The minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue has pledged that Ireland “cannot and will not lose the suckler cow”.

In an address to the European Livestock and Meat Trades Union European conference and annual general meeting in Dublin, the minister said that the livestock sector was the backbone of rural Ireland and that “we need to see it flourish”.

McConalogue told representatives from beef processors across Ireland and Europe that dairy beef was “an increasing reality” of the beef sector in Ireland and that improvements had been made in genetics through the dairy beef index.

However he also warned “we have more to do in this space”.

“While we are continually seeking improvements in dairy beef genetics, the suckler herd is still the backbone of the industry and is a real calling card for our industry. We cannot and we will not lose the suckler cow in Ireland.”  

Major beef, lamb and pig processors from Ireland and across Europe heard McConalogue make the pledge during the European Livestock and Meat Trades Union conference and AGM in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin yesterday (Thursday, October 20).

The minister, who was one of a number of high profile speakers, also said the meat processing industry in rural Ireland was hugely significant.

“This is a multi-billion-euro industry with a footprint in every rural parish in the country employing thousands of people.”

He noted that “huge investment” has been made over the years in the meat processing sector “to make sure we remain best in class and able to serve a more discerning customer base”.

Turbulent processor market period

The minister also acknowledged that recently, it had been a turbulent period for beef processors and other meat processors since the Brexit vote and the subsequent market uncertainty which had followed .

“I acknowledge the agility you have shown in terms of new markets, new products and resilience over this time. As we know, farmer incomes are derived either from you (through the marketplace) or through direct supports.

“The livestock sector is the backbone of rural Ireland and we need to see it flourish,” the minister stressed.

He also highlighted that there were increased government supports for organic farming but cautioned that “we need to ensure that the market can take it and processors have a desire to get involved”.

McConalogue also referred to the Food Vision 2030 plan during his address to delegates and outlined that Ireland’s aim “is to become a world leader in sustainable food systems by 2030”. 

Protected Geographical Indication beef status

The minister confirmed that work was ongoing in relation to the application with the European Commission for Protected Geographical Indication – PGI – status  for “Irish grass fed beef”. 

He said: “I am excited about the opportunities that delivering PGI status will unlock.  I hope that it will help to drive market returns for beef and suckler farmers across the island, rewarding our world-class farmers for their commitment to excellence.

The minister also directly told Irish meat processors that export markets were vitally important to the sector:

“Nine out of every 10 animals that go through your lairage ends up being exported. We must constantly seek new markets while growing the ones we’re already in.

“We will never turn our back on the British market. Our food connection with Britain is centuries old. We have moved from exporting cattle on the hoof there as far back as the 1600s to now having pride of place in most retailers and high-end restaurants.

“Our connection is deep and will continue but we must remain globally focused,” he said.

Sustainability is critical

The key theme of the European Livestock and Meat Trades Union European conference and AGM in Dublin, which will run for three days, is sustainability.

Minister McConalogue told the attendees that he believes sustainability is no longer marketing buzz but that it is “mission critical” for all sectors.

“Environmental, societal and financial sustainability is our guiding principle and will remain the case.

“Food Vision is not just about reducing emissions and becoming even more sustainable, it is about futureproofing the sector for everyone in the sector – ensuring that tomorrow is better than today,” he said.

The minister also had a clear message of support for the industry:

“I greatly respect what you do as industry. Without you there can be no livestock farming and without livestock farming, there can be processing industry. Both are utterly reliant on each other’s success.

But he said he would like to see the efforts that have been made to improve trust and communication between both parties – farmers and factories – strengthened.

“This is easier said than done but it is in our interests, in your interests and in the interests of world-class multi-billion-euro export sector,” McConalogue added.