The functioning of the Irish food supply chain, and the vital implications for food security.

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The strength of the Irish can be evaluated by looking at the industry’s response to the coronavirus, according to Noel Bardon.

The panic buying seen at the beginning of the lockdown measures in mid-March was not unique to Ireland. Thankfully, for the vast majority of consumers in the developed world at least, the commercial sector continued to fill the demand for almost all essential food and groceries. The readiness of the food supply chain to cope with unexpected difficulties in their delivering of products to its customers cannot be overlooked in these unprecedented times.

As a small country reliant on the import of fresh fruit and vegetables, the haulage sector is essential for smooth functioning of the food supply chain. The economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic threatened the “financial viability of haulage businesses due to the overall drop in freight volumes or cash flow problems may see some haulage operators closing” according to a report by the Department of Business, Enterprise & Innovation. The closure of these logistic firms could jeopardise this essential component in the timely delivery of goods, particularly perishables, arriving through Irish ports.

This reliance on haulage for our import of European produce is also faced with the risk of a no-deal Brexit. Should the land border with the UK stop, restrict, or delay the transport of food from the EU, producers may find it impractical to export to Ireland this way. Alternative routes by sea may add time and cost to the transfer of goods between Dublin and the continent. However, this scenario could have a silver lining for domestic producers. Horticulturalists at home would be in a better position to compete with European rivals in a move which may leave the country with an increased security in the supply of fruit and vegetables, areas of production that have not reached their full strength. This move to domestic production would take funding, but more importantly time, something such plans would be unlikely to have.

The safety and welfare of those employed by producers and processors is another area where the supply chain was stretched unexpectedly over the past few months. Many producers and processors took for granted the ability of processing plants to function at capacity indefinitely, with declining market outlook being the primary factor limiting output. The closure of meat plants in the midlands in August, as well as the shortage of fruit pickers in April, exposed the bottleneck in the food supply chain when adequate labour cannot be sourced. Expanded workers’ rights and employee welfare legislation may be needed to strengthen these aspects where weaknesses could be observed over the past few months.

The Irish agri-food sector has seen a noticeable drop in demand for food and beverages, mainly meats, as restaurants and other high value outlets for produce closed around the world. This highlights the necessity of Irish produce in filling the food security needs of other nations around the world. It also shows the need for our agri-food industry to strengthen its relationship with consumers in markets outside of restaurants and engage with retailers in marketing Irish produce for home meal preparation.

In whole, Ireland’s food and drink industry weathered the unanticipated disruptions to the sector reasonably well. Areas of improvement have been identified that, if acted upon, will allow the supply chain to improve its resilience.