Marketing the sustainability of Irish agriculture was the recurring theme when the Irish Farmers Journal spoke to Tara McCarthy, CEO of Bord Bia, this week at the launch of the organisation’s Performance and Prospects report for Irish food and drink.
Bord Bia has identified through research the importance of sustainability to consumers and McCarthy quotes research to support farmer buy-in on the need for sustainability and farmers'' role in it.
She said four out of five farmers surveyed told Bord Bia they needed help with it.
A similar number identify the need to change and almost half said the sector needs to be more sustainable.
Threat and opportunity
Referring to the tendering process for a new platform to formally measure sustainability that was parked in the middle of last year, McCarthy accepted that Bord Bia could have communicated better on what it was doing but is adamant that being able to verify our sustainability is a marketing tool for Irish agriculture, but standing still is actually a threat.
[...] we didn’t want sustainability systems imposed that worked for German farmers [for example] but would be a pain for Irish farmers
Work is ongoing to identify how best to formalise measuring sustainability and when the Irish Farmers Journal pointed out the fear of farmers having to run faster to stand still, McCarthy said that while farming is evolving, marketing also has to evolve.
She highlighted three drivers: what consumers want, what policy and regulation wants and what science and technology allows. Bord Bia is trying “to make sure we navigate these in the best way for Irish farmers, and that was the reason for Origin Green – we didn’t want sustainability systems imposed that worked for German farmers [for example] but would be a pain for Irish farmers”.
McCarthy believes sustainability will be a key tool in defending Irish agricultural produce, particularly beef, in the British market now that the UK is outside the EU and can make its own trade deals.
She explains that the research shows how British consumers are well disposed to Irish produce and that the top British customers say their brand doesn’t allow any compromise in standards.
The ability to match, if not exceed, UK standards along with our closeness to the market makes Irish beef a competitive and attractive option to British buyers even if there are cheaper options.
The grass-fed beef PGI has been submitted, while developing the grass-fed dairy model remains a work in progress that McCarthy hopes can be concluded in the first half of this year.
She points out, however, that it will be the industry that dictates the pace. The Irish Farmers Journal queried the strategy on qualification for the beef PGI, pointing out the then European Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan''s advice that an application couldn’t include all Irish beef but had to be from the suckler herd. McCarthy said that the application had been developed after engaging closely with the Commission, as well as the market, and “data said grass-fed is a scalable opportunity for Ireland, regardless of PGI status”.
She also said that suckler beef is a separate market communication and currently “suckler” is not understood by the market and that is a project in itself.
With the Farm to Fork strategy driving the next CAP, increased organic production is likely to be a requirement for Irish agriculture.
The Irish Farmers Journal challenged McCarthy on the absence of research to quantify the size and value of a market for Irish organic farm produce.
She said that proper research could not be done when there is no opportunity to offer the product.
She did, however, refer to research that had been done in 2020 showing a significant number of consumers willing to pay a 5% premium but said that 15% to 20% was needed.
When asked if it was a chicken and egg debate that would require a leap in the dark, McCarthy referred to the example of Irish farmed salmon which went organic and created a market, with organic now covering 90% of Irish farmed salmon.
If incentives encourage production of organic, the challenge will be to identify and develop markets that make it sustainable in a way that hasn’t happened previously.
Against an onslaught of negative publicity for meat and dairy, Bord Bia, along with industry partners and farm organisations, set up the information campaign Meat and Dairy Facts in late 2019.
McCarthy accepts that the group made the mistake of creating an echo chamber at the start, speaking to themselves. Now, the communication is focused on where it is required, in particular at urban families by giving them the reassurance that they need on animal protein.
This is done through targeted social media campaigns and the objective isn’t a public debate with NGOs on veganism but a meaningful conversation with people who have concerns.
McCarthy’s view is that if they “politicise this, we lose, but if we can be a reassuring voice to doubting consumers, we win”.
Brexit and COVID-19 created turmoil for exports in 2019, according to McCarthy. Despite market disruption caused by much of the catering sector being closed, the €13bn achieved in export sales was just 2% lower than 2019. McCarthy’s ambition for the sector is holding on to the markets we have, while recognising future growth will be concentrated in the East [Asia]. She is frustrated at the delay in resumption of beef exports to China but believes that the absence of face-to-face contact and inspection tours was an impediment to the Government getting trade moving again.
The Brexit deal means continued access to Britain
Turning to the year ahead, McCarthy is positive about the prospects for Irish agricultural exports.
She said Bord Bia gets the best forecasts from organisations such as Rabobank and GIRA and aggregates the data from these.
If China buys dairy as it did in 2020, market demand will be strong.
The Brexit deal means continued access to Britain and the similarity of Irish beef to domestic British production and short supply chain means Irish beef will remain a competitive offering. Strong demand is expected to continue for sheepmeat in 2021 and despite rebuilding of the pig herd in China, it will continue to be a large importer of pigmeat.
It is clear that Bord Bia has its finger on the pulse of global food and drink markets and is a forceful advocate for Irish agri-food exports across global markets.
However, the challenge remains to translate the market insights it has developed and promotional campaigns into farmgate value.
The fear for farmers is that this becomes another hurdle they have to clear
It is focused on having a validated sustainability offering to differentiate Irish produce in the international marketplace and defend the British market as it opens up to global suppliers.
The fear for farmers is that this becomes another hurdle they have to clear in the process of running faster to stand still and today’s premium offering becomes tomorrow’s base standard.
It is important that Bord Bia avoids solo runs with new initiatives that affect farmers but carefully explains its strategies and purpose behind any initiatives that it believes will bring value to farmers.
Ultimately, it is the raw material that is produced on Irish farms that makes Irish agri-food exports possible, and while it is accepted that production must be sustainable, it must also be economically sustainable for farmers.