In a time of crisis, we often scramble to ‘circle the wagons’.

In an otherwise-globalised world, borders become more visible and, in some cases, more impenetrable.

This can manifest itself in many ways – some for the better; some less so.

Curtailments on the movement of people, for example, can help to stifle the spread of a virus (as is the case with Covid-19). The same logic can apply to the movement of certain produce.

Filling the shelves

But, on the subject of produce, some farm organisations and lobby groups have been quick to seize on the appearance of ‘foreign’ beef on supermarket shelves in Britain. Some have claimed that such an occurrence is a “disgrace” – most especially in the midst of a viral pandemic.

Some have also accused supermarkets on this island of lining their shelves with ‘foreign’ meat – maintaining that such activities are, at best, unpatriotic and, at worst, immoral.

They contend that we should ‘buy our own’ or ‘stick to our own’.

This, however, is a risky narrative for any Irish farm body to espouse. The stark irony is that (in normal times) circa 43% of our beef goes to the UK. If a ‘buy our own’ mantra was to be embraced ‘en masse’ by our nearest neighbours (notwithstanding, of course, the fallout from Brexit), where would that leave our industry?

Ditto for Irish dairy produce; circa 19% of it goes to the UK.

In fact, over 90% of our beef and 85% of our dairy produce is exported.

A protectionist approach to beef and dairy trade and consumption – in any country and in any guise – is certainly not in Irish farming’s best interests.

We are more reliant on other nations’ willingness to embrace produce from beyond their own borders than most.

Of course, it’s tempting to jump on the protectionist bandwagon. We understandably (and rightly) get frustrated if we see encroachments on our doorsteps – all the more so if we suspect that such imports are sometimes used as a mechanism to control the price paid to farmers.

Irish farming needs a fair price for its produce.

Also Read: Opinion: Now we see how much farming does matter, but what happens after?

We should certainly call out ‘sharp practice’ where we see it, especially if such practices conspire to leave farmers – the primary producers – without an adequate return. But simply and roundly vilifying the very notion of imports – in a country (and an industry) that is so reliant on exports – is not the answer.

In other words, should we focus all of our collective energies (and risk losing international credibility in the process) to safeguard the 10% (the approximate proportion of, for example, our beef that is consumed domestically) – to the detriment of all else?

Safeguarding the 90% or more (of exports) is where the real war must be fought.