Opinion

Consumers want to see farmers getting a fair crack of the whip

Irish consumers, north and south, are prepared to pay that little bit more for chicken that has been grown on local farms.

This was one of the most encouraging take-home messages from the recent Poultry Industry Education Trust annual conference, held at the Loughry campus of the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (CAFRE) in Co. Tyrone.

This is a clear trend that has been consistently identified by the Mintel market research organisation over recent years.

The other proviso, of course, is that the extra money shelled out by shoppers must get back to the primary producer. And, therein, lies our problem.

It is, indeed, very encouraging that consumers do want to see farmers getting a better return from the market; the challenge is that of identifying how much of what comes in at the retail end actually trickles its way back to the primary producer.

National Beef Association (NBA) director Chris Mallon touched on this very subject, in the context of the redmeat industry, during his recent visit to Northern Ireland.

He wants to see the appointment of a Food Ombudsman with the power and authority to get to the very heart of the traceability challenge within the agri-food sector as a whole.

Of course, he’s absolutely right. And it wouldn’t take a genius to identify quite straightforward ways by which the influence of the multiples can be curtailed, so as to give farmers a better chance of securing a sustainable future for their businesses. Take discount selling as a case in point.

Prof. Geoff Simmons, a professor of marketing at Queen’s University in Belfast, told delegates attending the poultry conference that some retailers regularly sell chicken at prices that are below the actual cost of production. And, from what I can gauge, liquid milk continues to come in for the same treatment in many shops.

In my opinion, these practises should be banned with immediate effect. I don’t care if the retailers claim that they – not the farmer – take the financial hit, when these selling techniques are applied. At a very fundamental level, they devalue the quality of the food produced on local farms. And this is, fundamentally, wrong.

I know that all of this resonates strongly with the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA).

By their very nature, farmers are extremely weak sellers. They haven’t the financial clout to take on the multiple retailers. The good news is that consumers want to see farmers getting a sustainable return for the food they produce.

But the challenge remains that of converting all of this sympathy into hard cash. Phil Hogan, the EU’s Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, has been flagging up the transparency issue as a priority for the past three years. It’s time he got beyond the talking stage and came up with some firm proposals to limit the power of Europe’s supermarkets.