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From armageddon to 'damage-limitation at best': How Brexit could hit Irish farmers

When asked if farmers felt like sitting ducks in relation to Brexit, IFA President Joe Healy said: “Absolutely”.

Image: Sam Boal via RollingNews.ie

THE PRESIDENT OF the Irish Farmers’ Association Joe Healy has asked the government to make commitments to support farmers in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Farming is one of the sectors most vulnerable to Brexit as many agri-foods are exported to the UK, and many Irish farmers operate on an all-island economy basis. For example, around 40% of Northern Ireland’s lambs are exported south of the border, and although milk is produced in Northern Ireland, the factories that make it into cheese are located in Ireland.

Speaking at the Irish Farmers’ Association’s (IFA) AGM, Healy said that beef farmers  were particularly vulnerable and needed support. Factories have blamed the devaluation of sterling for poor prices for meat, but as it recovers, don’t readjust the price, he said.

“… beef farmers are ‘losing their shirts’. Farmers need €20 per head for every 5c kilo in reduction”.

When asked what specific supports they needed, Healy replied:

“We need to know that they are there to support farmers in the case of a no-deal Brexit but also that they’re open to understanding and appreciating the concerns that are there at the moment that beef farmers in particular are experiencing.

If you compare the current prices where they were last year, beef farmers are losing 25c per kilo or anything between €80 and €100 per head.

Healy said that Ireland exports 87% of its cheddar cheese to the UK, and of the 90% of Irish beef that’s exported, 50% of that goes to the UK.

“Every year 400,000 lambs go South, and 400,000 pigs meet them and go North,” he said, adding that the backstop had to remain unless the UK can offer something better. 

Healy has said that he’s met Ireland’s EU Commissioner Phil Hogan twice in the past 10 days to discuss measures for a “crash out Brexit”, and to highlight the uncertainty that’s affecting farmers.

He said that they were looking for financial help, aids for private storage facilities, and some control on the price for agri-products.

He said that there is still a hope that there will be a deal, but even if there is that “we’ll still see farmers continue to lose a lot of money”. 

We’ll see a huge amount of uncertainty for the mushroom market, the pig trade, which has been decimated by prices throughout the year.

When asked if farmers felt like sitting ducks in relation to Brexit, Healy said “absolutely”.

No matter what happens with Brexit, we’re talking about damage-limitation at best.
[But] a bad Brexit will be armageddon, particularly for the beef sector. 

The UK is due to leave the European Union on the 29 March – exactly two months away. Despite over two years of debates and negotiations with the EU, it’s looking increasingly like the UK will leave with no deal.

This is because the UK parliament rejected the deal negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May, and MPs can’t seem to find agreement for an alternative plan.

Among the most contentious issues in the deal is the Irish backstop: a mechanism so that a hard border will not reappear on the island of Ireland because of Brexit.

Apart from Brexit, Healy also discussed reports that the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy payment would be cut by 5% and voiced the IFA’s opposition to it: “A cut is a cut.”

He said that although it was being touted as a win, as the cut could have been greater, he added that the 5% cut represented a much greater loss to farmers in earnings – closer to 15%.

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“We’ve stated quite clearly that an Irish commissioner and a Minister for Agriculture cannot allow this to happen,” Healy said.

Ireland’s Phil Hogan is the EU commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, and is in charge of reforming the payment.

A significant part of the EU’s budget is used to give grants to farmers to subsidise their work, and to ensure sustainable food production as well as support rural development.

As a country with a strong agriculture sector, Ireland benefits massively from this, but other EU countries oppose the costly grants and are looking to reduce it significantly. 

Healy also said that farmers were disappointed with Leo Varadkar’s comments about eating less meat, saying that the IFA had always advocated a balanced diet.

“Farmers are being told that we should give up producing meat and milk and instead produce fruit and nuts. We won’t be getting rid of our livestock. We produce the best food in the world, naturally, from animals grazing in fields.”

He added:

We won’t be driven off the land by keyboard warriors quacks, or lifestyle gurus. We are proud to be farmers and we are here to stay.

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