Last week’s onslaught of climate-related TV programmes has depressed the farming nation. But last Friday’s Nuffield Ireland Conference provided positivity, new thinking and determination from the returning scholars. This injection of positivity was very welcome amidst the general air of negativity at the moment. When I returned from that conference on Saturday I sat down to watch the aforementioned shows, and that positivity was syphoned from my bones.
Dominance, competition and consumer demand – The impact on meat protein producers was the title of the report I wrote at the end of my own Nuffield Scholarship in 2012. While this was mostly written with pig producers in mind, some of the learnings were equally relevant to other livestock sectors. Frustratingly, most of the issues identified then are even more problematic seven years later.
Every week we read about the dominance of retailers and processors. It appears the local butcher is the latest target of the large multiples and these small businesses are struggling. I met one in the mart recently who had closed his shop. He said there was no way to compete on volume and price and the across-the-counter dialogue was no longer valued by customers. He told me he was paying €1 more per chicken, wholesale, than the retailer was selling it to the consumer.
It seems totally unfair and reckless that the national broadcaster is telling the public that is now two, three, four generations removed from the farm gate that the healthy, local choices they are making are wrong
Competition, or the lack of competition regulation to support farmers, has been raised at the IFA presidential hustings in recent weeks. While there have been some EU initiatives, such as the banning of unfair trading practices at retail level, regulation in this country primarily supports the consumer. This includes us all, but the same legislation cannot simultaneously support farmers.
My Nuffield studies explored what consumers wanted from their food in the countries I visited. Climate change was not a major topic of conversation at that time, with welfare, price and safety among the more pressing issues for global consumers.
My description of Europe was the “spoilt child”, the consumer who wants everything – quality product, good prices and extraordinary buying power. Producers have continuously responded to these demands, while industry added claims to farm produce in an effort to gain market share. The farmer has carried the cost. Now, once again, farmers are being asked to adapt to new demands. History tells us they will. Therefore, it seems totally unfair and reckless that the national broadcaster is telling the public that is now two, three, four generations removed from the farm gate that the healthy, local choices they are making are wrong. Consumers elsewhere differ in their attitude to these issues and any reduction from our carbon-efficient production systems will only be picked up in other parts of the world where consumers are less climate conscious.
Russia is a prime example and so different to the EU. I often quote the remarks from a farm manager there who reminded me how lucky I was to be living in spoilt Europe. He said: “The single consumer is not important; it is the culture of the country. People are interested in reasonably priced healthy food, not if the animals are happy. In Europe people do not remember being hungry while in Russia, not having food is not a distant memory.”