I have noticed a growing annoyance in recent weeks among livestock farmers about the on-going situation within the beef industry. Many of the farmers I speak to are not altogether unhappy with performance of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine (although they would like to see a resolution to the ‘nomad’ cattle issue). However, I do get a sense that farmers, especially younger farmers, are becoming more disenfranchised with a perceived lack of leadership within the industry.
Here are three questions I would like to see the farmer representative organisations answer:
Why are farming organisations now calling on Minister Coveney to take urgent and decisive action within the beef industry?
To be fair to the minister, he initiated a ‘Beef Forum’ in March. This all-inclusive industry forum was set up to help move the industry beyond the current crisis. I find it difficult to understand that some would have the tenacity to imply that the Minister has been indecisive. All stakeholders involved in this forum should take collective responsibility for any perceived inaction. Have the farming organisation proposed specific, market-oriented solutions in this forum, that they now feel the Minister has not taken on board fully?
How can Irish farming representative organisations vindicate themselves as independent lobbying organisations, while simultaneously depending on the meat factories to collect EIF (European Involvement Fund) levies to fund their activities?
This EIF levy is a touchy issue for many. Many farmers question how impartiality can be guaranteed, when the farming organisations rely on the meat factories to collect these monies on their behalf.
Moreover, trying to find evidence of where or how this money is spent, or the amount collected (estimates suggest a figure €3 million) is near impossible. Why are farming organisations not forthcoming on the specifics on this levy? This levy was set up to provide farming organisations with the funds needed to represent and protect farmer’s interests at European level. Yet, when you look at the official EU Lobbying Organisation register in Brussels, the two largest farming unions in Ireland state that the estimated costs of directly representing their members interests to EU institutions is less than €200,000. Irish farmers should demand to know where the remaining €2.8 million is spent.
Is it time for a farmer-owned and governed organisation to market Irish beef and lamb internationally?
Some 98% of boneless, chilled Irish beef is exported to just eight countries. Half of these sales are to the UK alone; the other seven countries are all located within Western Europe, which many consider to be a declining consumption market.
Farmers only need to look at the success of the Irish Dairy Board to see how a similar organisation could benefit livestock farmers. Set up in the 1960s by farmers for farmers, the Kerrygold brand today is sold in 80 countries globally, and is a top-3 premium dairy brand within 50 of these markets.
The success of Kerrygold shows what farmers can do when they apply themselves to delivering market-led solutions. The Kerrygold brand has ensured that the Irish dairy industry has remained competitive globally and it has also ensured that the value derived from the Kerrygold brand makes its way back to farmer owned co-ops, and the individual farmers themselves.
The livestock sector needs to aspire for similar market-driven growth and profit sharing. We need to break away from the habitual ‘blame the Minister’ approach to solving crises within the beef sector.
We need change within the livestock industry, and perhaps a new generation of farmers to lead this change. The Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, summed it up best when he said: “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything”.