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Explainer: Why have beef farmers across the country been protesting in recent weeks?

The Irish Farmers’ Association has said the Irish and European beef sectors are “in crisis”.

0006 Farmers Protest_90575232 Farmers protesting outside Leinster House in Dublin on 10 July Source: Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

FARMERS ACROSS THE country have been holding protests in recent days to highlight their concerns over the beef sector in Ireland. 

In recent months, Irish farmers have become increasingly concerned over the state of the beef sector.

This is due to a range of issues, including a new trade deal with South America, which farmers fear may threaten their livelihoods, and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. 

So, what protests have been taking place? 

Yesterday, the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) national council and livestock committee held a demonstration at the EU Food and Veterinary Offices in Co Meath. 

The IFA said it was protesting to “highlight the urgent need to support the Irish and European beef sectors, which are in crisis”. 

8195 Farmers_90576751 Irish Farmers Association President Joe Healy with colleagues and protesters as they burn a bale of hay outside the EU Food and Veterinary Office Source: Eamonn Farrell via RollingNews.ie

On 10 July, thousands of farmers and their families took to the streets of Dublin to voice their anger.

This protest saw angry scenes outside Leinster House. 

Roscommon TD Michael Fitzmaurice received a rapturous applause when he took to the stage to address farmers. 

He said from 2010 to 2012 “when there were no Mercs to be sold and no homes to be built, the country relied on you as farmers. Now, when the country is starring to move they think they can shite down on top of you”. 

“Today is the beginning, the beginning of the rural revival. Today we will stand up and there is more of this to come.

“We will not be walked over, rural Ireland will live. Say fuck off to Mercosur,” shouted Fitzmaurice. 

The Irish Farmers Journal reported over the weekend that the Beef Plan Movement had called on suckler and beef farmers to support a protest that would see farmers avoid numerous businesses last Monday, 29 July. 

It reported that farmers were asked to: 

  • Not go to the local co-op
  • Not sell cattle at the local mart
  • Not go to the factory with cattle
  • Not go to the local town to shop

Other protests have been taking place outside meat factories in recent days. 

So, what exactly are these protests over? 

There are a few reasons behind the protests.

In part, it comes down to a new trade agreement between the European Union and the bloc of South American countries known as Mercosur.

The agreement was reached after two decades of negotiations, and is expected to remove more than 90% of agricultural and industrial tariffs on both sides.

It could save European companies billions of Euro in trade duties every year, but not everyone is happy about it - a Government minister, opposition TDs, farming lobbyists and environmental groups have all criticised the deal.

The agreement will open up the 28-nation trading bloc to Mercosur, a four-nation group of South American countries made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

0273 Farmers Protest_90575225 Farmers protesting over a range of issues including the proposed Mercosur trade deal Source: Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

Under the agreement, Mercosur has pledged to eliminate taxes on wine, chocolate, spirits, biscuits, tinned peaches, carbonated drinks, and olives.

In return, the EU will open its markets to South American agricultural products – its biggest concession.

This will be done via a system of quotas: 99 tonnes of beef per year at a preferential rate of 7.5%, as well as a supplementary quota on 180,000 tonnes of sugar and another one on 100,000 tonnes of poultry.

The trade agreement has caused worry among the farming community, with many concerned over how the introduction of such a substantial increase in beef imports to the EU would affect Ireland’s agricultural sector.

What else are the farmers protesting over? 

Irish farmers have a range of other concerns in relation to Ireland’s beef sector. 

Looking at it from a financial perspective, at the current steer base price of €3.45/kg, Irish beef prices are down 45c/kg on last year or €160/head, according to the IFA. 

Unsurprisingly, Brexit is also a significant concern for farmers in Ireland. 

“The UK leaving the EU presents the most serious threat to Irish farming and our agri-food sector in the history of the State,” the IFA says on its website. 

“The crisis in the beef sector is an EU-wide problem driven by Brexit uncertainty and falling consumption. This is compounded by substandard imports coming into the EU,” IFA president Joe Healy said yesterday.

“The situation is now intolerable for farmers and solutions must come from Brussels and the Irish government.”

0618 Farmers protest_90575201 Wellie boots outside Leinster House as farmers protested on 10 July Source: Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

Healy yesterday expressed concerns over beef from Brazil which is being imported into the EU market.

Brazil is the largest importer of beef into the EU market with 140,243 tonnes a year. 

Healy said “that while farmers have rightly been outraged at the recent EU/Mercosur trade deal, which had yet to be ratified, the real scandal is that significant quantities of substandard beef from Brazil are already coming onto the EU market”. 

“Beef is being produced in Brazil using substances and practices which are illegal in the EU. This is ‘unfair competition’ and it is damaging cattle prices and farm incomes, not only in Ireland but across the EU,” Healy claimed. 

The IFA president went on to claim that: 

  • Brazilian cattle are not tagged or identified and there is no traceability.
  • Hormones, beta agonists and other growth promoters are widely available. These products are all illegal and banned in the EU.
  • Brazil is burning the equivalent size of one football pitch of rainforest every minute, to expand beef production.
  • Brazil has endemic foot and mouth disease, which is a constant risk.

The outrage over the importation of beef into the EU was the reasoning behind yesterday’s protest at the EU Food & Veterinary Offices.

What do the farmers’ want? 

Well, there are a number of measures being sought by the IFA in relation to Ireland’s beef sector. 

The IFA is calling for an immediate ban on all substandard South American beef imports. 

It’s also calling for an EU campaign to promote Ireland’s environmentally sustainable EU beef production. 

Agriculture Minister Michael Creed earlier this week announced details of the new Beef Exceptional Aid Measure.

This measure, which is worth €100 million, will be funded by  a combination of EU exceptional aid and Exchequer support.

The Department said it is being “provided in light of the difficult circumstances that Irish beef farmers have been facing as a result of market volatility and uncertainty arising out of Brexit”. 

0250 Farmers Protest_90575234 Thousands of protesters turned out on 10 July over farming issues in Ireland Source: Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

IFA presidential candidate Tim Cullinan said the €100 million package will not be enough to cover the damage caused by Brexit. 

“It is only the first instalment that will be needed to cover the losses that beef farmers are currently experiencing and the catastrophe that’s looming for the remainder of the year,” Cullinan said. 

The IFA has called for a €1 billion Brexit fund of market supports and direct aid for farmers to be made available.

What have politicians said? 

In relation to the trade deal, EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan among was those who recognised the challenges the deal presents.

“For this agreement to be a win-win… carefully managed quotas will ensure that there is no risk that any product will flood the EU market and thereby threaten the livelihood of EU farmers,” he said.

Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed called the agreement “very disappointing”.

The issue of the trade deal was also raised by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald during Leaders’ Questions on 10 July. 

“You say that this deal needs to be assessed and tested,” she told the Taoiseach.

“It sounds to me like you’re quite prepared to throw farming families under the bus,” she added, stating that maybe his government had bigger corporate interests at heart. 

“That’s how it sounds to me and I think that’s who it sounds to the farmers at the gate.”

Varadkar said the government would assess the deal, but admitted there are “downsides” to the beef sector. 

However, he said there are “upsides” for other sectors like dairy and other businesses. He said the beef coming to the EU must be of the same standards produced by Irish farmers.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the Department of Agriculture noted that neither the Minister for Agriculture nor the Department “can legally have any role in determining the prices for beef or any other commodity”. 

The Department said it is AFM is “currently in the process of transposing into national law the EU Directive 2019 /633 on unfair trading practices in business to business relationships in the agricultural and food supply chain which entered into force on 30 April 2019″.

“The Directive applies to agricultural and food products and protects weaker suppliers against stronger buyers against a specific 16 unfair trading practises which can occur in the food supply chain,” it said. 

In relation to the quality of beef imports to the EU from third countries, the Department noted that “food products placed on the European marketplace are covered by a range of legislation designed to ensure that products supplied to consumers are of the highest safety standards”.

“DAFM are satisfied that the controls and checks in place and enforced by the Department ensure that EU consumers are protected and correctly informed when they purchase and consume food products.”

With reporting by Stephen McDermott and Christina Finn

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