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Opinion: ‘Pursuit of the cheap food strategy seems to be continuing’

The publication by the EU Commission of their Farm to Fork strategy is a significant event, though it is a document which is long on aspiration but somewhat short on detail, writes Bláth Cooney, suckler farmer, Co. Clare.

The commitment to support and monitor the operation of the Unfair Trading Directive is, in view of the huge imbalances in the food supply chain, very important and very necessary. It is widely acknowledged that the primary producer is the least powerful player in the supply chain and an easy target for exploitation.

The marketing of our top-quality beef as a run-of-the-mill commodity has helped to suppress prices. The proposal to promote Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status for quality foods produced in the EU is very welcome.

This has been mooted previously for Irish suckler beef but there seems to have been little progress made, due perhaps to the failure to differentiate grass-fed animals from feedlot stock.

Differentiating our high-quality, environmentally friendly beef from inferior products, whether produced here or imported, is crucial to achieving a fair price.

It is to be hoped that the implementation of the proposed Code of Conduct for Responsible Business and Marketing Practice will assist in the promotion and marketing of our suckler beef.

However, it would be naive to think that the powerful players in the market would voluntarily sign up to a Code of Conduct which would seek to share their margins with the primary producers. Such a Code would need to have legislative force, or it will have no value.

Food security

Elsewhere, the strategy refers to the importance of food security. Recent events should have brought home to policymakers in the EU the vital importance of having a secure, reliable and local supply of quality food.

 One would have thought that the impact of the measures taken to counteract the COVID pandemic would have focused minds. However, the Strategy has very little in the line of concrete measures and there is no indication of any intention to pull back on the very damaging Mercosur deal.

This deal proposes to replace traceable beef produced to European standards with beef of uncertain origin and with unknown additives, produced for the EU on land cleared by burning the rainforests of the Amazon.

The document uses the words ‘sustainable’ or ‘sustainability’ no fewer than 134 times, excluding annex and footnotes, yet there seems to be little consideration given to the sustainability of rural communities in Europe. The unspoken intention being apparently to allow other, poorer countries to carry the environmental cost of feeding Europe.

The pursuit of the cheap food strategy seems to be continuing, regardless of the true cost and there seems to be little tangible commitment to the stated aim of raising global standards.

Unfortunately, a cheap food policy only serves to devalue quality food in the eyes of consumers, contributing to a downward spiral in prices.

Environment

The Strategy takes a worrying approach to environmental matters. The global lockdown has clearly demonstrated that the real environmental culprit is not agriculture of any kind and certainly not livestock.

This document, however, fails to acknowledge the current environmental benefits of properly grazed grassland and speaks of imposing additional measures on farmers for carbon sequestration.

The starting point for improving carbon efficiency has to be the comprehensive measurement of existing grassland practices and an assessment of the methane cycle.

The Commission is intent on promoting artificial or plant-based meat substitutes as an environmental measure. This ignores the fact that only a fraction of land is suitable for crop production and livestock grazing is the only way of producing food from most land.

In addition, ruminants are an essential part of a balanced ecosystem, as they have been for millennia, and grazing grassland correctly maximises its carbon efficiency.

Going organic

The lazy assumption that ‘going organic’ must be necessarily better for the environment also needs to be examined.

Given that most non-cyclic emissions are produced by the consumption of fossil fuels, there are far more significant environmental factors in the food supply chain than whether production is or is not organic.

Furthermore, the assertion that ‘consumers recognise the value of organic produce’ is not supported by the facts.

Organic produce does not command an adequate margin over conventional to justify the additional effort and reduced productivity.

Farmers do not spend money on fertilisers and pesticides because they like spending money; they apply these products so that they can maximise production just to survive.

An aspiration to increase organic production has to be accompanied by a realisation that good food is not cheap to produce and a policy of providing cheap food to the citizens of Europe is ultimately unsustainable.

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