co-ops are investing millions in sustainability systems, and funding the operation of the Bord Bia Sustainable Dairy Assurance Scheme; they are employing large numbers of advisors in development roles to support farmers; and they are partnering with Teagasc to ensure that farmers benefit from world class production efficiency. They have invested close to a billion euros in total over the past number of years in production capacity, innovation, and routes to market. More investment will be needed, however, as we further develop technologies to capture the goodness from Irish milk, and sell it profitably to the customers that value it. There will be a need for increased collaboration within the dairy sector, through Co-ops working even closer together in the pursuit of scale and efficiency around operations, marketing and innovation.

It is also important that livestock sector is not neglected. Large numbers of cattle and beef producers are farming at a loss. This is morally wrong and socially and economically unsustainable. Huge efforts need to be made to support beef and livestock producers to achieve both the technical efficiency and market strength which dairy producers have reached. Given the enormous volatility in beef prices, and the market strength of the small number of powerful domestic beef processors, it is vital that live exports are maintained as a pressure valve to ease periodic imbalances in domestic supply and demand. Co-op marts, as local farmer owned and controlled livestock marketing organisations will play a vital role in supporting producers and allowing them to maximise the value for their stock.

In conclusion, the Food Wise 2025 strategy represents a considered view of how our agrifood sector should proceed. It is now up to politicians, policy makers, farmers, co-ops and food businesses to ensure that it gets the resources necessary to deliver wealth back to rural communities.

By TJ Flanagan

Dairy Policy Executive