Food Imports V Irish Commercial Growers

In this episode, we visited Weldon's Brussel Sprout farm in Dublin, one of Irelands outstanding commercial growers. Wouldn't it be great to have so many more commercial Irish growers to buy our food from?

Agronomist Richard Hackett wrote a much commented-upon opinion piece in The Irish Independent before Christmas about the level of food imports coming in to this country.  The data on which he based his article came from the CSO.  It got more attention than normal CSO data because of Brexit, as we turn our thoughts to what that particular train wreck might mean for our food security.  We are, after all, an island nation, and hugely dependent on another island nation to our east as a stepping stone to and from continental Europe. 

What is alarming about the figures is what they tell us about the profile of our imports.  It’s no longer just about ‘exotic’ fruit and veg we can’t grow well commercially in Ireland.  We are now hugely reliant on imports of food that we can grow perfectly well here.  In 2017 for example, we imported 7kg carrots, 10kg onions and 13kg of apples for every person in the country.  We also imported staggering quantities of vegetables that were once considered our national vegetables - 72,000 tonnes of potatoes and 23,000 tonnes of cabbage in one year.

A borderless EU has made it almost impossible for Irish growers to compete with specialist growers on the continent (mainly in Spain and Holland).  As Hackett points out, this is because labour costs (which are the highest component of overall costs) are cheaper there.  What his article misses perhaps is the role that supermarkets and consumers (yes, we have to take responsibility too) have played in driving down the cost of vegetables to unsustainable levels.  In the Christmas just passed we once again saw supermarkets doing aggressive (39 cent per kilo!) price promotions on the Christmas dinner staple veg to entice you in.  Year on year, these price promotions (and our decision to take advantage of them) are putting indigenous veg growers out of business. 

If the government is serious about our food security as a nation, it should protect growers from these below cost sales promotions.  In the process they would also be protecting Irish jobs, reducing our transport carbon emissions and ensuring we have access to more truly fresh, seasonal, local food. Of course you won’t be surprised to hear that I think growing some food yourself is part of the solution.  I’m not naïve enough to think that home-grown food will replace the commercial horticulture industry.     Very few of us are ever likely to grow all of our own food or get even close. But when we grow some food ourselves, we learn about how food grows.  We learn about seasonality and taste and freshness.  Above all we learn to value veg and the people that grow them.  Ultimately that makes us more informed consumers when we go to buy the veg we haven’t grown ourselves.

GROW COOK EAT — proudly sponsored by Bord Bia & Stop Food Waste