Agri-Aware survey of food industry performance and prospects

Agri-Aware, a body set up by organisations in the farm and food industries to improve the image and understanding of agriculture and the food sector in Ireland, has just issued a report The Agriculture and Food Industry – Bigger, Brighter, Tougher prepared by Jim Power of Friends First. The report examines data on the employment performance of the food industry during the past twelve months as well as surveying the opinions of industry managers on the main challenges they face over the next 12 months as well as their views on prospects for the coming 5 years.

Unfortunately, the main finding that the report itself highlights – that one in seven jobs in Ireland are dependent on the agriculture and food industries – appears to be based on a flawed analysis of the survey data. No one would deny that the agri-food sector has a hugely important role to play in helping to turn the real economy round, and there is no doubt that it faces real challenges, as usefully documented in this report. But the attempt to puff the industry up into playing a bigger role than it actually does is simply part of the special interest pleading we see so much of in the run-up to the next budget.

To deal with the numbers issue first. The report concludes that its survey identifies 268,000 jobs supported directly or indirectly by the agri-food sector, which is 14% of those currently employed in the economy. This is based on a survey of a database of 3,814 companies, of which 1,361 companies were classified as directly part of the agri-food sector and the remaining 2,453 companies were classified as indirectly dependent on agri-food companies. The former group include food and drink manufacturing firms, forestry companies, agricultural service suppliers, livestock marts, breeding companies and live exporters. The latter group include professional service suppliers (accountants, veterinarians, financial service companies), agricultural supply merchants, animal and plant health companies, animal feed companies and grain merchants. The indirect employment was calculated by multiplying total employment in these companies by the fraction of their turnover estimated to be generated by the agri-food industry alone.

Questionnaires were mailed to all firms in the database and 1,031 companies responded, or a 27% response rate. As the response rate varied across the 20 sectors identified, the responses were adjusted to account for this differential response rate and the adjusted employment in the responding firms totalled 46,770. This was then grossed up to account for non-respondents to give a total employment of 151,675. To this total was then added employment in primary agriculture of 116,500 to arrive at the grand total of 268,175 jobs dependent on the agri-food sector.

There are two issues with this approach. The first is that the database is treated as the full population of relevant firms. This is likely to be the case given the involvement in Agri-Aware of leading industry representatives. However, to the extent that the database is incomplete, this would lead to an underestimation of the number of agri-food jobs.

More important is that, although the responses were stratified by sector, they were not stratified by size. In a survey of this kind larger firms are more likely to respond. The methodology used implicitly assumes that non-responding firms are equally as large as responding firms, and this is likely to seriously over-inflate the estimated total number of jobs.

To gain an idea of the degree of over-estimation, the survey results can be compared to the CSO employment figures for the food and drinks industry (NACE 15). The latest 2007 figure on the CSO website (which currently involves a good degree of imputation) is 43,300, compared to the Agri-Aware figure of direct food industry employment of 94,928. While the CSO numbers exclude firms with just 1 or 2 employees, and the Agri-Aware survey legitimately includes some other sectors such as forestry and the livestock marts, it is very unlikely that either of these factors accounts for this discrepancy. Also, the employment figure that the report uses for farming employment (116,500) exceeds the latest CSO figure in the QNHS first quarter of 102,700 persons employed not only in farming but also forestry and fishing. Thus it is highly probable that the Agri-Aware figure overestimates direct employment in the industry by up to 50,000 persons.

This still means that the agri-food sector supports over 10% of total employment and is thus a vital part of our economic base. It is thus of interest to read further what the survey finds about the performance and prospects for the food sector.

Three further points are highlighted in the report. The first is that the survey finds that employment among respondents in the direct and indirect food industry sectors has declined at a slower rate (around half) than the national average over the past 12 months – by 5% compared to a 10% national figure. The national figure is dominated by the falls in construction (down 30%) and admin jobs (down 19%) and the food industry figure is more or less in line with industry as a whole. However, this is all the more surprising given the dependence of the industry on the UK market and the outcry there was at the beginning of this year about the damage being done by the fall in sterling relative to the euro. That employment in the industry has held up as well as it has suggests that the government was right to ignore the special pleading for support put forward by IBEC and the IFA at that time.

The second is the identification of financing and cash flow as the single largest challenge facing the sector in the next 12 months. It is not clear what is the relative importance of supply side factors (the inability of the banks to extend credit) or demand side factors (declining profitability among food industry firms leading banks to be prudent in extending further credit) in contributing to this challenge. The report itself is in no doubt that the problem is the lack of banking credit and demands intermediate intervention by the government.

The third is the level of confidence among food firms about expansion possibilities in the medium term. Although on average respondents were evenly split (51% of companies felt they would expand in the next 5 years), the degree of confidence varied by sector. Food manufacturing firms involved in secondary processing and value added activities were slightly more confident of expanding (58%) than firms involved in primary processing (meat, 43%, dairy 32%) or animal feed (40%) or professional service firms (39%). By and large, these findings seem plausible though they do not allow us to say whether food firms overall are more or less optimistic about the future than other firms in the economy.

12 replies on “Agri-Aware survey of food industry performance and prospects”

In response to the above, we very much appreciate your commentary however we would like to clarify a few points.

Firstly, Jim Power merely launched this report, which was entirely prepared by Agri Aware.

Secondly with regard to our methodology I would draw you attention back to page 6, paragraph 2, of the report which states that the apportionment of jobs found within the companies surveyed was undertaken to account for over and under representation. Apologies if this was not clear enough.

Also as outlined the direct jobs category includes livestock sales, which includes breeding, livestock haulage and marts, forestry which includes saw mills and services, and also non professional service suppliers, which include in contractors, agricultural plant hire, and farm construction firms amongst others.

Thirdly with regard to the latest CSO figure for farmers stating 102,700, we understand that this figure is being reviewed by the CSO, and that the previous release was considered to be more robust. We understand this figure will be reviewed upwards in due course.

The final point I would is in regard to Agri Aware itself. Yes we are funded by the industry, however we are very much an independent body, which does not lobby, but merely promotes information on the industry to the general public, allowing them to make their own decisions.

We hope the above was useful in is clarifying any ambiguities.
Should you have any further questions, please feel free to contact us at any time.

Kind Regards

John Murray
Executive Director & PI

I always wondered why there hasn’t been a ISME/SFA split in agriculture ranks. Surely the interests of primary producers are in many ways contrary to the interests of secondary producers. While there are large obvious where their needs coincide, at a basic level the preoccupation over decades of supporting the price of basic farm gate produce can be no help to secondary producers, particularly those selling beyond the EU market.

As usual, there are far to many groups and quangos promoting farming concepts. What we need is for farmers to actually grow vegetables and fruit in poly tunnels under glass and in fields. Yet farmers, it is possible it is done all the time in other countries. Farmers here have been brain washed into thinking that they cannot operate unless they have 300 acres and a combine harvester. Yet a country the size of Munster can flood and does flood out shelves with chemical laden produce.

We need facts on the ground, that is how you promote agriculture. We need a place in every town in Ireland where the citizens of the state can buy proper home grown produce. We have the richest land in Europe and the most poverty sticken choice of home grown produce in Europe what does that tell us agriculture?

Vast companies have had to set up “importing operations” (and distribution) to cater for the internal demand for produce in the country.

Small wonder our young people are turning to junk food when we don’t grow apples, pears strawberries etc. or offer our own products with these fresh ingredients added! In Ireland we are miles away from getting the basics right!

When the consumer in cities read about farming factories we just yawn! I am interested in food being produced in the state and sold in the state by people from the state to its people. By all means, turn some of it into micro wave products in factories and export it with the beef if that is your idea of farming, but any chance we can have some fruit and vegetables coming to a shop near the consumer anytime soon? Besides Tesco’s.

I can walk down to a market in the centre of Barcelona 6 days a week and find a cornucopia of fruit and vegetables and also a myriad of fresh fish. In dublin ,once a week in Meeting House Square you get to see fresh fruits and vegetables you buy them and carry them home. Then you have to wait another week!

How can any Agri-Awareness group stand over sorry mess that is agriculture in this country. And how can they promote it? There is a shameful absence of irish produce. The production of fresh fruit and vegetables in this country is a very dense black hole and were it not for the fact that there are a few “hippies” as the “real farmers” like to call them, growing fruit and vegetables you may as well take a flight to Barcelona.

This post starts… “Agri-Aware, a body set up by organisations in the farm and food industries to improve the image and understanding of agriculture and the food sector in Ireland, has just issued a report….. “a report” another “report” It seems that our understanding in Ireland about agriculture must always be theoretical.

Agri-Aware sounds like any other special Interest Group – “give us some more – (taxpayer’s money)”. How about they start to promote agricultural practices that do not require inorganic fertilizers. These will become a tad expensive in the next few years and there are no substitutes available – other than planting legumes and crop rotation.

We also need to clean up our frersh-water sources (rivers and lakes) and this can only be achieved with significant alterations to the ‘business-as-usual’ industrial-scale farming practices. Methinks Agri-Aware is not up to the job.

Brian P


The main reason why value added food manufacturers are able to live with the higher price of raw materials due to the CAP is because they are bought off by a system known as non-Annex 1 export refunds. High tariff protection means that food manufacturers do not have to worry about third country competition on the EU market, while the non-Annex 1 refunds enable EU food firms to compete on export markets despite the high cost of raw materials.

Non-Annex 1 export refunds are payable on the basic agricultural products (cereals, milk, sugar, rice and eggs) contained in processed products, such as chocolate, confectionery, soft drinks, biscuits and breakfast cereals. The idea is to compensate EU manufacturers for the higher cost of using EU-sourced raw materials (e.g. sugar) under the Common Agricultural Policy. The rates of refund are generally set on a monthly basis at the Management Committee (the “Single CMO” Committee) for basic agricultural products.

Since 2000 there has been a further twist. There is now a budget ceiling (€415 million) on the total expenditure on Annex 1 refunds under the WTO Agriculture Agreement. If the demand for refunds were to exceed this ceiling in any year, then the Commission has the power to open up inward processing arrangements to allow holders of unrequited export refund certificates access to Inward Processing which allows them to access raw materials at normally cheaper prices from the world market.

However, food manufacturers see the writing on the wall as export refunds will be phased out after 2013. Thus, the recent report of the High Level Group on the Competitiveness of the Agro-Food Industry (this included food industry representatives as well as a number of EU Commissioners, so will carry weight) observed that

“The HLG members welcome the CAP reforms and indicate that Europe
needs a sustainable CAP in the future as well. Nevertheless, taking into consideration the recent price fluctuations of raw materials as well as that the ratio between current European prices for agricultural products and world prices varies greatly per product, they believe that further improvements are necessary to enhance the long-term competitiveness of the European food industry. In fact, significant price differences between raw materials paid by EU companies and those paid by some of their competitors still remain in a number of cases, creating competitiveness problems for certain food and drink products on world markets.”

@ Robert

There isn’t any point in berating farmers for what you perceive as a lack of home-grown fruit and vegetable in Ireland. As you must admit, there is a world of difference between the Irish and Spanish climates, and we will never be in a position to grow citrus fruit here, for example (climate change notwithstanding). Indeed, the very wet summer this year has caused real problems for the production of those fruits and vegetables which can be grown competitively here. Some figures from Bord Bia a couple of years ago put the Irish market for fruits and vegetables at retail level at about €1.2 billion, while the value of Irish production (at farmgate level) was put at about €400 million. However, a 2004 Forfas report on the fruit and vegetable sector suggested that Irish farmers are supplying around 80% of the market for the products that they can grow, although there is always pressure from imports.

@ Brian Woods

I agree with you on the water issue which is huge. Last year 13 Counties had to issue “boil the water” notices. Last year I wrote to Padraig Walshe President of the IFA expressing my concerns about the planned piping of water from lakes on the river Shannon all the way to Dublin. This was required to cater for the planned “high rises” and building excesses that we were being told we needed by our planning authorities especially Dublin City Council. I was fighting the placement of a tower (apartments plus hotel) higher than Liberty hall, which Dublin City Council wanted to build as practically a joint venture with a developer in Broadstone.

Water was not an important issue with the IFA so they never even bothered acknowledging the letter or writing back. To be quite honest, as a city dweller I think the IFA give farmers a terrible name. They really need to get out from under the yoke of the IFA. Farmers need to have offices in Dublin city centre. What about that for an Agri – Aware idea, but I guess they would never be able to figure out why. I believe, like so many other Irish people, that the farming, forestry and fishing (before it was wiped out) resources that we have in this country, with our small population, are spectacular but spectacularly underdeveloped. There is an attitude of thinking big, thinking on industrial scales instead of thinking small and becoming big.

The problem is that farmers have been fed this line from the IFA and the EU for years about farms being uneconomical, unsustainable etc. this attitude feeds into the culture of grants for even leaving land idle. That might suit other European countries who sponsor this attitude of helplessness and who then turn around and supply Ireland with food. Just look at the Dublin fruit market from 5.30 am every morning it is humming. Unfortunately, humming with imports of fruit, vegetables and flowers from everywhere except Ireland. So how do you promote that?

The government allowed every single sugar beet factory in the country to be shut down. Greencore was even targeted by Mr. Carroll for more sites. again we know what happened. We should be exporting sugar, syrup molases to populous countries in Asia and dried milk. Just look at the powdered milk scandal in China last year. Can we not find markets for our products even when they are staring us in the face, it is only common sense. Look at the price of sugar now. Why did we also allow the only glass bottle factory in the country to close down? Again, it was in order that site could be built on by our NAMA developers. So if any product needs to be put in a bottle that bottle has to be imported first. No bottle factory? How then do we recycle our glass as a country? The whole thing is a shambles but it is deadly serious shambles.

No wonder the Green party activists are so annoyed and incensed.

There is no strategic planning of agriculture as far as, a humble city dweller can see. So, this Agri – Aware crowd are only wasting their time and resources. Farmers need to get back to basics before all the skills are lost i.e. grow the crops, market and sell the crops, distribute them internally find markets for them abroad too and if the Tesco’s of this world have it in their mind to squeeze the life out of farmers then they must stop complaining, organize themselves (not IFA) and put themselves back in the ball game. Farmers were there before Tesco’s and they will be there after they are gone! At least I hope so. Develop your own supermarkets if you have to. Sell everything all products including your home grown produce. Start getting creative. What are you waiting for?

I think your expectation that farmers should set up supermarkets to compete with the Tesco’s of the world somewhat….pie in the sky. Do you see toilet roll manufacturers setting up shop because their prices are low.

There are many reasons why we do not grow all our own fruit and veg- not least free trade in the EU. In Spain they can get 3 crops of tomatoes in one year without a greenhouse. Fat chance of that here.

Agriculture has specialised like any other industry. In Ireland that has led towards a reliance (over-reliance?) on a crop most suited to our climate- grass. Grass is suited to beef and milk production. Pork and chicken production is now the domain of vast international corporations.

To return to small farms producing small amounts of ‘local’ produce is to return to an idealised past. Yes in many Mediterranean countries there are local markets but you will see that most of these smallholders either are very poor, retired or have an off farm job.

That said, I agree Irish farmers should produce more for the market demand. There should be more farm house cheese etc. When the Irish consumer is happy to pay €17 a kilo for farmhouse cheese instead of €4 for Glanbia’s; to pay €6 a kilo for knobbly apples that last 3 days not 3 weeks; then you might see farmers responding to the market better.

The only international food brand Ireland has ever produced is……..butter. Wow. So the Glanbias and Kerry Groups have not exactly tried hard for a value added product have they?

I have difficulty in defending Irish farmers as they have cried wolf so many times. And certainly twisting the statistics to suit the opinion does them no favours. However it is generally accepted that there is a ‘once-in-a-generation’ feel to this crisis. Virtually every sector is under pressure. The only solace we have is that the markets will hopefully change and we will still have a job unlike many others in Ireland.

@ Danny Haskins

Throwing some ideas out to get people thinking!

Of course Irish farmers will not set up supermarkets, that would be far to ambitious and complicated for them. Of course it will not stop them complaining about the ones they are unhappy with, forever.

In the last three years, as you may have noticed, Lidl and Aldi from scratch, set up shops across the country. Doing so when property and construction prices were sky high.

Now is a great time to buy sites and build! If they did set up they could sell their beloved meat products also. I don’t see anything wrong with more competition. You only need one successful outlet then you replicate that.

That is the problem with Ireland everything is too difficult and it seems the only thing that is easy enough is growing grass. Unfortunately, it seems we are not able to do that either without polluting every lake, river and ground water system in the country. Until Irish agriculture thinks outside the box we are going no where. Start building! There are hundreds of other ideas for making money from farming which would give gainful employment to our young people but it involves work. I am convinced that if the grants stopped coming we would see a much more dynamic farming sector. Psychologists call it “learned helplessness”.

@ John

Thank you for the clarifications, and I apologise to you and to Jim Power for misreading your website and thinking that the report was prepared by Jim. I would still think your estimate of the numbers supported by the agri-food industry is on the high side, though including forestry and sawmills would increase my numbers, I would agree.

@ Jim

I agree that Kevin’s comment does not add to the debate and, in line with previous discussion on this site regarding personal remarks, I have removed it.

@Danny Haskins

“I think your expectation that farmers should set up supermarkets to compete with the Tesco’s of the world somewhat….pie in the sky. Do you see toilet roll manufacturers setting up shop because their prices are low.”

Given that farmers have managed to set up an insurance company, a telecoms company, a newspaper and an electricity business, I don’t see why they couldn’t set up, or buy into, a supermarket chain if they wanted to. But I don’t know whether IFA members produce a wide enough range of goods to stock the shelves, unless they can redefine the concept of a supermarket and change consumers’ tastes and expectations.

“To return to small farms producing small amounts of ‘local’ produce is to return to an idealised past. Yes in many Mediterranean countries there are local markets but you will see that most of these smallholders either are very poor, retired or have an off farm job.”

I must be living in the past: I buy almost all our food either from local markets or direct from small producers. There are four weekly markets within twenty miles of where I live. There are lots of Irish farmhouse cheeses. And we buy apples from a farmer who, if I recall correctly, employs over twenty people on a forty-acre farm.

Now, generalising from a sample of one is probably not the best basis for developing a new agricultural policy. But it does seem to me that there is scope for persuading consumers of the benefits of eating seasonal, local food and for having some more farmers switch away from the production of commodity beef and milk (or from the passive acceptance of subsidies) to the provision of distinctive local food. However, neither empty slogans about the quality of Irish beef nor attacks on that of Brazilian beef will be enough.


The only international food brand Ireland has ever produced is……..butter. Wow. So the Glanbias and Kerry Groups have not exactly tried hard for a value added product have they?

I have difficulty in defending Irish farmers as they have cried wolf so many times. And certainly twisting the statistics to suit the opinion does them no favours. However it is generally accepted that there is a ‘once-in-a-generation’ feel to this crisis. Virtually every sector is under pressure. The only solace we have is that the markets will hopefully change and we will still have a job unlike many others in Ireland.”

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