Creed interview: The biggest challenges facing Irish agriculture

A little over a year ago, Irish policymakers balked at the idea that the UK could leave the European Union (EU). It was inconceivable that one of our main trading partners would exit the bloc over a populist drive for so-called sovereignty.

After all, the concept of sovereignty is somewhat misguided in a globalised world where trade relies on concessions and compromise.

This summer, however, we know the UK is not only set to leave the EU – but is pushing for a “hard Brexit” that threatens the restoration of a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, as well as the introduction of trade tariffs under the rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

This poses a significant challenge for the agricultural sector – not only in terms of the volume of agri-food trade between Ireland and the UK and the all-island supply chain, but also due to the potential squeeze on the budget for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

To discuss these concerns and more, AgriLand caught up with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, before the start of the Dail summer recess.

Future CAP

First up on the agenda was the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which the minister believes has been a successful policy despite the headwinds posed by Brexit.

“The future challenge is going to be how to fund the objectives of the CAP. The Commissioner, Phil Hogan, put it very frankly recently when he said there wasn’t a single member state who put up their hand to contribute more, and there wasn’t a single member state who put up their hand to take less either.

So we’ve got a classic irresistible force and an immovable object, and we’ve got to find a way around that.

“And although we are a net contributor to the EU now, we can’t shy away from that debate either. But that’s not to say, from a strategic point of view, that we should be running around foolishly making offers at this stage of the game,” Minister Creed said.

One thing that is certain however, is that the CAP will be more related to environmental and sustainability measures in future.

“As an exporting nation, we strongly believe that in the higher value markets where we want to be, the savvy, informed consumer is no longer only satisfied with the traceability and safety of food.

They increasingly want to know that it’s produced to an environmental standard that’s sustainable and, hence, all of our initiatives around Origin Green, the Beef Data and Genomics Programme (BDGP), GLAS and all of the other initiatives that we do in that space.

“We are not by accident the most carbon efficient producer of dairy, with New Zealand, on the planet.

“We’re the fifth most carbon-efficient producer of beef in Europe and all of the things that we’re doing – improving the genetic merit of the beef herd for herd fertility, food conversion and consequently finishing cattle at less than two-years-old – is to lighten the carbon load.

“That’s part of the CAP and that’s where we’re pitching ourselves as,” the minister added.

European allies

Ireland’s contribution has always been highly respected in European policy debates, according to Minister Creed.

When it comes to voting, however, the weight of our voice is proportionate to our size within the bloc. But, despite this, strategic thinking has allowed Irish policymakers to make headway on important issues.

“We form alliances with like-minded members. As an example, the French would be substantially more important because of their size in terms of weight and voting. But we very often have a shared analysis with the French, particularly when it comes to agricultural matters,” Creed said.

We try to shape the debate that way and work with like-minded member states, so we’re not jumping up and down in isolation.

“We strategise and pick our partners well. And I think, by and large, there’s an acceptance that we deliver reasonably well – and have done over many years and many different governments – at a European level, on that basis.”

The minister explained that Ireland chooses its partners depending on the issues at hand. He is adamant that the departure of the UK from the EU will not isolate us in future negotiations either.

“We can turn adversity into an advantage in some respects by saying, ‘we’re here, and notwithstanding all the difficulties which we have with Brexit, we are still very much committed to the European project’.

“That resonates with European colleagues. I have spent an awful lot of time since the Brexit referendum reinforcing the message to member states that we are committed to the 27 and we are remaining in Europe – we see that that’s where the balance of advantage lies for us. And that’s appreciated and understood.”

Scheme roll-out

Moving on to the many schemes administered by the Department of Agriculture, Minister Creed said scheme application deadlines had, on occasion, been extended due to “logistical difficulties”.

This most recently occurred with the submission of Farm Improvement Plans (FIPs) under the Knowledge Transfer Programme, but Minister Creed is confident this will not delay payments.

There have been problems with GLAS payments in the past because of the underlying complexity of applications, however.

He explained: “This is an area-based scheme and on each individual plot that a farmer may have – and he can have multiple plots – you can apply to have 30 different actions under GLAS on the application.

“That application then has to fit comfortably when it’s superimposed on your basic payment application, which is the area-based single farm payment application that you receive.

It proves challenging to get all of those moving parts synchronised. But once we’ve got a fit for the scheme in one year, it should be easier to approve payments. And we will be making another round of payments before the end of the year.

“Effectively, the delays necessitated eyeballing each individual application, seeing where the issue was, and then coming up with an almost bespoke IT solution for each individual case.

“We have worked through the difficulties this year and there shouldn’t be a problem with the next round of payments.”

The Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) is set to be 100% online from next year. Minister Creed explained that up to 95% of BPS was already online, with the final cohort relating to the most complicated cases.

Outlining the advantages of an online system, the minister said: “If there’s an issue with an application, the department will notify you and you will have a chance to correct it without a penalty.

“However, the department can’t do that with paper applications, because they’re more cumbersome and take time, and by the time you get to them, you’re into the full administration process.”

Farm safety

Although Brexit is a well-known challenge for farmers, Minister Creed highlighted another serious issue facing the industry. “Farm safety is a really, really important issue. And, as I’ve said before, we don’t have all of the solutions for this.

“We’re struggling to meet the challenge of farm safety and we’re open to engaging with anybody who has decent ideas about how it might be realistically addressed.

“The statistics are frightening. You’re multiple times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident on a farm than you would be in any other sector in the Irish economy,” the minister said.

The number of deaths in recent years has been quite shocking. And that doesn’t cover at all the number of serious, life-changing accidents that happen on farms.

“The commonly held view is, ‘it won’t happen to me’. Notwithstanding the best efforts of this department, we send out circulars on farm safety regularly through farm organisations, the Health and Safety Authority and Teagasc.

“And to draw down your TAMS grant, you have to do a half-day farm safety course. So we’re doing everything we can but we’re struggling to reverse the trend.”

Uncomfortable times ahead

The minister admitted it was disappointing when policies fail to meet their objectives. “I’ll take on the chin any criticisms that are legitimate,” he said.

But, hailing from a farming background, Minister Creed is most comfortable in the job when he is out and about meeting farmers. These days however, he spends a lot of time at his desk or travelling for EU negotiations and trade missions.

He has big hopes for the industry. “The interests of rural Ireland are inextricably linked with a thriving agricultural sector.

“That’s not to say that everyone who lives in rural Ireland is a farmer, or is indeed entirely dependent or in any way dependent on farming – but the ambition I have for the sector is that it delivers a fundamental contribution to a thriving rural economy,” the minister said.

Describing industry players as a “formidable force”, the minister highlighted the role farming played in getting Ireland through the financial crisis.

Irish farmers are a force to be reckoned with. They’re an effective lobby group, both nationally and at EU level, and that’s right and proper – it’s a huge part of our economy.

“It’s our indigenous strength and I think, in many ways, we took our eye off that in the boom years. It wasn’t until the crash that we sat back and said, ‘what hand of cards do we have left to play?’

“And it was our indigenous industries – agri-food and tourism – that we turned to, and they have delivered in spades,” Minister Creed added.

There are plans to grow the value of food exports from €11 billion to €19 billion over the decade to 2025. If achieved, that would create around 23,000 additional jobs in the rural economy, according to Minister Creed.

With that in mind, there is a lot to be optimistic about on the future of farming. But Minister Creed warned there will be difficult times ahead too.

“There are going to be periods over the next 12 to 18 months, or indeed longer I believe, where we will see headlines that will make us extremely uncomfortable.

“But we should neither be lulled into a false sense of security by headlines that give us comfort – we have to engage all the time.

“We’ve done a lot of good work in terms of laying the foundations for our Brexit strategy, but it’s all consuming for this department – given our exposure to the UK market,” Minister Creed concluded.