Getting better as well as bigger

The Irish Association joins Irelands agri-food strategy debate.

In recent times, conscious of the very significant era of commemorations and centenaries that Ireland has now entered, cross-border think tank the Irish Association has joined forces with northern peace-building organisation the Corrymeela Community, to review and audit comprehensively, the overall state of north-south relations and cross-border cooperation. The review aims not only to examine the state of social and political progress generally but also the detailed status and potential of north-south cooperation in each social and economic sector.

In this context, in 2014, an expert agri-food strategy group was established by the Association to bring forward a report on the possible strategic responses to an array of challenges facing agriculture and food production in Ireland. The panel, which was chaired by Professor Michael Monaghan, head of Agriculture, Food Science and Veterinary Medicine at UCD, consisted of a wide range of sectoral experts drawn mainly from industry, academia and economic development agencies.

The result of the panels deliberations was a report entitled Opportunities for Irish Agriculture Some Strategic Initiatives towards Getting Better as well as Getting Bigger which was launched toward the end of 2015 by Irelands EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan.

Sustainable competitiveness

The report highlights some of the strategic challenges facing the Irish agri-food sector, not least the unprecedented international volatility and unpredictability of markets and pricing structures, as well as significant issues around animal health and husbandry, food security and overall sustainability. While it acknowledges that growing, fast moving markets also provide Ireland (as a significant food exporter) with an opportunity to expand the sector, the report emphasises the overriding need not just to grow bigger but to do things better.

In particular the report focuses on the need to disseminate efficiently the best and most up to date information on agri-food best practice in order to drive up productivity through higher yields and better resource utilisation. However, productivity improvement and the ability to win in challenging open marketplaces is only one part of the picture the other being the need to preserve resources and capacity so that long-term food security issues can be successfully addressed.

The principal strategic recommendation in the report therefore is that policymakers should be informed by an overriding concept of sustainable competitiveness in planning the future for the sector.

Strategic challenges

The panels report systematically identified a series of strategic challenges which the new concept of sustainable competitiveness would have to address, including:

   exploiting the opportunity to expand Irelands dairy sector: Following the lifting of quotas, this is where the greatest export potential and therefore national economic benefit exists.

   improved financial planning and management of risk: Here the key is education and training at the level of the family farm and getting more women involved in decision making. Also there needs to be much greater cooperation between producers/processors/retailers etc across the supply chain.

   improved farming practice: In particular improving animal husbandry, disease management, soil fertility, grass yield and nutrient management (with knock-on benefit for the environment).

   creating an Aligned Food business Model: Other industries have had to realign to ensure efficiency in relating reward to risk and assets employed. This has not yet really happened in agri-food and it is a potential barrier to growth and investment.

   addressing food security: From an Irish perspective, policy needs to be addressed at the European level with appropriate reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

   greenhouse gas emissions: The fundamental question is can Ireland reduce emissions from agriculture while expanding the national cattle herd? Progress lies in productivity improvement and carbon offset and accurate measurement.

Some practical proposals

The report recommends a number of specific measures to address many of these strategic challenges. Foremost among these is the recommendation to conduct a forward-looking review of agri-food education and training systems in Ireland so that services provided can create the next generation of multi-functional agriculturalists with a focus on farm profitability/producer flexibility, efficiency and sustainability. An updated education and training system also needs to address low levels of uptake around best-practice initiatives, as upskilling farmers is considered an essential prerequisite for future success.

Another recommendation is more measurement. This means benchmarked targets set both nationally and at the enterprise level and against which performance is continuously monitored.

In addition to measurement, there is a strong recommendation for more research. This includes research into production-related diseases and ruminant nutrition as well as greater, more accurate quantification of how the various proposed mitigation measures around greenhouse gas emissions can assist in the context of higher cattle numbers.

Communications and delivery

Overall the Agri-Food Strategy Group has produced a report which requires an unprecedented free-flow of information across all sectors and up and down the agriculture and food supply chain. To this end some modest structural innovations are proposed including the establishment of an Agri-food Action Board which would operate in a public-private partnership with government to ensure that strategy was translated into action on the ground. It is suggested that a substructure to this Board might exist at the level of each county.

In addition the report floats the idea of an independent advisory panel, broadly representative of stakeholders, which would assist Government in the Irish agri-food policy development process.

Overall the strategy groups report, while relatively concise, is a substantive expert overview of the main issues facing Irelands agri-food sector in the years and decades ahead. It clearly indicates that progress needs to be made on a broad front, both at a policy level and on the ground, if the full potential of the sector is achieved.

Better not just Bigger insists that Ireland needs a smart strategy, not just a growth strategy.

policymakers should be informed by an overriding concept of sustainable competitiveness in planning the future for the sector.

Promoters of North/South Review and Audit

The Irish Association (for cultural economic and social relations) was founded in 1938 to ensure that the political division of Ireland did not sever cultural and economic links between North and south. Its aim is to give a platform for discussion on north south matters is based on reason and goodwill rather than emotion and prejudice.

The Corrymeela Community was established in 1965 to build peace and reconciliation on the island particularly from a Christian faith perspective. Corrymeela, near Ballycastle Co Antrim has been a place of gathering and discussion between people of different backgrounds for over 50 years.

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