Kieran Coughan: All change for FoodWise 2025 as Brexit changes parameters

The second annual National Economic Dialogue took place a few weeks ago in Dublin Castle.

The purpose of this forum is stated as facilitating an “open and inclusive exchange on the competing economic and social priorities facing the Government.

One of the nine focus areas of the forum was to consider how Ireland could shape up to meeting certain targets of the Foodwise 2025 plan.

Foodwise 2025 is seen as the successor to the original Food Harvest 2020 plan, which was launched by the then Minister for Agriculture Brendan Smith in 2010.

The “Foodwise’ plan launched in 2015 is designed as a 10-year roadmap for the development of agriculture. 

Surprisingly the 100 page dossier makes very little reference, just four instances in fact, to the Food Harvest 2020 plan. 

As farmers, the switch to a “2025” plan from the “2020” plan seems less about a seem-less integration of the national plan for agricultural development into an extended and developed series of objectives (+5 years) and more about a change of tack.

It’s worth reminding ourselves the 2020 plan focused on the three-pronged headings of Smart, Green and Growth. Within each of these headings areas for action were identified for primary producers, the food industry, consumers and at an overall national level.

The Foodwise 2025 plan draws a distinction suggesting the national plan is refining in its objective away from pure growth in expansion to meeting demand at the upper end of the global food market with the focus upon an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable approach. 

Looking at some of the key points for Irelands main sectors; For dairy farmers, the 2020 programme targeted a 50% increase in national production with an additional 2.75bn litre expected to be produced and citing the abolition of EU milk quotas as a real opportunity for the Irish dairy sector.

Meanwhile the 2025 plan make no mention of the volume increases to be expected rather seeking to increase the profitability and viability of primary producers with a focus at processor level in added value product. 

For beef farmers the 2020 plan sought to expand output by 20% in value terms, enhancing viability within the system and retaining Ireland’s position as premium beef producer.

Meanwhile the 2025 objectives focus on increasing the value beef derived from dairy expansion through enhanced breeding technologies (e.g. sexed semen), while also maximising the value of suckler derived progeny by marketing product through premium markets.

Over the 10-year period to 2025 it is hoped the suckler herd will not diminish much from current levels. Within tillage, the prospects for growth suggest a switch from commodity animal feed grade production to premium production such as malt barley, milling wheat, breakfast cereal production and health food.

Five aspects of food

The latest National Economic Dialogue event sought to examine five specific aspects of the Food Wise 2025 plan.

These were:

1. How can the expansion anticipated in Food Wise 2025 be achieved while meeting Ireland’s emission targets and preserving our environment?

2. Based on your experience, what is the best approach to reducing costs and developing scale in the agri-food sector?

3. Based on your experience, how can the agri-food sector attract, retain and develop talent, and promote itself as a career path of choice?

4. How can the agri-food sector draw on Irish business and community networks in key markets to gain consumer insights and communicate our key message?

5. How best can we translate research into practical application or commercial opportunities?

As farmers we deal with change and adaptability every day. The changes in focus within the Foodwise targets are undoubtedly relevant. There is little point in sticking to a 2020 plan if in fact that plan is flawed.

However it is also fair in retrospect to assign criticism against the original vision particularly in the case of targets for dairy expansion which was taken up to some degree by farmers as a chance for unbridled growth, such growth being castigated by the current plan.

As farmers we believe and buy into (to some degree) an improved vision for Irish agriculture. Many farmers aligned their own targets with the vision for agriculture in 2020. It’s a bit late five years on to suggest to farmers they need to revise their expansion strategies.

It’s a pity that the plan or vision for agriculture is not updated on a more frequent basis allowing farmers to base their decisions on more relevant information.

Hopefully the feedback given through the National Economic Dialogue and other fora will result in revisions and improved guidance in the 2025 plan.

Meanwhile — in a broader context — the fallout from the Brexit vote must now also be factored into the vision for Irish agriculture.

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