Is it possible to have a co-operative farming system in Ireland? Can farmers come together to stand united against the supermarket overlords? Well that’s exactly what one audience member wondered at the first For Food’s Sake in The Sugar Club and raised the issue with the guest panellists.
Pat Smith, General Secretary of the Irish Farmers' Association was first to add his thoughts on the matter. Pat warned of the threats that industrial farming could have to any potential future co-operative schemes. “In the main we have a family farm structure right across Europe. The animals and the environment are looked after better in these farms and the community benefit a whole lot more. We can’t lose this because we will never get it back.”
Establishing a co-operative system sounds great in theory but according to Pat it boils down to establishing an understanding between farmers and consumers due to the one sided relationship between the retailers and the producers:
“As farmers we are far too removed from the consumer because we rely on the retailer who has become too dominant. The people who are buying the product need to take into account the primary producer who year on year are getting less out of the consumer spend.”
Next up to add their say was food journalist, Suzanne Campbell who claims that there is little chance of farms adapting a co-operative system because the current system prevents any change.
“The fact of the matter is that the way everyone in this room now interacts with food is mainly in the supermarket. How on earth are farmers to get around that system unless we buy the food from them? People are always questioning why these farmers don’t get more and it is because we actually go to the supermarkets. If we didn’t the farmers would have alternative markets. If the market was worth half a billion a year rather than 30 million then we would have more people buying from another route allowing the supplier another chance to get a fair price for their produce or cutting out the middle man.”
Suzanne continued to delve deeper into the reason why consumers are such a key consideration when establishing a co-operative system: “We have to think about ourselves as consumers. It is wrong for us to say ‘farmers earn so little, it is a pity but I can’t do anything about’. We are directly supporting the system by buying all our shopping in the supermarket. If that is where you get your food that is how things are going to stay unless new regulations are brought in.”
But all is not lost, we have the power to help change the system. We don’t need to boycott the supermarkets or march on the streets, according to Suzanne it can be easier bringing about a change: “Often people are preached at to grow their own vegetables or start all these new lifestyle trends. You don’t need to make it that strict. All you need to do is choose a few more items from different sources or when you go to the supermarket don’t buy cheap chicken, buy Irish chicken but buy less of it. The same goes for organic produce. This way your food expenses stay the same but you can use your food purchases to help farmers.”
FOR FUTURE FOOD TALKS MAKE SURE TO CATCH THE NEXT FOR FOOD’S SAKE AT THE SUGAR CLUB ON THRUSDAY THE 26TH OF MAY WHEN WE WILL ASK ‘ARE IRISH RESTRAUNTS UP THE SWANNY’? DOORS OPEN AT 7.PM. SHARP AND ADMISSION IS €5 AT THE DOOR.