5 September 2008
Minister Trevor Sargent today addressed the special food conference held in Waterford. Below is the transcript of his talk:
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am delighted to be here with you today and to share in this vitally important discussion about the future of small scale agriculture and of artisan food producers. It is great to see an all-island participation at this event and I extend a warm welcome to Michelle Gildernew, The Northern Ireland Minister for Agriculture and Rural Affairs. I would also like to welcome Dr. Carlo Petrini who I enjoyed meeting at the IFOAM World Organic Congress in Italy earlier this year and indeed all our overseas visitors, I hope you all enjoy your experience of “Ireland the Food Island” and that you obtain a deeper knowledge of the exciting and professional Irish speciality sector.
Bord Bia research has shown that consumers accept and favour the contribution speciality foods make to sustainable regional economies. Demand is driven by issues of freshness, small-scale production, taste, quality and shorter supply chains and most importantly, consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that get it right. And I believe that many are getting it right.
These indigenous producers are located throughout every corner of Ireland, supporting local, and often rural economies. They bring production back to its source and raise the bar for food production in the regions. That being said, I am aware we in Ireland have a long way to go to emulate the diversity of unique local food producers in Italy or France, for example.
The events this weekend will rekindle appreciation of good food and what it represents, not least in terms of nutrition but also culture, landscape and sustainability. Buyers need every help to appreciate the potential that exists for good local food and fresh produce.
Ireland also has a way to go before we reach the EU average for organic farming which is about 4% of E.U. farmland. I am determined to grow our percentage of organic production from 1% to 5% of Irish farmland by 2012 as agreed in the Programme for Government.
However, to paraphrase the man known as the uncrowned King of Ireland, Charles Stewart Parnell, I will not be saying thus far and no further. In the face of a growing demand for organic food nationally and internationally and in the face of rising energy costs and unpredictable rainfall patterns, organic farms have a growing market while being more energy efficient and more tolerant of drought.
You sometimes hear a view that humanity needs more oil, or GM or some other so called “silver bullet” to feed our growing population. A University of Michigan study says otherwise. Researchers there say that organic farming can yield up to three times as much food on individual farms in developing countries as the current low-intensive methods on the same land. Remember it is in these poor countries where population growth is greatest. Indeed both rich and poor countries are in need of development as all countries need to develop ways to produce more healthy food using less energy.”
In a section of his speech which drew rousing applause from the audience, Minister Trevor Sargent went on to say
“The whole GM debate is for me, like for many people here, at the heart of sustainability and the empowerment of people to grow food. If that power is taken away – and the corporate spin is certainly very strong in the direction of some kind of silver bullet being available through GM – we’ll have gone beyond the point from which it’s very difficult to come back. So we are in this generation, I believe, holding a very important responsibility. And when we look at the experience of farmers – and I think it’s important to talk to farmers rather than to their corporate masters and their professionally-paid spin doctors – the farmers are saying GM is not the panacea for them. Whether you go to the universities which have been carrying out these studies – in Nebraska and Kansas, from Iowa to India – they tell you that farmers have been experiencing not greater but less yield, losing money, and losing market share. The exact opposite of the spin that is being put out there.
And that’s before we talk about the health risks (and they do have to be talked about), the superweeds, the fossil fuel dependency (which Colin Sage eloquently pointed out here we cannot continue with – we have to move on from our short-term flirtation with fossil fuels, they are not going to be around to get us out of this particular hole that we have dug for ourselves). So I do feel that the GM debate is, in that context, a dangerous distraction from the fundamental challenges that have to be faced up to. And the option for us in Ireland is very clear: Ireland – the food island: we can sell that! The green clean food island – they really want that in Germany, as we heard from Professor Ham last night at the organic conference. Anywhere you go where our main markets are, they want that green clean food island. How about if Bord Bía tries to sell Ireland – the GM laboratory? I wonder how that would go down. Well let me tell you, that would be the end!
This weekend is also a great opportunity for discovering new treasures and rediscovering old forgotten tastes. In fact it is an ideal opportunity for those who appreciate good food and convivial company to treat themselves in any one of the many participating local bars and restaurants. It is very heartening to see that the county’s food producers and restaurateurs have designed special festival menus to celebrate local produce and highlight the talents of local chefs.
Another great event taking place this weekend is the farmers market in Jenkins Lane on Sunday at 12 noon. One of the Governments commitments under the Programme for Government is to encourage more direct selling between farmers and consumers by restoring and promoting farm shops and a national network of farmers’ markets. Earlier this week, I visited Castlefarm, near Athy, an excellent farm shop. I have recently established a Group to formulate best practice guidelines for Farmers’ Markets. As part of this process I am seeking submissions from interested parties as to the content of the guidelines. More details of this process can be obtained from the Food Division at my Department.
Finally, I would like to congratulate the organisers of this event for their imagination and commitment, and to the participants of the workshops who have provided much food for thought. Bainigí taitneamh as an deireadh seachtaine/I hope you all enjoy the weekend.
The Terra Madre (Italian for “Mother Earth”) food festival takes place from Sep 4th to 7th. More inofmation can be found on the Terra Madre website here.