Extra research funding vital for food sector

THE ICMSA has rejected Agri-Vision projection of 10,000 full-time farmers by 2015.

This latest figure was too pessimistic said ICMSA president Pat O’Rourke.

His organisation was determined farmers could look to the future with hope and confidence.

“We know that we can shape a future that gives farmers a decent level of prosperity and a rewarding quality of life, and we suspect that unduly pessimistic figures like the rump figure of 10,000 raised by Agri-Vision tend to become self-fulfilling,” he said. The bad news for the ICMSA is that railing against the pessimism in the report will not change the stark reality of an industry and a rural Ireland in deep transition.

Mr O’Rourke can look to Professor Liam Downey’s most recent assessment, dated May 20, 2004, that by 2015 the number of full-time commercial farmers predominantly in intensive dairying will be 15,000.

It is a point of interest that the latest estimates come from research carried out by Prof Downey’s former employer. Thia Hennessy of Teagasc’s Rural Economy Research Centre put the figures together. The committee considered the analysis on the jobs front to be totally reliable so there is little comfort for Mr O’Rourke on that issue.

The changes in farm numbers forecast are based on the expected reactions of many thousands of farm families to the changes they will face in the policy and economic environment.

Specifically, the forecast says by 2015 there will be 105,000 farmers in Ireland. Some 45,000 will be non-viable (meaning family income from the farm is insufficient to cover family labour and return on assets but the farmer and/or the spouse has an off-farm job), and 20,000 will be transitional (meaning family income from the farm is insufficient to cover family labour and return on assets and there is no off-farm employment). These numbers will include 12,500 viable dairy farms, 1,500 non-viable part-time dairy farms and 1,500 transitional dairy farms.

Despite its growing sophistication, agriculture forms just 3% of the economy. That’s no longer the point as the report makes clear in its recommendations. The review published by the Department of Agriculture was commissioned by former Farm Minister Joe Walsh, who held that portfolio longer than anyone in recent times. It was a touch ironic that by the publication date the well-regarded minister had resigned to be replaced by Mary Coughlan who, from Donegal, would probably know more about trawlers than trailers.

Appointed in January 2004 the Agri Vision 2015 Committee was instructed to look at the changes expected in the agri-food sector over the coming decade. Reviewing the strategy and recommendations contained in the Agri Food 2010 Report was a key task.

Committee chairman Alan Dukes said the analysis, recommendations and strategy of that group remain as valid as when first published.

However, the report made one crucial point and it was that the public policy environment for agriculture has changed fundamentally since the publication of the Agri Food 2010 report.

The Luxembourg Agreement is a dramatic change in European agricultural policy, and will decouple agricultural direct payments from production.

The problem with the report is that it is prescriptive.

Unless the Government goes for this and puts in place €0.5 billion to €1bn in research funding to push us in the direction we need to go this country could lose out on the biggest opportunity ever presented.

At its simplest is the manufacture of food to meet the needs of today’s consumer which requires producing goods that not only fulfil the basic nutritional needs but enhance health and reverse conditions such as cholesterol.

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