Opinion: I’m concerned about scaremongering within the agricultural community

By Michael Fitzmaurice, independent TD for Roscommon-Galway

When it comes to Brexit at the moment, everything is still up in the air. It is like looking into a crystal ball and trying to predict the future.

I believe that more pressure needs to be applied by Ireland to underline the fact that we will not accept a border on this island; even if Europe tries to enforce it upon us.

It is worth noting that there are other cases where a border has not been enforced; with northern Cyprus being an example.

We must think outside the box to save the Irish agricultural industry and, indeed, rural Ireland from any significant damage when it comes to Brexit.

I would be hopeful that common sense will prevail over the coming weeks so that a satisfactory deal can be struck.

These Brexit negotiations shouldn’t be about winners or losers or getting one over the other; it needs to be about finding a solution that will allow Ireland to trade with one of its biggest trading partners in the world in the line of agricultural products – especially beef.

Price difference

In recent years, and even before there was ever any mention of Brexit, there was a difference of up to €200 on a beef carcass when prices in Ireland and the UK were compared – which raises an eyebrow straight away.

I feel that a lot of excuses have been used in the past decade or so to curtail the beef price a farmer receives in this country; restrictions on movements and age have been used as sticks to beat Irish beef producers.

Also, isn’t it an unusual situation that approximately 6,000 UK-origin cows can cross the border – an invisible line – and be killed in the Republic of Ireland, while Irish farmers struggle to get their cattle across the border to be killed in the north in order to avail of the better prices on offer?

Meanwhile, whether it is a hard or a soft Brexit, it seems as if the lamb trade will benefit – and a hard Brexit would actually present difficulties for the thousands of sheep that are killed in factories here in the south.

Red Tractor

While the threat of the introduction of tariffs on Irish beef exports into the UK hangs in the balance, as well as the possible influx of cheaper meat from the likes of Brazil, we must take a step back to assess the situation.

Nothing can ever be ruled out; but, if you look at the facts over the past few years, Red Tractor approved produce has been one the dearest meat products on supermarket shelves for the British housewife – and they have continued to buy it.

Other than trying to deal with financial struggles, I find it hard to believe that British consumers will turn their backs on what they know is a quality product in favour of meat imported from somewhere like Brazil – given the scandal which unfolded there a few short years ago.

Strict rules and regulations are adhered to by Irish, and indeed European, beef producers.

Now more than ever, consumers are increasingly concerned about where there food has been produced and the quality of it.

Scaremongering

I am concerned that there may be some scaremongering taking place at the moment.

It seems as if this is suiting some of the other sectors in order for a sense of fear to be instilled in the agricultural community.

There is no doubt that if we hit a hard Brexit then it will present considerable difficulties and challenges for Irish beef producers – as well as cheese producers.

I believe there is a distinct possibility of the UK looking for an extension and that they will agree a deal down the road which would save both Ireland’s and its own economy from significant damage.

Safety Nets

While it has emerged recently that state aid rules have been revised to up the amount farmers can receive in some circumstances to €25,000 over three years, this wouldn’t be even close to adequate to the amount that would be required in a dooms day scenario.

If the EU is truly our friend, then aids to storage and intervention need to be opened and brought up to a price that is at least €4.00/kg to boost the confidence of Irish farmers in the event of the worst case scenario.

Because, at the moment, Irish farmers are already losing their shirts on cattle in some cases.

While the factories may have a short sighted view of the current situation, if you pull a dog’s tail enough, he will bite back eventually.

The reality is that the continuation of poor beef prices will lead to less people producing beef in this country. This will, in turn, mean that there will be less cattle for the factories and less people working in them.

Live exports

Looking towards other markets, we need to make sure that Bord Bia gets more engaged in the live export market.

We hear at a recent Agriculture Committee meeting that there are huge opportunities to export cattle via live shipping.

But, unlike trade missions which focused on exporting beef which had been slaughtered here in Ireland, there doesn’t seem to be the same effort being made to export cattle on the hoof out of this country.

Everyone must remember that good utilisation of live exports is needed to ensure a prosperous all-around beef trade for Irish farmers.

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