Opinion

Irish agriculture must have access to a realistic CAP budget

The total uncertainty over the next Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget is a boil that must be lanced with immediate effect.

And it’s up to the Irish Government to step up to the plate and take on the job in-hand.

Talk of maintaining the current levels of CAP funding isn’t good enough. What farmers need is a strong injection of additional money.

Such a step can be fully justified given the fall-off in real-term prices received by farmers since the Fischler reform proposals of 2003.

These measures saw the introduction of direct payments for farmers, in lieu of a de-coupling process, which cut the link between farm output and support payments.

Today, we have a scenario in place which makes farmers a total hostage to fortune. Within many sectors, farm income is totally determined by the Single Payment / BPS payment, which individual producers receive.

In other words, commercial farmgate prices are hardly covering the total costs incurred at farm level. This is particularly so within the beef and sheep sectors.

Given this backdrop and the fact that the European Union seems to be in ‘penny pinching’ mood, the Irish Government has no choice but to commit to underpinning the total support budget that is available to agriculture from national funds.

If this does not happen, the risks facing production agriculture and food processing are immense.

Moreover, if either sector was to experience a downturn, the knock-on effects for the economy as a whole would be extremely serious.

The good news is that Irish Government does have the money to pump prime the farming sector. Employment is now back at all-time high levels. And this is having a very positive impact on tax returns.

I am fully aware of the fact that health, housing and education are already key priorities for Ireland.

However, farming should be added to the list, if necessary.

Another critical challenge facing Irish agriculture, in the context of the CAP reform process, is ensuring that we end up with a definition of what constitutes ‘an active farmer’ which suits this country.

In other EU member states this discussion has centred on a form of words which would recognise only those producers who receive the bulk of their income from production agriculture.

However, such an interpretation would automatically rule out the thousands of part-time sheep and suckler beef producers who constitute the back bone of our red meat industry. The game ahead must be played on the basis of including as many ‘bona fide’ farmers as possible when it comes to the share-out of support funding.