COVID-19 has had a profound effect on our lives and is set to do so for many months ahead. So far during the crisis, we have not experienced too much disruption to our food supplies. Luckily, in the western world, there are relatively good supply chains and reserves, and food production and distribution have been prioritised in Ireland and across the world.
However, some gaps have appeared and these have been mainly due to problems with labour. For example, the 2020 spring Asparagus crops in Germany, UK and Spain have not been fully harvested due to travel restrictions. This story and issues relating to strawberry pickers in Ireland have highlighted how dependent the production of fruit and vegetables are on seasonal migrant low-paid workers.
Over the past couple of decades, the price of food relative to incomes has fallen but most people who shop are unaware of this and the low margins earned by farmers and their workers. This cheap food policy has also led to a significant drop in farmers who grow fruit and vegetables. For example, the 2014 vegetable census shows that there were just 165 commercial vegetable producers left in Ireland compared to 377 in 1999, this represents a drop of 56% over 15 years.
The longer-term economic consequences of COVID are still to be accurately assessed but if you add the impact of the pandemic to the still-growing threat of the Climate Emergency, Ireland as an island nation really needs to address its national food security policy. This recent ECO-EYE programe, in which I have a contribution, provides a good picture of the potential and the challenges we face in achieving this.