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What kind of food do we want to eat? It's a big question of our time...

What kind of food do we want to eat? On what kind of farms do we want to see it produced? It’s long past time to have these discussions.

Fergal Anderson

A FRIEND OF mine tells a story – he was at a Teagasc “options” meeting in Athenry, set up to give farmers ideas of what they faced in the future in their sector. Tillage, dairy, sheep and cattle, the story was the same – produce more, maximize “units per hectare” because you can do “nothing about the price” according to the Teagasc representative – “Nothing. The price is there and you have to work around it.”

Most, if not all the farmers in the room were well aware that you could do “nothing” about prices – most farmers sell at or below the costs of production in their sectors. The difference is made up by a subsidy, which, contrary to popular belief – is not that big for the majority of farmers. Most farmers make less than the industrial wage, especially west of the Shannon. The majority of subsidies are hoovered up by a minority of top earners who are on well above €150,000 a year.

Farmers are working harder for less money

In the last 20 years in Ireland, production has increased and prices have fallen – so most farmers are in the paradoxical situation of working harder for less money (apart again from the minority of agribusiness farmers).

Surely, one would say, people need to be talking about these issues? They affect us all, right? How our land is used, what kind of food is produced, where the money goes, fair wages for fair work and so on. Instead, discussions around the food system are one-dimensional and either centered on artisan foods for niche markets or mass-produced industrial foods for export. Nothing about real, good food for you and me – the people in communities around the country who want to eat local and well.

It’s time to ask fundamental questions – how should we manage the collective wealth of the country? What do we do about climate change? What legacy do we want to leave for future generations? What kind of food do we want to eat? On what kind of farms do we want to see it produced? – and you’ll receive apparently contradictory arguments. At the same time, we have never needed more clarity about where we want to go.

Mixed messages 

On one side we have our governments, transnational corporations, the mainstream farming press and the loud voices of the mainstream media. They will tell you that good management means all resources must be brought into the private domain (water included), that climate change will be averted through market measures and new technologies, that our future is secure if we follow the same path we’re on, that our food is safe and our supermarkets stocked, and that our farms –the farms of the future have GPS tractors, robot milking machines, sheds like warehouses and thousands of acres of monoculture rye grass.

On the other side we have the more than 200 million farmers of La Via Campesina and their supporters in the international movement for Food Sovereignty. They say that our collective wealth is our commons, that it should be managed for the good of us all. They say that climate change cannot be fixed by the same market forces that caused it, that our future must be built by people, our commons shared and safeguarded for the benefit of all. They would say that the best food is that produced with care by family farmers in their localities, that that agroecological farms –low-input farming systems which treasure biodiversity and are embedded in their communities – are the farms of the future.

We need to come together to answer these questions

It’s not easy to navigate the complex layers of information that are thrown at us daily – to avoid falling into a groupthink propagated by subtle messages, reinforced by the march of mainstream thought.

Easy or not though, it’s our responsibility as citizens of Ireland in 2015 to do just that. We need to come together and answer these questions together, to build our own vision for what we want.

Ireland’s second Food Sovereignty Assembly, organised by Afri and Food Sovereignty Ireland with the support of Trócaire, will be held this Friday 15th of May in Westport. The idea is to “start a discussion about where citizens and communities want Irish food and agriculture to go in the 21st century” – it looks like some of the questions above will need to be part of that. If you’re a farmer or food producer and well – if you’re a food eater – then this event should be of interest to you.

Find out more by clicking here.

Fergal Anderson runs the Leaf and Root farm in Co Galway with his partner Manu. They are also involved in building an Irish food sovereignty movement. www.leafandroot.org

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Fergal Anderson

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