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Pat McCormack
Pat McCormack
Pat McCormack
As I write this preparations are in full swing for our Annual
General Meeting to be held on November 29 in Limerick.
An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has very kindly consented
to speak at the event, as has Minister Creed and the RTE
broadcaster, Philip Boucher-Hayes, who will speak on
a theme (`Is the era of cheap food over?') that I think is
completely intertwined with those issues dealt with by
RTE in their `Climate Week' shows and broadcasts without
seeming to get similar attention or focus. This is one of
the most intriguing aspects of the climate change debate
and one that is going to have to start getting an awful lot
more examination than has been the case up to this point.
I refer here the widespread idea delusion is probably a
better word that, in some sense, the changes involved in
farming and food production in the `new' climate change
context are exclusively the concerns of the farmers and
that for the consumers things will roll along merrily with
just an occasional snack on a vegan or synthetic `meat'
burger to burnish your environmental credentials and `do
your bit'. I suspect that this fantasy the fantasy that all the
change involved in climate compatibility and sustainability
is going to be carried out by the farmers and primary food
producers is much more pervasive than we realise.
What's even more alarming is the equally absurd idea that
all the costs associated with the transformation of our
farming and primary food-production systems to the new
climate-compatible model are, similarly, the concerns of
farmers and just the farmers. Consumers are in for a very
big surprise. The end of this model of farming and most
specifi cally the end of the `volume-over-margin' model
that was the o cial and industrial response when farmers
complained about the disappearance of their margins is
going to have enormous consequences for the whole
food-supply chain and in our opinion will mean the end
of the `cheap food' policy that was a founding principle
of the old EEC and has been a core operating principle of
its successor, the EU. Put simply, in the aftermath of the
Second World War, alongside the physical reconstruction of
the continent was the provision of cheap and high quality
food to the great cities of Europe as they were rebuilt
and as the populations grew and became industrialised
for consumer societies. The provision of this supply of
cheap and quality food became a priority and the means
by which that food was and is delivered to our huge
urban populations was the powerful and hugely profi table
multinational corporate retailers. The price demanded by
these corporations for that delivery was the power to erode
the margins of those `behind' them who supplied them
with the food which was then sold onto the consumers at
artifi cially cheap prices. In this way, the retail corporations
maintained their own margins by progressively dropped
the price and margins they paid to the processors
and the farmers who supplied them. The consumers were
happy because they were getting food cheaper than ever,
the processors were happy because they could pass the
reduced prices paid by the retailers backwards to their
suppliers and keep their own margins, while the corporate
retailers were happiest of all: they could dictate price
`forwards' to their consumer-customers and `backwards' to
their suppliers, maintaining and growing their margins all
the time while relentlessly reducing the prices and margins
they themselves paid to their suppliers.
If anyone ever queried their growing dominance and
near-absolute control of the food supply-chain, the retail
corporations merely threatened that any interference
would result in food infl ation and what politicians wanted
to have to explain that in Manchester or Milan, Dijon or
Dortmund? Or Dublin, for that matter. Because it is now
accepted that that the average Irish family in 2019 spends
on food approximately half of what the comparable
average Irish family spent in the 1970s as a percentage of
their respective incomes. Food is cheaper and of higher
quality than it has ever been. The question is who has paid
for this phenomenon and the study after study has given
us an unequivocal answer: the farmer primary-producer
is the one who has paid for the cheap food policy. The
ability to sell top quality food cheaper in real terms than it
has ever been has only been possible because the margins
of the farmer primary-producers have been wiped-out
, grabbed and absorbed by the links in the supply-chain
closer to the consumers. When farmers complained about
the disappearance of their margins they were told to make
up the fall in margins and income by producing more at
the lower margins that is the origin of the `volume-over-
margin' model. It's is becoming more obvious than ever
that one chief consequence of the climate-transformation
will be the ending of this model and a return to a system
where the real price of food will have to be paid. We will be
insisting that a real margin from that real price goes back to
the farmers who are the real basis of the whole chain.
The era of cheap food is over.
Pat McCormack,
ICMSA President