After multiple announcements over several years, the office of the Agri-Food Regulator finally arrived this week.

The board will have a fast track into understanding farmer issues and expectations, with three former farm leaders as members.

At this point, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue can reasonably claim that he has delivered on his part of the deal, though there will be some reservation until it is demonstrated that they have sufficient powers to do their job effectively.

If it is job is done for the Minister, it is only the beginning of work for board chair Joe Healy, his colleagues and CEO Niamh Lenehan and her team.

Realistic ambition

The Agri-Food Regulator will enjoy a short honeymoon and should use this time productively to set out clearly what farmers and those in the agri-food industry that they seek to protect can expect them to deliver.

Perhaps even more importantly, they need to make clear what they cannot. For example, they cannot and will not interfere with the market, so when prices are on the floor, there is no point expecting the Agri-Food Regulator to make a few calls to the large processors and everything to be magically fixed.

By the same token, there is no point having an Agri-Food Regulator continually throwing their hands up in the air and saying there is nothing we can do - if that is ever the case, then the office should be closed down much faster than it was opened!

Time is of the essence in the office, outlining what it can and will do. There is no point trying to explain at a time of crisis in farmgate prices - at that point it is too late.

That is why, at present, when, apart from the pig sector, there is a small upturn in prices, it is an ideal time to set out what can and can’t be done.

At the official launch during the week, chair Joe Healy spoke of fairness and transparency in the food chain.

Achieving “fairness” is quite a challenge, as fairness is very much in the eye of the beholder. What a beef factory might consider is a fair price will often seem anything but that in the eyes of a farmer supplier.

What success will look like

However, achieving transparency is realistic and something that can be measured more tangibly than fairness.

At the moment in the sectors that are dominated by large privately owned processors, farmer suppliers have next to no insight of what happens beyond the factory gate.

With the co-op’s, there is at least a level of insight to the processing end of the chain through farmer representation on boards and the publication of annual accounts.

Hopefully, the office will have studied the US model of transparency, where sales volumes, values and stocks are continually updated in real time.

This doesn’t make prices any better for farmer suppliers, but it does help them understand why they are where they are, whether that is good or bad.

That should be the ambition for our Agri-Food Regulator and their success will be judged on how close they get to that model and farmers wish them well on that journey.

Read more

Agri-food regulator to be up and running before end of 2023

Real work starts now as supply chain bill implemented

Unfair trading practices survey aims to inform farmers on rights