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Q&A: Here's where Ireland's political parties stand on agriculture ahead of GE2020

We asked each party what measures they’d take to resolve the beef dispute and support Bord na Móna workers at risk of losing their jobs.

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WITH THE GENERAL Election less than a week away, TheJournal.ie has been asking each political party for their positions on a variety of issues affecting people across Ireland.

Throughout the rest of the campaign we’ll be publishing their responses on the issues that matter, including homelessness and housing, health and transport.

This time around we’re focusing on farming and agriculture.

In recent months, farmers have been staging protests in various locations across the country – outside meat processing factories, supermarket distribution centres, streets in Dublin city, and the M50 motorway.

They have a number of grievances – the price they’re paid for beef and other produce; the implementation of climate change measures that will impact their livelihoods; and the belief that rural Ireland is not a priority when policy is being drafted.

In a bid to resolve the dispute over the price farmers are paid for their beef, the Beef Market Taskforce was set up last September. The group was due to meet in October but was prevented from doing so after protesters blocked industry representatives from entering the Department of Agriculture. 

tractor 610 Tractors on the M50 earlier this month. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

The Taskforce finally held its first meeting in December but all major issues are yet to be resolved.

Many Bord na Móna workers are also facing an uncertain future as the company moves towards decarbonisation amid growing calls for action to combat climate change. The company is due to stop harvesting peat by 2028, and hundreds of job losses are expected.

There has been much talk about ‘just transition’ in recent months, but what does this actually mean for the people and communities most affected?

With these issues in mind, we asked each political party what measures they’d take to resolve the beef dispute, help farmers diversify their operations, and support Bord na Móna workers at risk of losing their jobs.

What will the party do to help resolve the dispute over the price of beef

A Fine Gael spokesperson said the party is “committed to the beef sector and wants to see beef farmers get an increase in price for their product, in line with the EU average”.

Fine Gael said it will take a number of measures to assist beef farmers including safeguarding their interests post-Brexit; delivering a strong CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) budget, topped up with Exchequer funding if needed; implementing the Beef Market Taskforce commitments, developing a beef price index, and introducing a regulator.

The spokesperson said the party will also “continue to promote beef producer groups to give beef farmers more clout in the marketplace, seek Protected Geographic Indicator status for Irish beef, and build on market access already delivered such as the opening of the Chinese market to Irish beef”.

They added that the party provided €85 million in targeted supports for the beef sector in Budget 2020.

A Fianna Fáil spokesperson said there is an “urgent need to strengthen” beef farmers’ position in the “food supply chain”.

The party said it supports the work of the Beef Market Taskforce and that some issues were addressed in the beef deal brokered last September, but there are still a number of areas that need to be prioritised. According to Fianna Fáil, these include:

  • Working towards the introduction of a €200 suckler cow payment in the next CAP on the first 20 cows
  • Implementing the EU new Directive on Unfair Trading Practices into Irish law, which should be enforced by an independent National Food Ombudsman
  • Improving the price reporting and transparency in prices in the food supply chain
  • Market Irish grass-fed beef as a premium product in order to expand the current market footprint overseas and an increased return to the primary producer

Sinn Féin manifesto’s states that the “lack of transparency in pricing, evident in the sheep and beef sectors, must be tackled by regulation and legislation”, something it promises to bring before the next Dáil.

“The lack of fair competition in the meat-processing sector in Ireland is a core reason for the crisis facing Irish farming. The Irish processing sector is highly concentrated: the three biggest factory groups now control 65% of all meat processed in the state.

“This forces farmers to accept the artificially low prices offered by these corporate giants,” the manifesto states.

Sinn Féin says it will “address this by reducing the imbalance in bargaining power in the food chain, through legislative protections for farmers”. The party adds that “while the new EU directive on unfair trading practices falls short of what is required, Sinn Féin will ensure the speedy transposition into national law of its provisions”.

A spokesperson for the Labour Party said farmers currently do not receive a fair price for their beef and other produce.

“There is a 50% price differential between what beef farmers in Ireland get, and what those in the UK are paid. Prices are also higher in the EU. There should also be a competition inquiry into the beef sector in Ireland.

“There is a cartel in the industry that is driving down what farmers get to take home and when you look at the pie chart of where the profits go, retailers get too much. Supermarkets operating here should have to publish their overall profits and the profits they make on products like beef. We need price transparency,” the spokesperson said.

They added that, in order to combat this, Labour “will establish a new, transparent and independent beef price regulator to resolve this long-standing issue in a way that is fair to all farmers and workers”.

“We also want a fairer distribution of income for small and disadvantaged farmers under the upcoming reform of CAP, with 100% convergence and a maximum payment of €60,000 to large corporate farms,” they stated.

The Green Party said beef farmers are “not getting a fair price for their beef, and this is reflective of decades of poor policy in this country”.

Our farmers have been at the mercy of global commodity beef markets, and this is not where beef from Ireland should be going. The costs of production are too high, and this is affecting profit margins.

“A nature-friendly, less-but-better approach would be a better suited model for our family farms, and will ultimately command a higher price,” a spokesperson said.

They added that the party doesn’t see a short-term solution to the beef situation. A spokesperson said the Beef Market Taskforce “has so far been ineffective, and the price is reflective of poor policies, and the global market price for commodity beef”.

“An overhaul of the whole sector is required, and that will take time,” they stated.

A spokesperson for the Solidarity, which runs as an alliance with People Before Profit, said farmers currently don’t receive a fair price for their produce, stating: “They don’t receive a price that they can survive on, otherwise they wouldn’t be engaging in pickets and protests.”

They said the processing industry “needs to be taken into public ownership and run democratically to ensure a decent livelihood for small farmers”.

A spokesperson for People Before Profit said the party supports beef farmers who “are being ripped off by the big agri-producers and retail chains”. “We would encourage unity between the farmers and the workers in the meat industry,” they added.

They said the price farmers receive for the produce is “totally unfair” and the party wants to “take the main agri-producers into public ownership so that they do not use their near monopoly position to push down prices for farmers”.

A spokesperson said the National Party wants to “introduce anti-trust legislation to force the breakup of the dominant meat-processing companies; ABP, Dawn Meats, and Kepak – who have an effective cartel on beef pricing”.

Some parties did not reply to requests for comment, but their agricultural policies can be read here: the Social Democrats, Aontú and Renua. The Irexit Party doesn’t have an agriculture policy section on its website. 

Does the party agree with farmers blockading streets and meat processing plants

All of the parties who responded said they agree with farmers’ right to protest.

A Fine Gael spokesperson said: “There is no doubt the beef sector has been through a very difficult period in terms of weather, fodder issues and broader challenges around market volatility and Brexit, which have put pressure on farm incomes and farm families.”

They said the party “recognises any organisation’s right to legitimate and peaceful protest, however, action which creates widespread disruption can be counterproductive and just prevents people going about their business, getting to work or getting their kids to school or making hospital appointments”.

Fine Gael said it is “deeply committed to supporting and developing Ireland’s beef sector” and believes “the best way forward is positive engagement through the Beef Market Taskforce”. 

A Fianna Fáil spokesperson said: “Beef farmers are at the pin of their collars with the downward spiral in beef prices and the severe hit on incomes they have taken over a sustained period. This culminated in the protest at processor plants last summer. It was determined action by beef farmers, which forced meat factories to the negotiating table.

“We support the right to protest in a peaceful manner. Any protest must be organised in tandem with authorities and the Garda Síochána.”

Labour said it “ understands that workers only protest as a very last resort so it’s vital all relevant stakeholders sit down as soon as possible to address and rectify these concerns”.

“Workers who believe they are being treated fairly don’t down tools and take to the streets, so it is our duty to listen to their concerns and reach a mutually agreeable solution.”

The Green Party spokesperson stated: “We believe in the right to demonstrate and protest. These protests seem to go peacefully, and while they disrupted the operations there, this is the nature of protest.”

Solidarity said it agrees with the protests, stating that “militant tactics such as effective pickets are required when the basic economic survival of any group of workers is at stake”.

A People Before Profit spokesperson said farmers “have every right to picket the meat plants”, adding that plants’ employees “should also be paid for being available to work”. “People have every right to protest. This sometimes involves inconveniences to the general public as protestors want to make society aware of their plight,” they added.

The National Party said it understands why farmers feel it is “necessary” to protest. A spokesperson said the protests didn’t deliver the desired result “because of the government, the competition authority, the EU, and the courts ensuring that corporate parasites were protected”.

They added that electing rural TDs “would be a far more effective means of farmers achieving their goals”, adding that the party supports fair-pricing legislation “which would guarantee by law that the primary producers of food would receive a fair share of the final retail price of food”.

Does the party want farmers to diversify their operations to make them more environmentally-friendly

Agriculture remains the sector which emits the most carbon emissions in Ireland – 20.5 million tonnes in 2018 – according to figures from the Environmental Protection Agency. However, a number of parties pointed out that, when compared to other countries, the carbon footprint of Irish farms is on the lower end of the scale.

A Fine Gael spokesperson said the party has “set out clearly that we want to reduce emissions by approximately 10%, without reducing the national herd”.

“We see the agricultural sector as part of the solution to climate change rather than part of the problem.

“We want to see climate change deliver more in terms of income for farmers and that’s why we’ll be developing opportunities in areas such as micro-generation, biomass, forestry and anaerobic digestion to deliver additional income opportunities for farmers as well as looking at ways to reduce emissions,” they stated. 

The spokesperson added that the party wants to “develop a flagship environmental scheme under the next CAP that farmers are on board with, recognising that REPS (the Rural Environment Protection Scheme) in the past had a great take up”. 

The Fianna Fáil spokesperson said the agri-food sector “has a key role to play in meeting climate change objectives”.

“Ireland is a flag bearer of environmentally sustainable farming and premier worldwide food production and environmental standards. For example, the carbon footprint of Irish farms is one of the lowest in the world. It is a blueprint that other countries should examine,” they said.

However, they added that “much more action is needed and adoption of new technologies to further reduce the carbon footprint and further incentives provided to meet targets in the next CAP to accelerate the delivery of GHG reduction in farming practices”.

They said Teagasc’s plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions in Irish Agriculture over the next decade must be “actioned swiftly“, and that the party will “ensure the Climate Action Fund is targeted to help prepare the sector for Ireland’s transition to a low-carbon economy”.

The Labour spokesperson said the party “believes there is a need to make Irish agriculture more sustainable, but will ensure a Just Transition to a greener economy”.

The party also plans to establish a Just Transition Fund at national level to “support jobs displaced by the move to a low-carbon economy and we will support the re-wetting of peatlands to capture carbon emissions, creating new green jobs”.

The party also plans to establish a Farm Income Diversification Task Force to “help farmers develop alternative ways of generating incomes”, and provide opportunities for farmers to save money while replacing fossil fuels by “investing in energy-saving measures, such as plate coolers, heat exchangers and solar panels”.

“We’ve also outlined our proposals for 100% convergence for single farm CAP payments and a €60,000 ceiling on the payment any individual can receive,” the spokesperson added.

The Green Party said farmers “must be provided with the opportunities to diversify”, saying this process needs to be part of the ‘just transition’ for agriculture.

“We are in favour of supporting more extensive, nature-friendly farming practices, which support biodiversity, habitat creation and carbon sequestration. Farmers will be financially rewarded via the Common Agriculture Policy and other public funds.

“This is a public good, and benefits the whole of Irish society and its environment. We will support the development of the organic farming sector, and would like to see more opportunities for farmers to have more local routes to market for Irish consumers.”

A spokesperson for the Solidarity said that, for environmental reasons, “concrete steps are required to incentivise a reduction in the national herd so supports for a just transition for farmers and workers in the processing industry would need to be put in place so there is no loss of income or livelihood”.

People Before Profit said “there needs to be a shift away towards more environmentally friendly food production”, adding: “This can only happen through negotiation and dialogue.”

A spokesperson for the National Party said food production in Ireland, especially beef and lamb production, is among the most carbon-efficient countries in the world.

“Therefore, encouraging farmers to diversify away from producing quality clean green products is not going to benefit the environment globally, as that slack will be picked up globally by South American (particularly Brazilian) ranchers who will produce vast quantities of beef in an environmentally unfriendly way by cutting down rainforests,” they added.

What will the party do to support Bord na Móna workers who could lose their jobs

In October Bord na Móna announced redeployment opportunities for up to 200 workers, as it moves away from peat harvesting.

The State-owned company has agreed to embark on a programme of rehabilitation of bogs in the midlands. Up to 150 indirect construction jobs are also expected to be created.

Hundreds of workers have already left the company through a voluntary redundancy scheme amid uncertainty about the future.

Bord na Móna announced in 2015 it would fully stop harvesting peat by 2030, and that it was increasing its rehabilitation and restoration of bogs. In 2018, it brought the end of peat forward to 2028, and announced there would be up to 430 job losses as a result of its “decarbonisation plan”.

In order to transition smoothly, Bord na Móna wanted to continue to supply peat along with biomass to be used together to generate electricity at ESB power plants. However, An Bord Pleanála refused permission for this last July, sparking serious concerns among workers.

Bord na Móna in October reached an agreement with ESB that peat-powered electricity plants in Offaly and Lough Ree will continue to operate until the end of 2020.

Fine Gael said its Just Transition plan sets out the following:

  • The ring-fencing of one-third of the carbon tax for the midlands in 2020 to support home retrofitting (400 jobs directly and indirectly), bog re-wetting by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (up to 100 jobs), and a €11m Just Transition Fund
  • €80 million to restore Bord na Móna bogs (through a PSO levy) over the next four years, supporting 200 jobs
  • The appointment of Kieran Mulvey as the country’s first Just Transition Commissioner

“The next phase of Bord na Móna’s own plan will see a €1.6 billion development programme that will benefit the midlands,” the spokesperson said. 

They added that the National Raised Bog Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) Management Plan 2017–2022 sets out a roadmap for the long-term management, restoration and conservation of protected raised bogs in Ireland.

In relation to domestic turf-cutting, the party said it recognises that cutters “have a traditional right to cut turf, but that this right is balanced with the conservation objectives and legal obligations on the State”.

Fianna Fáil said the outgoing government’s Climate Plan is “weak on necessary measures and supports to achieve a just transition for communities and workers in carbon-intensive industries, including for peat workers in the midlands”. 

“Simply closing down the bogs, without an appropriate transition plan, could result in creating an ‘Irish Rust Belt’ similar to the US region where a poorly planned transition from coal resulted in severe economic stagnation,” the party’s spokesperson said. 

They added that the proceeds of carbon tax “should be specifically spent on a national pathway to a Just Transition” including: 

  • Protecting those on low incomes
  • Tackling fuel poverty
  • The retrofitting of social housing
  • Peatland restoration

Sinn Féin‘s manifesto said Just Transition must provide “decent jobs, social protection and security to workers, as well as communities most affected by the transition, to a sustainable economy”.

“No workers or communities can be left behind in the move away from peat production to more sustainable forms of energy generation. This is of prime importance for the Midlands and Moneypoint in County Clare.

“To ensure a just transition for peat workers, we need to establish a national Just Transition Task Force based on dialogue with trade unions and other stakeholders.”

The manifesto says it is a priority for the party to establish a Just Transition Task Force and provide an additional €4 million to the Just Transition Fund annual budget.

download (1) File photo of machinery harvesting peat on the Bog of Allen outside Edenderry in County Offaly. Source: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

The Labour spokesperson said the party “acknowledges the need to end the industrial cutting of peat and turf, however our focus is on ensuring there is a significant investment in areas affected to create new, sustainable jobs”.

The party plans to “close down all coal, peat and oil burning power stations, while using the existing subsidy to support Bord na Móna workers and other workers affected”.

“We will provide a Decent Job Guarantee to any worker who loses their job due to Ireland’s transition to a low-carbon economy. This will mean re-employment in another state enterprise, with retraining and upskilling provided,” the spokesperson added. 

A spokesperson noted that the Green Party introduced a Bill on Just Transition “long before the government”, in 2018 and received cross-party support in the Dáil.

The party said it would set up a Just Transition Commission which would comprise representatives from local communities, trade unions, the workers themselves, ecologists, environmentalists, and other stakeholders to “re-imagine and begin the Just Transition process”.

“We have proposed retraining for retrofitting and bog rehabilitation, as a start. The development of employment opportunities in rural Ireland will be vital to regenerate this region,” a spokesperson added.

They added that the party respects turbary rights (the right to cut turf or peat for fuel on a particular area of bog), noting that domestic use of turf “has not been the cause of the significant demise of our peatlands”.

“Industrial and large-scale extraction is a different issue, and this needs to be stopped,” they added.

A spokesperson said Solidarity favours dialogue with the workers and their union representatives in order to come up with a plan for renewable energy generation.

They said this plan should principally focus on wind energy and the conversion of the cut peatlands to wetlands, “both of which could serve as alternative forms of employment for the Bord Na Móna workers”.

The spokesperson said a plan is required to “provide every household relying on turf cutting on land they own for their own fuel with an alternative that provides for their fuel security”.

A spokesperson for People Before Profit said Bord na Móna workers “should be transferred to a major initiative to retrofit houses”.

“If there was a state company, this could be undertaken more cheaply than by a private for-profit company. It would create hundreds and thousands of green jobs. This should start immediately in the midlands,” a spokesperson said.

The spokesperson added that the party does not agree with current peat and turf-cutting regulations, stating that “commercial extraction of peat and turf should be stopped”

A spokesperson said the National Party “would rescind the government decision to close Bord na Móna plants”, adding: “The purpose of Bord na Móna should be to harness our plentiful natural resource of peat to meet our nation’s energy needs.”

They added that the party “rejects the right of the EU bureaucrats to designate certain raise bogs in Ireland as SACs which effectively bans turf-cutting in those bogs and deprives rural families of the means of heating their homes with their own turf”.

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Órla Ryan

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