Among the many lessons learned from the pandemic and lockdowns over the past year and a half is what constitutes essential services and what may be desirable, but not essential.
It is no surprise that, in a pandemic, healthcare is the first essential service people think of, but food is also in the front line as a necessity for human survival.
Of course, how food was consumed changed dramatically at the height of lockdown, with grocery shopping one of the few permitted reasons to leave the home.
In the place of restaurant visits and dashboard dining on the move, people reverted to cooking and consuming within the family home.
Shoppers bought meat, dairy, bread and flour to put meals on the table
Through this change in consumption behaviour, the one constant remaining was the type of food consumed.
Shoppers bought meat, dairy, bread and flour to put meals on the table. Putting these products on the supermarket shelves and butcher’s block was the responsibility of the approximately 165,000 people who work in the Republic of Ireland’s food processing industry and 23,600 in Northern Ireland.
Despite its importance, the sector struggles to attract sufficient labour, with some parts such as meat processing having greater difficulty than others.
Reasons why it is not attractive
In the decades that preceded the Celtic Tiger era, the agri-food industry was considered one of the few employment options in many parts of rural Ireland.
It was physically demanding work that attracted young men in particular and paid relatively good wages in an economy where there were few alternatives.
At the beginning of the last decade, the food industry was restored as the hope of Ireland’s economic recovery and the sector prospered
The arrival of the Celtic Tiger was the first occasion when there was a real alternative source of employment that was no more physically demanding but offered dramatically higher wages. This was shortlived and ended with the financial crash and banking crisis leading to a collapse in the construction sector.
At the beginning of the last decade, the food industry was restored as the hope of Ireland’s economic recovery and the sector prospered even if farm incomes were patchy at different times.
However, as the economy recovered with increased opportunities in all sectors, working in the agri-food industry again became increasingly less attractive.
The growth in alternative career opportunities means competition for workers and, whether fair or not, the agri-food sector developed a reputation for being low-skilled and low-paid, with huge time demands being placed on employees.
As the economy developed and construction recovered, many workers voted with their feet and went to alternative employment.
With increasing difficulty in attracting and retaining locally based employees, many factories turned their attention to recruiting migrant labour as contract workers to fill the gap in the workforce.
Filling the available positions with migrant labour from overseas is usually done through intermediaries or agents
The areas that use large numbers of contract workers frequently attract negative headlines about unfair treatment, poor housing conditions and negligible worker rights.
Filling the available positions with migrant labour from overseas is usually done through intermediaries or agents. When the factory relationship is with an agent, it is easy to see how communication with the employee may be less than satisfactory. At the height of the pandemic, living and working conditions received particular scrutiny, and they didn’t look attractive.
The fact that this applied to a relatively small number of people is irrelevant. If it is the issue that is making the news, then the entire industry becomes associated with it.
The Irish food processing industry had long believed its business was to process raw materials from Irish farms in as cost-effective a way as possible and get it sold in the highest-value markets.
What it has been slow to learn is that doing this successfully doesn’t put it beyond wider scrutiny by people who are not invested in Irish farming or food industry.
Irish farming and the wider food industry has demonstrated its ability to adapt and change to meet the challenges of every era.
From a point a little over two lifetimes ago when we couldn’t feed ourselves, Ireland now exports 10 times more agri-food than we consume.
When thinking of the challenges that face the industry in the years ahead, adapting to emission reduction targets is probably foremost in the minds of farmers and the food industry.
However, securing people to work in and manage our farms and factories is an equally important challenge.
At all levels, comprehensive training programmes are in place and remuneration is extremely competitive
Most significant employers in the food processing sector now recognise the need to invest in people and that has to be good news for prospective entrants to the sector.
At all levels, comprehensive training programmes are in place and remuneration is extremely competitive, with the additional attraction of many employers being in some of the lower-cost housing areas of the country.
While there are still physical demands working in the food industry, like farming itself, development of technology has reduced many of these.
Carcase handling is now primarily done through mechanisation, as is the preliminary breakdown of carcases in meat factories.
The modern dairy processor is highly automated and machines do the work in the grain and drinks industry. Poultry and pigmeat processing lend themselves to automation and use of robotics given their relatively standard size.
Beef processing has been the most problematic
Lambs also offer this possibility but critical mass is required for investment.
Beef processing has been the most problematic but advances have been made and more will follow as carcases move to a more standard size.
A huge capital investment programme of €266m, supported by €70m of grant aid across 22 sites, will no doubt hasten this process.
Agri-food processing has become increasingly automated and this direction of travel will continue and pick up speed with further technological advances in the years ahead.
It would be easy to be negative about the agri-food industry given the negative headlines it tends to attract in Ireland and much of Europe.
Yet, with a global population that is forecast to keep growing at least until the middle of this century, then there will be opportunity. Targets for reducing emissions may seem like an insurmountable obstacle today but they will drive research that will find solutions.
Whoever develops the solution for eliminating or greatly reducing methane from cattle will be in the running for the Nobel prize for science
Energy already has a roadmap in place through wind and solar, with nuclear as an option.
Food is as essential for human survival as energy and will therefore provide increasingly exciting opportunities across the sector in the years ahead.
Whoever develops the solution for eliminating or greatly reducing methane from cattle will be in the running for the Nobel prize for science, yet the sector will need people with all levels of skill.
Technology will also remove many of the physical demands and drudgery in everyday tasks and the value of people working in the sector will be properly recognised.