Tuesday was the industry launch of the 2016 Year of Food – an exercise in marketing that showcases the hard-working small farmers across NI and the great local products they give us, from grassfed beef to wheaten bread.
In timing that only the cynical media gods could have arranged, on the very same day two other reports were released that presented a far less rosy picture of the food chain here and on the mainland. First, the UK media widely reported that Tesco (already struggling with a bad reputation following the horse-meat scandal a few years ago and under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office) had confessed to deliberately delaying payments to its suppliers, in some cases for up to two years; and admitting that it had “harmed suppliers.”
Closer to home, the advocacy group Farmers For Action NI released a document calling on Stormont to prevent the imminent collapse of the Northern Irish rural economy. The report, written by journalist Paul Gosling, is entitled “On the eve of destruction: The case for Stormont intervention to save Northern Ireland’s farming industry.” (On Wednesday, French farmers took to burning tyres and blocking roads to protest the very thing that Farmers for Action are rallying against.)
Of course, it would be obtuse, even churlish, to conflate a campaign to promote NI food tourism with broad and complex market trends that are making life very difficult for famers across the world.
However, fixing these problems requires a 360-degree approach that does not currently exist. And carrying out marketing campaigns to promote our agricultural assets – however well-intentioned – is a little bit like fiddling while Rome burns.
In creating a sensible solution, we all have a role to play. Farmers, government, restaurants, and the rest of us eaters.
So what are the challenges?
The most obvious problem is that what farmers are paid in the conventional system has no correlation with their production costs. Can you imagine walking into a café and telling the owner, “Your menu says £7.95 for this sandwich, but I’m only going to pay you a quid.”?
“We are price-takers, not price-makers,” said one Co. Armagh farmer.
Commodities prices have fallen off a cliff. That is putting a crushing burden of debt on many farmers within the conventional system, here and elsewhere.
As the farmer put it: “You get onto a bubble where it has to get bigger and bigger and bigger – until the bubble bursts.”
Secondly, as government officials charged with implementing agri policy will tell you, scaling up in a place as small as Northern Ireland is very difficult. Small and diverse herds — markets want big homogenous herds that can slot easily into the supply chain – and the extra shipping costs to reach the markets, are just two obvious weaknesses in the drive for exporting commodities. Despite this, selling pig parts to China is the Holy Grail.
The Agri-Food Strategy Board’s Going for Growth paper is calling for “one supply chain,” which sounds very much like a further reduction in small family farms’ control over their own livelihoods; and “sustainable intensification” – which seems a contradiction in terms.
The policy is tantamount to fitting a square peg into a round hole. Why aren’t we playing to our strengths instead?
There is an alternative route. And that is to develop NI as a haven for small-scale, organic, sustainable and high-quality product – starting from the soil and working up. Quality over quantity. We already have the quality part down — much of our best produce is exported to chefs in France and the UK, some of whom have Michelin stars.
That would also allow for the development of a vibrant food tourism sector, appealing to the many people across the globe who have made sustainable food practices a way of life.
The market for organic products is growing. In UK, the growth in organic products has bucked an otherwise downward trend in the conventional food market. In the United States, where one source put sales of organic food at $36 billion a year, studies have shown that organic food buyers are a diverse group – a sign that organic is entering the mainstream. The wider costs associated with massive feedlots, overbred animals and monoculture, and the food they create, are now widely known.
And despite all the marketers and business leaders trumpeting “local” and “artisanal” at every opportunity, dissenters say the reality is different. One farmer told me, taking into consideration the amount of grassland available in NI and the numbers of hectares required for meat and dairy production, the math on the claims of grassfed beef does not add up. Too many “cows here don’t see the light of day. On a scale we are probably worse here in NI than the big feed-lots of the US,” he said.
It’s time we recognise that organic is more than just a marketing ploy to separate the upper middle class from their money. It is a commercially viable alternative to the destructive elements of the conventional system.
So what is the solution?
For some farmers the solution has been opting out of the system. Doing so has given them control and allowed them to charge and receive fair price for their skill and labour.
The Co. Armagh farmer has returned to more traditional farming practices – going for quality over quantity. While returning to small-scale, traditional farming methods sounds like a step backward, this farmer says it has given him back his autonomy and a healthy income. He sees his neighbours labouring under burden of debt within the conventional system, and he asks himself “is this really better?”
Another farmer in Co. Antrim faced similar challenges. In response, he too returned to traditional methods, and found a sustainable and profitable route to market with organic food delivery system Boxa.
Boxa is a group run by food activist Rita Wild, who organises the supply of a wide range of organic, wild, ethical and free-range foods to around 200 people across the north every month. Farmers who participate in her scheme get paid fairly. And her customers pay the same price as they would at Tesco — but for high-quality, organic product with true traceability.
The organic farmers Rita works with are actually doing well outside the conventional system. That’s down to the system they have devised.
“The well-run organic holding is far less costly to run, no big medicines bills, no artificial fertiliser bill, no feed bill, higher soil fertility so more nutritious grass,” she said. “It’s a win-win.”
Consumers and restaurants need to play a role as well.
Restaurants need to be truthful in their claims of “local” and “organic” – something more than one farmer has told me they frequently aren’t. (This seems to be an open, if dirty, secret in the restaurant business.) While we are currently lucky enough to enjoy several standout restaurants that make exquisite use of our bounty, there are others that are just jumping on the local bandwagon, leaving the farmers I spoke with leery of selling to restaurants at all. Restaurants are so concerned with the bottom line that some will purchase product from anywhere in the world at the cost of local, quality supply. This undermines the true value of Northern Ireland’s produce.
And what can we, the eaters, do?
Pay attention to what we buy, and reduce our reliance on the big chain supermarkets that are price-gouging our local farmers. Alternatives to shopping in the big box stores include organic delivery schemes like Boxa, farmers markets like the Inns, and the soon-to-be launched Food Assembly.
We also need to take back power in our kitchens. Succumbing the idea that we need massive companies to process, cook, and freeze our meals for us only perpetuates a food system that is widely acknowledged to be broken.
We consumers simply must stop thinking food as just another commodity, in the interest of our health, our wallet and our planet. The seeming miracle of industrialized agriculture – that incredible change in farming that has brought us tomatoes and strawberries in the dead of winter, and that has bred chickens to the point where they are unable to stand – is starting to look like a dangerous fault-line.
What the powers-that-be need to realize is that there is life beyond the commodities markets. In fact, there is a large, highly educated, motivated and engaged market – from Portland, Oregon to Cornwall to Lyon in France – searching for products from small-scale, organic, traditional suppliers.
And while Year of Food is a great idea in support of local produce, it does not focus on organic or specifically promote truly sustainable practices. This is a missed opportunity.
If Northern Ireland food really wants to be world class, the powers-that-be running the show are going to have to step outside their bubble. Everyone loves to pay lip service to the idea of local, sustainable and organic – from restaurateurs, to customers and shoppers, to marketing professionals. But there is a difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. Everyone wants to get to heaven, but nobody wants to die.
It’s a matter of focusing on quality over quantity. Right now we are trying to have it both ways, and everyone here deserves better.
Follow Jenny @PieceNornIron