Leaders debate: Would you support a reduction in the national suckler herd?

Seven political party leaders have nailed their colours to the mast on whether they would support a reduction in the country’s national suckler herd, if elected to the next government.

With just 11 days to go before voters cast their ballot on Saturday, February 8, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Fine Gael), Mary Lou McDonald (Sinn Féin), Richard Boyd Barrett (Solidarity / People Before Profit), Roisín Shorthall (Social Democrats), Eamon Ryan (Green Party), Micheál Martin (Fianna Fáil) and Brendan Howlin (Labour), answered on agriculture during the second major televised General Election debate on RTÉ One – hosted by presenter Claire Byrne.

The final question posed to candidates at last night’s (Monday, January 27) live debate, broadcast from NUI Galway, was: “Do you support a reduction in the national suckler herd?”

It is worth noting here that the latest data released by the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) indicates that the national suckler cow herd currently totals at just 934,273 cows – a decline of 42,065 head on 2018 levels.

On top of this, many would argue that a further reduction will be witnessed once the Beef Data and Genomics Programme (BDGP) comes to an end this year.

Moreover, over the last four years the number of suckler cows in Ireland has declined year-on-year. In fact, from 2016 to 2019 the national herd decreased by 83,936 cows.

It is also worth noting that one of the specific preconditions of last year’s EU and Government-supported Beef Exceptional Aid Measure (BEAM) scheme was a requirement that participating farmers must reduce the level of organic nitrogen (livestock manure) by 5% between July 2020 and June 2021.

Nonetheless, here’s how the leaders replied to the above question (order reflects line of questioning on the night):

Eamon Ryan

“We will have a smaller suckler herd because we will need farmers to go less of the intensive model, which is hugely expensive, and where people are paying for fertiliser and all sorts of other bills.

“If we go to a less intensive system, where they get a genuine premium for a genuine Origin Green brand, I think that is the better future for Irish farming. Farmers are critical, they are the front-line; and they are going to be the heroes in the change we have to make.

“One of the projects we have to help store carbon, but also to restore wildlife, is to pay farmers directly for every family farm putting in an acre of native forestry – that would be a better way of protecting them from all of the dangers Brexit brings.”

Leo Varadkar

“We don’t support reducing the national herd; that is not part of our policy.

“There are other ways of reducing agricultural emissions and that is all outlined in a Teagasc report published a year or two ago; we need to implement that now.

“We all know farmers, particularly beef farmers, have had a very hard time over the last year or two and often farmers feel they are being climate shamed, that they are being blamed for climate change – and I think that should stop.”

Mary Lou McDonald

“Those that are concerned about the future of the Irish family farm need to look at the cartel. I believe it is a cartel within the Irish meat industry and I think we need to start there.

“I agree that the family farm is the best model of agriculture to produce quality food, to ensure traceability and all of those things and to protect our image and our status as ‘a green island’.

“If you go out and talk to farmers they will tell you that if things go on as they are there won’t be family farms, there will just be large-scale, industrial-style production.

“I’m very conscious that while not everybody in rural Ireland is a farmer, the health of rural communities depends on the vibrancy and the success of Irish agriculture.

“So we want to set up a commission on the Irish family farm and I think only when you look at that can you start talking about the size of the national herd.

“I think it’s really unfair to farmers that have struggled, we have seen them on picket lines, they came up to Dublin in their tractors, and now to start saying that you want to cut the herd by 50%.”

Richard Boyd Barrett

“We do [agree with cutting the herd by 50%] because we think that ever expanding the herd is actually reducing prices and hurting farmers – and actually it gets even worse then when you have the Mercosur deal importing beef from half way across the world into the EU market, further driving down prices and putting farmers under pressure.

“First of all, you’ve got to guarantee prices for their beef. You have got to re-orientate the support for the small farmer, for the family farmers, and have that paid for essentially by making the big beef barons and dairy barons – who are really making the profits – actually pay some tax.

“And those getting that are gaining the most benefits from the CAP payments, that actually needs to be redirected towards the small farmer. In particular we need to have much better subsidies and supports for farmers making the transition to things like forestry, biodiversity measures, where they will actually be paid rather than punished.”

Micheál Martin

“The fastest way to get opposition to the climate change agenda in rural Ireland is to propose a reduction in the national herd.

“I take Eamon’s point that we do need to create alternative income streams for farming because I do think farmers will be the guardians of our natural environment, of biodiversity.

“And that means incentivising farmers around growing native species on their land; it also means other incomes streams in terms of the whole natural environment and our capacity to protect it and enhance it.

“In our manifesto we are proposing substantial increases to the services involved in terms of making sure that that kind of a resource can go behind farming, it’s happening to a certain degree but it needs to be stronger.”

Brendan Howlin

“If we honestly believe that climate change is a quintessential crisis that must be addressed, then we have to do things – including looking at the issue of family farming and how we operate in this country.

“Farmers are not wedded to the number of cows or cattle they have; they are wedded to the income they can generate.

“If you logically sit down and say we can substitute, then people will listen. It is the fear of being marginal already, barely able to survive, and losing that. That’s what they fear.

“We proposed in the new CAP talks that we would cap single farm payments at €60,000, so that you don’t have the big ranchers getting multiples of that and others getting subsistence levels.”

Róisin Shorthall

“In relation to the issue of climate change we have no choice but to take big action in this area – and that means everybody and every sector playing their part.  We need to move in a substantial way in relation to clean energy, in relation to what we’re doing in agriculture and in transport.

“[On reducing the suckler herd] that transition has to be a just transition. I think it’s misleading farmers to pretend that it’s possible to continue producing beef at the level that we are doing it at the moment.

“Farmers should be supported to diversify in the kind of farming they are involved in, whether it’s forestry, whether it’s organic food production, we have huge potential in this country.

“Government should support farmers in moving away from beef production towards more environmentally friendly practices.”