The price of low-cost: Irish food chain systems accused of ‘perpetuating rural poverty’

The modern low-cost food system “perpetuates rural poverty”, a Northern Ireland based rural development academic and lobbyist has warned.

Rural Community Network director Kate Clifford made the comments on Wednesday night (February 10) while speaking at the Food, Farming and Land Convention – a two-day conference examining the future of sustainable farming and land management practices in Northern Ireland.

The panel was discussing the impact of removing subsidies from farm businesses.

“Our difficulty is that many rural economies are dependent on the subsidies that come in from Europe to sustain farming returns and incomes. A lot of it is uneconomical,” she said.

“One year you make a profit, one year you make a loss. It depends on the weather, climate, markets, and sales. It’s consumer-led and there’s very little return in farming as to what the end product will return to you.

“The lovely thing about EU subsidies was that it was a guaranteed payment into people’s homes and therefore, there was a guaranteed level of income below which income would not fall.

…It’s an awful analogy to make but it’s a bit like removing mining from the mining towns in North-East England. We have to have a replacement system, otherwise, we will end up with a derelict countryside.

Clifford warned that a failure to replace farm support would lead to “farms that are defunct and areas of wasteland that are no longer minded sustainably”.

“We have to have a system that supports that enables and supports and sustains a living, vibrant, working countryside,” she said.

‘The working poor’

“…It’s a balance – Brexit has caused us to look at things in a very different way and in a vacuum of knowledge,” she added.

Clifford explained the push on margins within food production in Northern Ireland had pushed the industry to minimum wage jobs and zero-hour contracts, which she added then creates poverty in rural areas.

“The agri-food industry in Northern Ireland is a minimum wage, zero-hour contract industry – so it perpetuates poverty,” she said.

While it creates jobs and sustains livelihoods, it also perpetuates poverty. We have a lot of people who earn incomes but they are the ‘working poor’.

“We have food banks that are thriving in rural areas. In a country that is abundant with food, it is crazy that we have people in rural areas who are reliant on hand-outs in this day and age.

“The broader concept for me should be based around creating rural hubs. The farming community must be supported and sustained – but how we do that is beyond me.”