Northern Ireland’s beef and sheep industry is in a state of deep shock, according to the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC).

This follows the recent vote taken by Stormont MLAs, which could see the introduction of climate change legislation that compels Northern Ireland to reach a carbon ‘net zero’ position by 2050.

LMC chief executive, Ian Stevenson explained:

“In essence, many of our local politicians have turned their backs on all of the independent scientific advice that was made available to them prior to the vote being taken.

“Members of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change had previously pointed out that it was not feasible for Northern Ireland to set a net zero carbon position for the region.

“Nor was such a stance required in the context of a climate change net zero target that had already been set for the UK as a whole.

“Those MLAs who supported the net zero position were also fully aware of the dramatic impact such a policy would inflict on Northern Ireland’s livestock sectors and rural areas prior to them voting.  

“And it is this fact, more than any other, that has deeply dismayed farmers and processors.

“We are also seeing a ripple effect, which is impacting on all those other stakeholder groups that interface with cattle and sheep production.”

Beef and sheep sector investment

The LMC chief executive confirmed that the recent Stormont decision will have an almost immediate effect on investment decisions taken within the beef and sheep sector.

He said: “If this legislation is passed, processors will be left with no option but to factor in how livestock numbers and raw material supply will be affected during the years ahead.

“Their businesses are totally dependent on animal throughputs, when it comes to determining their viability and future sustainability.

“Livestock farmers, too, will be sitting down right now to work out their futures within the industry. And the key question they will be asking is – can cattle and sheep production deliver a sustainable future for the next generation?”

Stevenson said that farmers involved in beef and sheep production are working within small enough margins most of the time.

“If they come to the conclusion that climate change legislation offers no protection to the future of the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland, many may well say that enough is enough,” Stevenson said.

“They will stop investing in their farms. And we may well see evidence of this happening, sooner rather than later.”

Farmer well-being

The LMC representative said he is also deeply concerned about the mental health of farmers in the wake of the climate change vote at Stormont.

“Many famers and their family members are already under great strain, given the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.

“I am deeply concerned that the climate change vote will add to the stress levels they are already coping with.

“Organisations like Rural Support are confirming the immense levels of stress-related illnesses that are pressing down on farming communities across Northern Ireland right now.

“The Stormont climate change vote will, undoubtedly, add to this pressure.”

According to Stevenson, young children are particularly affected when stress of any kind impacts on family groups for a sustained period of time.

He commented: “Covid-19 has been a major factor in this regard. We now know that young people find it particularly difficult to cope with issues which they perceive to put the stability of their families at risk.

“The impact of the climate change vote is now being openly talked about in farm houses the length and breadth of Northern Ireland. And, no doubt, children are getting a sense of just how serious these discussions are. 

“It’s hard not to conclude that an environment of this kind is not healthy for any young child.”

The LMC chief said he believes that Stormont’s politicians have acted to place a very large cloud over the entire future of livestock production and agri-food in Northern Ireland.

“All of this is creating tremendous uncertainty at farm level,” he added.

“It’s actually more serious than this. Farmers are now enduring a form of mental torture at the hands of our politicians. Farming, by its very nature, can be a very lonely and isolating profession. This can represent a large enough mental health challenge in its own right.

“Adding to this over recent years has been the unending demands of the animal welfare and vegan movements.

“Cattle and sheep farmers know full well that they will always act to put the needs of their animals and the environment first.

“Covid-19 added considerably to farmers’ stress levels. And now we have the climate change vote at Stormont,” he added.

“What’s really sticking in the craw of farmers is the fact that they have little or no control over many of the challenges they face.

“However, they regard the Stormont climate change vote, very much as a self-inflicted wound by local representatives who had neither need nor evidence to support this vote.

“Let’s hope some common sense prevails as the climate change legislation makes its way through the next stage of consideration at the Northern Ireland Assembly,” he concluded.