‘Food Harvest 2020’ - A decade on

Image Credit: Luke Thornton

On the 10th anniversary of Food Harvest 2020, Hannah Woods looks at whether the aims have been met and the agri-food industry improved.

July 2010 saw a committee of key Irish agri-food companies and agricultural representatives established. Along with Bord Bia and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, industry figures came together to put forward a plan to improve the livelihoods of Irish farmers and to get firm grounding for Irish produce in the international markets. The ideal foresaw Irish companies recognising that sharing resources through strategic initiatives would be central to knowledge generation, pursuing the consumer, and diversifying market trends.

In the decade preceding FH 2020, difficult economic circumstances saw farmers and fishermen bare the brunt of a dramatic fall in primary sector returns. From this, the committee thought an organised strategy may be a good option for sectorial planning. Research, creativity and innovation were at the forefront of this paradigm, ensuring the industry generated increased employment opportunities in processing and production, improved income stability and secured reasonable returns for primary producers and for agri-food businesses. The main aims of Food Harvest 2020 were to “act smart, think green and achieve growth”

Looking at the dairy sector, a 50% increase in milk production was seen to be a major challenge of the plan, but with milk quotas abolished in 2015, and the rise of better herd genetics, this has not been as difficult to meet as first thought. In 2009, the average milk production was at 5 billion litres of milk. We now place our yearly production estimate at 8.3 billion litres. In addition, there is an increase in both fat and protein levels of Irish milk. The Irish dairy sector is striving to be a global leader in the development of a high value, environmentally sustainable dairy industry based on our grass-based system. In 2019, Irish dairy exports reached €4.4billion, making it the largest food and drink export category. Although volatile Brexit negotiations continue with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, global exports have undoubtedly slowed down here in Ireland, with a 9% decline in exports overall. However, previously the export target of €12 billion for the sector was already reached with an export growth of €13 billion in 2019. Due to the impact of the Coronavirus, food and drink exports are down by €126 million this year but such a large blow could never have been projected. 

The value of the beef output from the dairy herd now equals approximately 60% of the total beef output, due to the vast expansion of the dairy herd. This growth is beginning to dominate the Irish beef sector. However, a viable suckler herd of sufficient size is fundamental for the development of the beef industry with the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) predicting that the profitability of the existing suckler cow herd could be increased by €200 million by 2020, or so was thought by the committee of the Food Harvest 2020. 

In 2014, the first beef crisis hit in relation to dropping beef slaughter prices. The Minister for Agriculture at the time, Simon Coveney, put in place a care package of €40 million to see farmers through and to keep on track with the goals of the FH 2020 plans. The unity between factories and beef farmers had, however, taken a sharp turn again late in 2019, with further beef protests in Dublin demanding a better price per head. Since 2010, Irish beef exports have greatly risen from €1.5 billion to €3.9 billion. Undoubtedly, this is good news for Irish beef globally and the sector has exceeded the growth targets for FH 2020. Some are now beginning to see Irish beef as an agri-food processing industry, separate from the farming sector. Many now feel the industry has forgotten the signals of FH 2020 to keep small suckler farmers and small beef enterprises relevant. This was seen as a major goal of the plan, to unite industry and primary producers, offering them stability and support in hard times.

In relation to sheep, the 2010 estimation of sector financial worth was around €250 million, with FH 2020 planning to increase this by 20%. In 2018, these targets were accomplished with total export costs reaching €315 million, however, this has been decreasing slightly over the last 2 years. Like beef, many sheep farmers’ livelihoods have not improved from the proposed action of FH 2020. The central aim was to link farmers with industry, a collaboration whereby farmers get to set the price rather than just take the first deal offered to them. Farmers are still settling for the prices given to them rather than being the price setters they hoped they might become.

Food Harvest 2020 was meant to bring about an all-round community atmosphere within agriculture, rather than see the position of primary producers fall beneath that of processors, as many believe to have happened. Although we can take Food Harvest 2020 as a success in terms of boosting the overall value of the Irish export market and expanding our international brand, it has failed to increase producer-industry cooperation.