By Luke Ming Flanagan, MEP (Member of the European Parliament) for the Midlands–North-West constituency

Under pressure from food scandals abroad, international trade deals, multinational processors, our beef sector is being undermined also by our own Government.

It is promoting forestry as an alternative, in the erroneous belief that this will offset our increasing greenhouse gas emissions from the expanding dairy sector.

Listening to the debate this week in the European Parliament on the Brazilian beef situation and to a presentation given by John Clarke (Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development, EU Commission) on the ongoing trade negotiations, there is little evidence of any new thinking that would give hope. Despite the Brazilian beef scandal and the ongoing pressure on farm incomes it’s ‘business as usual’.

The EU is pressing ahead with Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with a range of countries – New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, Japan, with Canada through CETA – and of course talks are continuing with the South American Mercosur bloc. These countries – Japan excepted – are major exporters of agricultural produce; yet we are led to believe there are benefits to be had for Ireland’s producers. This is nonsense.

Mr. Clarke’s choice of language regarding the ratification of CETA was instructive.

While acknowledging that EU citizens are becoming more critical of trade deals and the globalisation of our economies, he then emphasised the ‘chaotic run up’ to its signature last year, adding that there is a risk of seeing ‘the same drama replicated’ for each trade agreement concluded in the future; all those are signs of an individual locked into a ‘we know best’ mindset.

Regarding the Brazilian beef scandal itself, of major concern is that this adulterated product was not identified upon entry into the EU; our control systems are inadequate, despite assurances from [Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development] officials that 100% checks are carried out on all imports.

Of even greater concern though is the push for completion of the EU-Mercosur deal before the end of this year.

It’s both noteworthy and worrying that the EU has banned imports only from selected Brazilian processors, whereas China and Chile took much stronger action – banning all meat imports from Brazil.

It is also something of a contradiction that those who are now loudest in their condemnation are the same people who champion the globalisation of our food supply. This headlong rush to globalisation is exactly what creates the conditions for this type of activity.

Multinational food companies are driven only by shareholder profit and all else be damned; they ruthlessly exploit the natural resources and labour of their host country with no thought of their social responsibilities to their workers or broader society.

International trade and associated deals are necessary but they should be beneficial to all. When used – as is now the case – to control supply and prices for the benefit of the few, this must be challenged.

It is disappointing then that so many of our most influential TDs and MEPS, so many EU officials and even some of our farming organisation leaders, buy into the mantra of unfettered globalisation – never asking the hard questions and never really doing the job there are elected and paid to do.

Where to for Ireland?

As an exporting nation, it is vital that we avoid being drawn into international trade deals which ultimately will see our food standards being dragged down to the level of our competitors.

It’s called ‘regulatory convergence’ and it’s written into all those ‘mega-deals’.

We have a unique green image as a producer of quality food; this is a national asset and should be steadfastly protected for the benefit of farmers and the broader rural communities.

Rather than go down the road of increasing output, at below-cost prices, for a saturated world market, our focus should be on developing high-quality regional products, with Product of Geographic Indication (PGI) status, that deliver real benefits to the primary producer.

These products should be aimed at the high-value markets in the EU and (post-Brexit) the UK, as opposed to shipping them halfway around the world with the attendant extra environmental and economic cost.

It is again a contradiction at EU level that we seem intent on pursuing trade deals with far-flung countries that don’t actually need our agricultural outputs while, for political reasons, turning our backs on our nearest neighbour – a country of 65 million people that is a traditional importer of food.

Farmers must ask the leaders of their organisations and their politicians at national and EU level: Who are they working for? Agriculture and farmers or agri-business and multinationals?