‘Nobody gets up earlier than the Irish farmer’ – Taoiseach
“Agriculture is the heartbeat of rural Ireland. And farmers – tillage, beef and dairy – together with our fishermen, our foresters and our agri-food companies – are the lifeblood.”
This was the opening statement from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on his first visit to the Irish Farm Centre since his election to top office.
Speaking at a banquet dinner after the IFA AGM tonight, the Taoiseach opened his address by noting his own farming background – he has one uncle in tillage; and another in dairy.
My Christmas visits to west Waterford left me in no confusion about the ups and downs of life on the farm.
“Irish farm families make a significant contribution to our economy and most Irish people, even those of us born in Dublin, are often only one generation from the farmyard.
“Although the economy has recovered and is growing, thanks to the sacrifices you made and the policies we implemented, we realise that our economic growth must be felt in all parts of Ireland.
“That is why we created a Department for Rural and Community Development, with a minister who knows exactly what needs to be done, and it’s why we developed the Action Plan for Jobs and the Action Plan for Rural Development,” he stated.
The Taoiseach described the agri-food sector as one of the “engines” of the Irish economy, sustaining employment all over the country – often in places where there are few other opportunities.
Addressing an audience that included Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, president of the IFA Joe Healy, various representatives of the farm organisation, Fianna Fail spokesperson on agriculture Charlie McConalogue and Sinn Fein spokesperson on agriculture Martin Kenny, the Taoiseach discussed the impact of Brexit, climate change, farm safety and the on-going development of the sector and rural Ireland.
A committed European, the Taoiseach argued that Irish membership of the common market represented not a utopia – but, an opportunity.
“This is still true in the age of Brexit, and we have to be alert to the challenges and the opportunities. Everyone in this room is aware of the long-term, structural and disruptive changes that could happen as a result of Brexit.
“The agri-food sector is uniquely exposed – 35% of our total agri-food exports, worth over €4.4 billion, are to the UK. Some industries are significantly more exposed, like beef,” he said.
Even in the absence of tariffs and barriers – such as sanitary and customs controls – the Taoiseach said transport logistics and shelf life, are much more significant barriers for food than for other exports.
“That is why we negotiated so long and so hard in the weeks before Christmas. At stake is the future of Ireland, our peace and prosperity.
“In a hard Brexit scenario food exports could, in theory, face very high tariffs. That would be catastrophic and must be avoided.
“Your consistent involvement in Government-led stakeholder engagement, has fed into the whole-of- Government approach that is being taken in dealing with Brexit, and I thank you for that.
We are in this together and I want you to know: this Government will always have your back.
Over the last two budgets, the Taoiseach highlighted that the Government has taken action to assist business, and farming in particular, to navigate the challenges of Brexit.
For example: low-cost loans; The National Food Innovation Hub in Fermoy; increased resources for Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland; and new embassies and consulates being opened to help us tap into new markets all over the world.
“We must gain a deep understanding of what consumers, often in distant markets, really want, and communicating those messages back to Irish farmers and food companies. This is why we are doubling the Team Ireland footprint overseas by 2025,” he said.
He stressed that Free Trade Agreements negotiated by the European Union enables Ireland to establish and develop new export markets.
However, when it comes to the EU-Mercosur negotiations, he said it is evident that there is a significant threat to the Irish and European beef sector.
We have worked closely with other Member States to ensure that Ireland’s sensitivities are well understood. Ireland without our beef industry, quite simply, would not be Ireland.
Champion of self-employed
Describing himself as a champion for the self-employed and people who get up early in the morning, the Taoiseach stated that “nobody gets up earlier than the Irish farmer”.
“When I was Minister for Social Protection, and now as Taoiseach, I have been determined to ensure that farmers and the self-employed got a new deal. As long as I am around you will never be taken for granted.
“I know that running a farm can bring income volatility and we want to give farmers as much flexibility as possible when it comes to paying taxes. So, recent budgets brought in the option to step out of income averaging in an exceptional year, allowing farmers to counter-balance a poor income year and pay their taxes in the remaining four-year period instead.
“I hope it’s helping to ease the pressure and reduce the stress of a bad year,” he said, adding that Ireland will continue to argue for the retention of a strong, well-funded and effective CAP budget post-2020.
He acknowledged that agriculture contributes one-third of the country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.
Ireland is already one of the world’s most efficient food producers in terms of carbon footprint per unit of output.
“But the fact remains that emissions increased and are expected to rise by between 4% and 5% by 2020, reflecting expansion in this sector. We need to do much more to improve the sustainability of this industry. We cannot underestimate the importance and scale of this challenge.
“Ireland should be a world leader in sustainable food production, building on our natural advantages,” he said.
The Taoiseach took the opportunity to appeal for extra vigilance when it comes to farm safety.
“You know better than anyone the risks and the dangers in your daily work. As a doctor who worked in emergency departments, I know the horrors of a farm accident – especially when the patient is a child. You can never forget what you saw.
“We must all work together to ensure the safety of everyone involved. We need a change in attitude and behaviour. One life lost is one too many,” he said.