15 October 1999

Lets be vocal on local food

Ulster Farmers Unions Food and Farming Initiative was

well attended by the media but for a farmers-eye

view we sent along Farmlife diarist Judith Morrow,

who farms near Belfast for her take on the event

WHEN I went along to the Ulster Farmers Union Food and Farming Initiative, I was delighted to see a large turnout of folk who didnt look at all like farmers.

Great, I thought, its not the farmers we need to convince to buy locally – its the shopper.

Indeed this is the whole message of the challenge which the UFU has undertaken for the second year and they are very pleased with the interest shown by both the big retailers and the media. "Last year, we had to go round encouraging people to get involved," Lynn Martin from the UFU told me. "This year everyone was keen from the word go."

The whole idea behind the initiative is to educate the Ulster public as to how important the agri-food business is to our economy and as a result to buy locally produced food. Will Taylor, President of the UFU told us how the agri-food sector is Northern Irelands biggest civil employer and one in 10 jobs are dependant on it.

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&#42 Shoppers view

However I must confess I was more interested to hear what Joan Whiteside had to say on behalf of the shopper.

As President of Northern Irelands Consumer Association, she pointed out that while 92% of the local shoppers wanted to have the choice of local produce, the truth is that country of origin comes way down the list of priorities when actually buying the product. They are much more interested in the price and quality. Its only when they are equal that being loyal to the local farmer and manufacturer plays a part. Despite being the special guest she felt unable to promote local producers, saying that the consumer must be given the choice.

By now I was definitely beginning to think that as far as the Ulster farmer is concerned we are more in need of the supermarkets and their customers than they are of us.

So the Food and Farming initiative is essential and the response from the retailers and media seemed first class.

However, I did think that we could hit the consumer with something more interesting than just our economic importance. Our record of animal husbandry and the green image that we sell to the Germans surely would influence local consumers as well. To make the local shopper put Ulster produce first, he or she has to have more than employment levels to inspire them.

&#42 Welcome initiative

So in a week when The Sunday Times dismissed the British farming industry as being less than half the value to the economy as sales of ready-made sandwiches, the initiative was very welcome and it was great to hear from Will Taylor that the big supermarkets had endorsed it so well.

However I must add that when visiting two big retailers, just four days after the launch, I could not see any signs of the promotion at all. Tescos main drive was to show how many prices they have cut and Marks & Spencer seemed to be emphasising the lack of GM ingredients in their "own brand" products.

It certainly makes the cynic in me think that while the big shops are happy to pay lip service to the Ulster farmer to get their names mentioned on the radio and TV, their heart is only in their profit margin.

Richard Dunwoody, Joan Whiteside Chairperson of the NI General Consumer Council and Ulster Farmers Union President Will Taylor with some of the local produce the initiative promotes.