Food producers want to grow more of our own
Despite our reputation as a food island, about €5 billion was spent on food and drink imports last year – and not all of it was on items we don’t produce, writes ALISON HEALY
WE ARE frequently told that Ireland is the food island. So that must mean that we are pretty much self-sufficient when it comes to feeding ourselves?
Actually it doesn’t.
We exported almost €9 billion worth of food and drink last year, and, while figures vary, depending on what is included in the food category, it’s generally accepted that about €5 billion worth of food and drink was imported.
Of course, we need to import certain foods. “We’re never going to produce olives in Ireland unless there’s some kind of change in our climate here,” says Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney. “And we’re not going to be producing wines.”
That explains why the Central Statistics Office says we spent more than €708 million on imported beverages last year and a further €361 million on coffee, tea, cocoa and spices.
Bord Bia senior business analyst Pádraig Brennan says we wouldn’t be in a position to produce a “a good chunk” of that €5 billion worth of food and drink, suggesting that at least 40 per cent of it could not be produced here. He highlights commodities such as beverages and sugar.
But we also spend hundreds of millions of euro importing food that grows here. Last year, Irish consumers spent almost €1 billion on imported vegetables and fruit – and not all of those were papayas and mangos. We imported more than €283 million worth of poultry. We spent more than €200 million on imported pig meat.
We may be an island nation, but we also imported almost €190 million worth of fish.
Brennan advises against taking the import figures at face value. “In some categories, we import ingredients and raw materials, which will be processed here and eventually re-exported, so not all imports are consumed in Ireland,” he says.
Bord Bia categorises food and drink exports differently to the CSO and “prepared foods” was its biggest category of imports last year, accounting for a €1.67 billion spend. This includes ingredients and raw materials and much of this will be exported.
“Likewise, in the meat sector, some product will be imported for further processing and re-export,” he says.
All this was good news for our nearest neighbour, Britain. It supplied us with more than €2 billion worth of foodstuffs last year, ranging from pig meat to vegetables, cereals and drinks.
Tipperary apple grower Con Traas says we imported about €100 million worth of apples last year. There are about 40 commercial apple growers in the State, but they produce only about 5 to 10 per cent of the apples we eat.
Before Ireland joined the EU, he recalls that imported apples would not be allowed into the State until the homegrown varieties were gone; the introduction of the common market changed that.