Co-ops are a key component of sustainable economic and agricultural development in Ireland, according to a government report.
The Food Vision 2030 report, from Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, sets out steps the country should take to become a world leader in sustainable food systems (SFS) over the next decade, which will “deliver significant benefits for the Irish agri-food sector itself, for Irish society and the environment”.
The report sets out four high-level missions underpinned by a series of key goals and actions:
- a climate-smart, environmentally sustainable agri-food sector;
- iable and resilient primary producers with enhanced wellbeing;
- food which is safe, nutritious and appealing, and is trusted and valued at home and abroad;
- an innovative, competitive and resilient agri-food sector, driven by technology and talent.
By adopting an integrated food systems approach, the report argues, Ireland could become “a global leader of innovation for sustainable food and agriculture systems, producing safe, nutritious, and high-value food while protecting and enhancing the country’s natural and cultural resources and contributing to vibrant rural and coastal communities and the national economy”.
Co-operatives are a crucial component of this, it adds, because they are significant actors in the future of Irish agriculture that could “significantly strengthen the producers’ position in the supply chain”.
“The co-operative structure is well established in the Irish dairy sector and key farm and rural-based services,” says the report. But while this structure is also well established in livestock marketing, there are no co-ops established in beef processing in Ireland. Meanwhile, “producer organisations (POs) play an important role in horticulture, but there are currently no recognised producer organisations for the arable crops sector and only two in the beef sectors”.
This is an issue as co-operatives and registered POs can benefit from exemptions from EU competition rules for certain activities, such as collective negotiations on behalf of their members, planning of production or for certain supply management measures.
The report “recognises the interconnectedness between policies for food, environment and health,” said Tom Arnold, who chaired the 2030 Agri-Food Strategy Stakeholder Committee, introducing the report.
“We anticipate that the market and policy environment facing the agri-food sector over the next decade will be substantially different than for any recent decade.
“As our work progressed, the message we received, with ever greater clarity, was that sustainability will be the requirement from the domestic and international consumer and citizen, and the trade customers representing the bridge between the consumer and the agri-food sector. Just as importantly, it will also be key to ensuring that the sector operates within planetary boundaries and fulfils what Irish society expects from it in terms of becoming more sustainable.”
The strategy has also set the goal of a carbon-neutral food system by 2050, with verifiable progress by 2030, encompassing emissions, water quality and biodiversity, and includes measures to increase its role in carbon sequestration.
“The coming decade will see carbon farming offering a potential new source of income for farmers, which will require a new regulatory framework at EU and national level and payment for the delivery of other eco-system services,” said Mr Arnold.
In Ireland, over 7% of the national workforce (164,000 people) are employed in the agri-food sector, with around 90,000 farm holdings specialising in Beef and milk production.
A 2019 study commissioned by the National Co-op Farm Relief Services into the Attitudes of Young Farmers to Agricultural Co-operatives showed that 94% of survey respondents considered that agricultural co-operatives were important for the “future of Irish farming” and 87% considered that agricultural co-operatives were important for their “own future in farming”.
However, the study also found that while many young farmers trade and engage with co-operatives, they are not members and are not actively involved in the running of them (not serving on boards or committees).
The survey also found a slow rate of transfer of shares in agricultural co-operatives from older to younger farmers, and more shares are being transferred to and inherited by non-farmers, as the value of shares provided a level of financial security to the older generation; nearly 15% of respondents thought that the delay was due to a fear of potential family arguments resulting from the transfer of shares
Launching the report at the time, Pat Bogue of Broadmore Research and Consultancy, said; “The research highlights that while young farmers appreciate the importance of co-operatives to the agri industry there is a level of complacency about becoming shareholders in the co-operatives with which they trade. There also appears to be a hesitancy with regard to getting involved in committees and boards. There is an opportunity for agricultural co-operatives to encourage greater engagement by younger farmers.”