Declan Martin of Waterfall Farms Ltd. Photo courtesy of Gerard McCarthy (www.germac.ie)
I recently gave a short presentation on the topic of food security against the sobering historical backdrop of the National Famine Commemoration in Skibbereen. Could we ever see a situation again in which we failed to feed people? Having committed to giving the presentation I was forced to do some research and sift through what it might mean for West Cork. The result is a discomfort that continues to gnaw on my mind. The threats looming over our food supply this time are not disease and over dependence on potatoes nationally but climate change, overpopulation and the looming scarcity of oil globally. I don’t yet believe that we will struggle to acquire the calories we need to live, but the quality of what we eat will be radically affected. Our ability to feed ourselves and our families a balanced diet with fresh food, particularly fruit and vegetables, will be more and more dependent on income. Just as the potato famine hit a particular social class, so too will issues like obesity, heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers become increasingly associated with income. Even staples like wheat and rice are under serious threat. The vast majority of the cereals we eat arrive to us from drought affected areas like central USA, northern China, central Europe and Australia. Countries like China and South Korea are running out of arable land and water, and have already started a global land grab, buying up millions of hectares for growing in countries like the Philippines and Madagascar.
My first question in exploring food security is how successfully are we feeding ourselves at the moment? Not very well, is the answer, in fact 96% of our farmland in Ireland is devoted to feeding animals not people – 80% is under grass and 16% produces fodder crops. Yes, that gives us meat and dairy products, but it is generally accepted that we should get 75% or more of our diet from plant based foods – cereals, vegetables and fruit. We don’t produce these in anything like the quantities we need. Our most valuable vegetable crop is the white mushroom – near tasteless and not required in large volumes for a healthy diet. In reality, it is the supermarkets that feed the vast majority of Irish people, not our farmers. And of course there is a reason for that. Supermarkets do a very good job of stocking a continuous variety of fresh food at affordable prices. They buy in volume to keep the price down and they have immense distributions systems to source food from all over the world and so ensure continuity, so far. The result is that they also very successful in deciding what gets grown by our farmers. Last month 30 potato growers stormed a Tesco managers meeting in Ashbourne, Co. Meath, angry that their produce is being displaced by British potatoes. We can be fairly certain that despite the determination of these growers to address the situation and stand up to the supermarket, unless they have another route to market they are likely to plant less for us to eat next year.
We were delighted to welcome the Minister for Horticulture, Trevor Sargent TD, to our offices in Clonakilty last month, and I put it to him that we needed a horticultural revolution if we are to seriously address food security. Whilst he agreed with the need, he sees the supermarkets as a major stumbling block in expanding output. The growers, he says, are in hock to the supermarket buyers. He has feedback that horticulture grants attained by growers to help improve their efficiency and expand the sector are quickly followed by phonecalls from buyers asking them to drop their prices further now that they have the grant. There is only one winner in this system. Although we are lucky enough to have some notable exceptions in West Cork, there are very few supermarkets around that do not exploit this inequality in the buying relationship. We need more locally owned independently minded stores that will actively foster smaller local growers.
The irony is that just as the famine destroyed not just the landless, labouring class but also bankrupted many of the landlord class, so too will food and oil scarcities hit not just the poor in our society, they may also collapse the supermarket empires which are so dependent on oil. If they can’t provide cheap, fresh food their proposition becomes less compelling, especially if we have to travel further and further to reach our nearest supermarket. The latest Tesco Extra stores have extended the expected customer travel radius from 20 miles up to 30. Within the next few months we will witness a savage price war among the multiples – there is huge overcapacity, the growth in the number and size of supermarkets in the last 5 years has far outstripped population growth and has resulted in more shelf space that we can support. There will be closures within the next 12 months.
If we are to develop a food supply system that can feed us fresh food at affordable prices, we need to develop alternatives to the supermarkets that can compete alongside them. These alternatives need to provide markets for local growers. I spoke to Declan Martin at Waterfall Farms near Cork for a first hand account. Declan and Rosemary Martin and their two sons, Nigel and Trevor, run a vegetable farm of about 100 acres. The Martins were forced to diversify in 1998 when after 16 years supplying one of the major multiples with fresh veg they were given 3 weeks notice of termination. With a staff of twelve to whom they felt a commitment and crops in the field they quickly needed a new route to market and decided to get into selling prepared vegetables for the catering trade. They now process their own veg (40%) and buy in other vegetables from local growers and imports to offer a full service to their customers. I asked Declan how we could get more commercial growers and he explained to me that vegetable growing has come to be viewed by farmers in Cork as a very risky business. “When Cork Veg went bust in the late 90s, a lot of local growers got hit very hard. That was really the start of the decline of vegetable growing in Cork. Cork Veg was a wholesaling operation owned by a producer group, it was supplying Tesco through central distribution in Dublin. This was our doorway to the rest of the country and we were lucky that Musgraves had located their central distribution in Cork. But as more and more Cork growers disappeared after the Cork Veg bust, we saw that Musgraves now found it easier to get the scale and range they wanted from Dublin growers, a double whammy. Even for our own business now, we want to buy as much as we can locally, but there is a very limited pool of growers.” Declan was there to meet Trevor Sargent with us and was greatly encouraged by the policy of the Greens, “They are thinking just like us, local veg for local people has always been our approach.”
The Greens are particularly strong in backing the grow your own movement and launched the Get Ireland Growing campaign in March – see http://www.getirelandgrowing.ie. As a movement “Grow Your Own” is really gathering momentum and was greatly helped to move into the mainstream by Corrigan’s City Farm. Even the Obamas have dug up some of the White House lawn for their “Victory Garden” (smug note: Mary McAleese has grown veg and even kept hens at the Áras for years now). The term “Victory Garden” refers to the wartime and post war dig for victory movement in Britain, when the country managed to grow 40% of its food in back gardens and allotments. Almost every town in West Cork has plans to develop allotment gardens, with Bantry leading the way, being recently joined by Bandon. You’ll hear more about this here because I have signed up for one myself and will be getting going next Spring. I know that food security is not the primary motivation for most people to get growing, there are much immediate rewards to do with wellness, learning and enjoyment. But grow your own could be the basis of the revolution we need in horticulture, creating demand for local veg to supplement our own produce and skills for local growing that may turn commercial. So, can we feed ourselves? I hear the rallying Obama chant of “Yes we can” but I’d have to add, not yet.