Beef farming crisis an opportunity to re-evaluate the entire industry

Members of the Irish Farmers’ Association at a protest outside Cork City Hall earlier this month calling for the Government to introduce increased Brexit supports for beef farmers. Picture: Michelle Devane/PA

It reallly is the new political frontier. Richard Bruton, the minister who has responsibility for policy on climate change, was questioned by Labour’s Joan Burton this week on whether he had become a vegetarian or a vegan.

He had done nothing of the sort. He had even posted a beef stir fry on his Instagram in recent days. He wittered on about a “balanced diet”, the dietary equivalent of one for everyone in the audience.

But the question refuses to go away. On Tuesday Mary Wilson posed the same question of the Ireland South European candidates and elicited what can only be called a smorgasbord of answers.

The science-based answer is that you don’t have to be a vegan or even a vegetarian to be climate-conscious but you have to eat little or no red meat.

The Lancet Planetary Health Diet, the work of 19 commissioners and 18 co-authors from 16 countries, says you can have the equivalent of a very small meatball every day, which would add up to one red meat meal a week, at most.

Our household has adopted the diet, if you don’t count the teenage boys’ break-outs for sausages. We haven’t lost all of our appetite for red meat, which is now a special occasion food, but we have lost some of it.

A year ago my dream birthday dinner would have been steak and chips with salad on the side. Now I don’t want to eat beef at all and to eat a whole steak would be unthinkable.

I still visit my trusty local butcher for chicken and lamb and very occasional beef mince. But knowledge has changed my perception of our needs and wants and transformed my behaviour as a consumer.

This is happening in homes all over Ireland and all over Europe. The amount of red meat we consume is in steady decline and there’s no hockey stick in sight on the graph.

Awareness of the impact of red meat production on the planetary atmosphere is an issue for a lot of people but the health implications of eating red meat are probably more of a driver of the decline.

The Lancet report calculates that up to 11.6m premature deaths would be avoided every year if their diet were adopted which includes a greater than 50% reduction in the worldwide consumption of “unhealthy foods such as red meat and sugar”.

We didn’t really class red meat with sugar, did we? But I suppose our appetites for both were healthy when they were rare sources of nutrition for people living daily with starvation.

Most of us are far from that now. We’re getting to choose the sources of our nutrition and increasingly, the West is not choosing beef. This is what makes the beef farmers’ recent protests so pointless and the response of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil so spineless.

Shouting “Where’s the beef? Ya vegan ya!” at Taoiseach Leo Varadkar outside Cork City Hall will not bring back the beef industry. Rural Ireland’s fate can’t be equated with that of the beef industry, either, as was stated by Beef Plan Ireland’s chief organiser, Eamon Corley, last week at a “mock funeral” for the industry in Ballinasloe.

Martin O’Sullivan, author of the ACA Farmers’ Handbook, wrote a revealing report recently which clearly showed that Brexit uncertainty is only the latest phase of a long decline in beef farmers’ incomes: between 1998 and 2002, the average income of a farmer on 87 acres was €12,228.

Between 2013 and 2017 it was €11,603. Clearly there is a major problem with the cut taken by the handful of major processors and retail multiples. Fianna Fáil’s recent 14-point motion on the beef industry was mostly a plea for business as usual but did include the demand that the EU’s new Directive on “unfair trading practices and business to business relationships in the food supply chain” (2018/0082) should be transposed immediately into Irish law.

If there’s really a chance it would help get farmers a decent price for their product this should happen immediately.

Successive governments, including those led by Fianna Fáil, have allowed huge processors to control the beef industry and farmers have no other routes to market. One of these, Larry Goodman, has in the last few days publicly criticised the move to create a less carbon intense beef industry by producing meat suckled within the dairy herd.

The industry we now have is primed to produce vast quantities of cheap meat, much of which ends up in low-priced burgers and meat-balls. It takes a huge amount of expensive fertilisers and imported feed to produce this cheap meat and it is impossible for the farmer to make a bean out of it.

It is a simple fact that for the last five years beef itself has been earning farmers nothing whatsoever. There is no profit except for farm subsidies.

These farm subsidies have been keeping badly-paid farmers producing cheap beef while severely impacting our biodiversity and adding to the third of our greenhouse gas emissions which derive from agriculture, with our beef production calculated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation as the most greenhouse gas-intense in the EU.

Meanwhile a few huge producers and retail multiples rake it in. This cannot and must not continue.

It would be outrageous if the Government were to give in to the demand of Beef Plan Ireland and attempt to further subsidise beef production by trying to make up the difference caused by currency fluctuation, much less potential WTO tariffs in the event of no deal Brexit.

Instead, they must study the industry and the good people who work in it with a steady eye, including the issues of climate and biodiversity as well as economic sustainability.

Nobody knows exactly what Brexit will mean for a product of which half is exported to the UK but this crisis is an opportunity to re-evaluate the whole industry.

We will probably never stop producing beef but surely this should be a small amount of premium product for which farmers get a fair price. Most of all, however, farmers must be aided by the new Common Agricultural Policy to radically change their role so that they earn subsidies by providing carbon sinks and maximising biodiversity.

Last week our Dáil declared a climate emergency. If Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil open the money taps to keep the existing beef industry on life support as they compete for votes in rural Ireland it will be outrageous.

They can call me a vegan if they like; I’ll call them hypocrites.

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