A new charge
Having taken over the role of CEO of Bord Bia in November of 2022, Jim O’Toole has followed a very similar path to his predecessor, Tara McCarthy: both spent much of their careers at the Irish Food Board before leaving to take over the position of CEO at Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) – Jim replaced Tara as CEO of BIM in 2017 and, once again, followed in her footsteps at the end of last year when he took over the role of CEO at Bord Bia. But it is a rapidly changing environment that he has returned to, and that the Irish food industry finds itself in today: with global food security front and centre, a new CAP on the horizon, and the aftermath of Brexit still shifting the goalposts in the marketplace. So where do his priorities lie? “The priorities are laid out in the strategy that we launched last year; but the climate action agenda is where Bord Bia has a really important role to play in terms of building Ireland’s food brand and how we communicate this to customers around the world, and right through to farm level. We need to also help build better relationships between our clients and customers and to offer insight into the innovation evident in the sector. We are in such a volatile period: these forces [Brexit, Covid, the war in Ukraine] are coming one after the other. Sometimes people might think that innovation diminishes in difficult market conditions but, in fact, it increases.”
The farmer’s role
Prioritising farmers and connecting with the farming community is also an important focus for Jim: “Farmers are fundamental to what we do. We have a very close relationship with the farming community through the various different forums we engage with and the representative organisations. When we are telling the story about why Irish food is different, is unique, the farmer is at the heart of this. We have always understood that.” says Jim.
“The Origin Green initiative – and now the sustainable assurance schemes – is a key selling point; it is very distinct from other countries, and it has a real impact on customers. We are appreciative of the fact that this all hinges on the work going on in thousands of farms every day. At farm level, we have over 55,000 members of Bord Bia’s Sustainable Assurance Schemes and that is testament to the engagement that farmers have in this whole area.”
And Jim is keen to point out the inherent care that farmers have for the land they work and the recognition this deserves: “Farming is all about caring for the land, passing it on from generation to generation. Farmers understand this better than anyone and they work very hard to achieve progress when it comes to sustainability. With Origin Green we have brought measurement to this. And we are collaborating with Teagasc and ICBF in terms of creating action plans and tools to help improve and deliver support services here to assist that work."
Jim adds that the work being done in Ireland is very progressive. “We have stringent targets to achieve and this is going to mean farm practices will change – but there is a pride and quality of product that we can bring to consumers around the world and we have strong evidence that there is a demand for that.”
In order to meet all of the challenges facing us, Jim recognises that there are complex issues to be addressed, but he is confident of our ability to do so: “Irish farmers have never failed to respond to a challenge, and they are challenged frequently. Farmers are looking for clear messaging and clear direction. We celebrated 10 years of Origin Green last year – it has always been about a journey and it has always been about progress; but we were right to start on that journey as long ago as we did. Our farmer members represent 90 per cent of what we export and there are schemes coming on all of the time so that reach will grow. Origin Green is voluntary and always will be – it would be inappropriate to think otherwise. However, demand from consumers is only going in one direction, as is policy, so we see Origin Green as an enabler to achieving these goals.”
He notes that these suite of assurance schemes are constantly reviewed: “We are always trying to structure them a little bit better. The need for review is because of legislative changes, market requirement changes, etc; and these schemes give us the credibility and evidence to go to customers around the work and show them that what is happening [in Ireland] is as good, if not better, than elsewhere. This updating is done in consultation with everybody.”
“We are open to criticism and, if we are challenged by it, we take it on board. But we know from experience that we are dealing with sophisticated customers all around the world and they won’t just take our word for it. Everything we do always has to be underpinned with evidence. We collect this evidence and everything is done against independent standards. We publish the evidence – we don’t try to say it is better than it is: we simply we tell it as it is, and we are happy to stand over the detail.”
Commenting on the possible demand for carbon labelling on food products across the EU, Jim explains: “Bord Bia has just completed a study on carbon and the consumer and it is very interesting. There is a plethora of claims being made and consumers are finding it difficult to navigate this. It is complex. Consumers want to do the right thing. There is some work to do but we are going in that direction, with regard to harmonisation in EU policy and looking at how to try to help people navigate that.”
Does Jim see our production models changing? “The whole thrust of Climate Action Plan is around options for diversification and that will be a feature as people look at different options. A growing sector, for example, is organics. We were exhibiting at Biofach recently and, while the economics are challenging for all sectors, we see that there will be a growing demand for organics, particularly in continental Europe.
“For the dairy sector, we have seen rapid expansion in terms of output; the focus for the future will be in terms of increasing value from dairy. The production output will stabilise.”
In relation to beef, he highlights that the amended application for an all-Ireland PGI has been submitted to the European Commission and they are awaiting a response. “There are opportunities if we get PGI, particularly in continental Europe where they are familiar with it, and we can reinforce our provenance and look to identify Irish beef and our USP.
“In relation to market access for beef industry, it was fantastic to regain access to China in January and that is something that the Department put a lot of work into, both from a health point of view and diplomatically. And my colleagues in Shanghai worked hard to keep those contacts alive. We have a trade mission in May and we are looking forward to meeting customers face-to-face. There is work ongoing for some time relation to market access for Korea and that is at an advanced stage; it is going through their own Parliamentary process.
“You have to think about the best market for the best cut at the best time; it’s about having a range of possibilities and being able to identify which will return the most for the producer.”
Concluding, Jim refers to his calendar for the year: “Every day is an important day in the Bord Bia calendar. We have over 30 trade shows this year. These include Biofach, Gulfood, Tuttofood, SIAL China, specialist shows in the US and a trade mission to South East Asia in November; as well as buyer visits over the summer and Bloom, of course, in June. It will be a busy year.”