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Regeneration needs grant support for investment

In recent years there has been an over-commitment of Government / EU resources into the raw material supply-base of the few major processor-exporters. National agri-food strategy has placed too much emphasis on increasing processor throughput to reduce processing costs in the hope that commodity exports will be competitive. Sadly, the Government continues to lock in this policy.

 

Concurrently, too little focus has been placed upon maintaining and improving farm incomes. In addition, too little policy has been targeted at local foods processing to create local-to-farm and on-farm employment with the result that there is little foods-based, rurally-distributed employment.

 

The net result is a  conflict within the agri-foods policy between the interests of the agro-industrial food processors on the one hand and family farms and the needs of rural Ireland on the other.

 

An objective of the Foundation is to see a significant premium foods sector develop in Ireland. Given what premium-paying consumers expect of fine foods, this will have to come from a more artisanal food-processing sector than currently exists. The products wlll also have to have strong quality and origin credentials. A major problem, however, is the lack of investment that has been made into this segment of the industry. Processing has become so centralized that there are few consumer foods products with traceable links to the farm. A situation evidenced by the lack of Irish-labelled food products on UK shelves even though the UK is Ireland’s major export market.

 

To begin to rectify this situation will require investment in new processing capacity and new routes to market for premium-quality food products. Given how little that has happened in recent years and how far the sector has to go, there is a strong case for offering grant aid to those who wish to invest in the premium-foods supply chain [and to create spatially-diverse rural employment there within]. The Foundation will seek to play a proactive role in facilitating access to such grant aid.

Mitigating the extra costs of producing sustainable foods

There is a call by Patrick Holden of the Sustainable Food Trust for the implementaion of what has been termed 'True Cost Accounting' for farming and food. It calls for the inclusion of all of the costs associated with food to be included when determining the the price of foods. In this case all costs are to include, for example, environmental costs linked to farming practices and extra health service costs that result from the consumption of poor quality foods. Implementing TCA is, nonetheless, fraught with difficulties and likely to be near impossible in practice. TCA does, however, have value in raising the awareness of the wider costs associated with food production and poor nutrition. It can be a useful educational tool but it is unlikely to be operationally practical.

 

An arguement for using TCA is that some foods are cheaper than they should be because their price does not account for external costs associated with, say, extra health care incurred due to them being nutritionally poor. Their production systems may also lead to environmental costs that are simmilarly not accounted for in the price. The arguement follows that foods that do not incur these higher external costs are unfairly penalised by the existing market pricing mechanisms and that this imbalance should be rectified by finding a method to include all of the costs in the price.

 

The viewpoint of the Foundation is that ad-hoc TCA of foods can highlight the issue but a more direct approach is required to redress the price imbalance. TCA can then provide one of the tools to justify support being given to producers of foods where the full costs are fully internalized.

 

It is our view that there should be grant support given to those who are producing the latter foods, be they provided to farmers and/or to food processors. As these foods are often from small-scale entities they do not have sufficient access to capital and this should be rectified. They can also use short supply chains that can deliver quality foods at competitive prices to the food consumer by eliminating supply-chain costs; thus meaning that the price to the consumer is 'more food and less supply-chain cost'. If the supply-chain is socially-owned the food producers may also receive a better return as they can receive a higher proportion of the final retail price. For farmer and consumer it can be a win-win situation. Hence,  for a number of reasons, there is justification to provide grant aid to small, local food processors and farmers who provide high-quality local foods.

In partnership with landscape stewardship schemes

Location and origin can provide exclusivity and strong food marketing tools. More so when rules governing farming husbandry and food processing are included. All are about creating strong, unique-selling-points for premium local products. Further, the unique-selling-points may include farmer-management [or the stewardship] of high-nature-value lands and/or renown landscapes.

 

The goal is to boost the economic viability of local farming [and local rural communities] in specific areas via the creation of products with stories that link locally-produced products to farming to the landscapes and the conservation of the landscapes and high-nature-value land there within.

 

There are situations where grazing is a necessary land management tool on high-nature-value land. Typically these land areas only produce low-quality forage but a few cattle and sheep breeds [often heritage breeds] are renown for utilising poor forages and producing premium meat. These can be integrated into a locality and landscape-specific, conservation-dedicated, quality-and-origin designated schemes; thus enhancing the incomes of sheep and cattle farmers.

 

The links between conservation, farming and premium product may also improve the longevity of land stewardship schemes as they may just make the schemes less reliant on tax-payer funding.

 

One should note that land stewardship schemes are often only about the providing of annual payments in exchange for specific activities undertaken for a period of years. The 'sustainability' of the scheme itself is limited to the finite period of the annual payments. Should investment grant aid [for farming and processing] be considered in parallel to the annual payments? The target of this being to raise the degree of viability of both the farming and food processing that comes from the foods market; thus improving 'sustainability' beyond the life of the stewardship scheme itself.

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