Irish Examiner View: Who really benefits from beef subsidies?

Irish Examiner View: Who really benefits from beef subsidies?

Irish farming is an almost unique mix of the deepest, in-the-marrow emotions and questionable business.

Yet, it is a sacred cow widely cherished and admired.

Most Irish people are just two or three generations removed from the old family farm and have an empathy with the sector and its ambitions even if that is now more nuanced, more questioning.

Climate change and farming’s 33% contribution to Ireland’s part in it provoke questions about sustainability.

How farming might be part of an annual 7% reduction in carbon emissions has become a crunch issue in efforts to establish a government.

The farm lobby is a powerful presence in those talks, a reality underlined by the fact that before February’s election three parties — Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and Sinn Féin — promised there would not be any enforced reduction of the national cattle herd.

This position was challenged by Robert Watt, Department of Public Expenditure secretary-general, who suggested cutting the herd by 5% was necessary if our climate action plan was to be credible.

Unsurprisingly, the IFA rejected that analysis.

That issue, despite those promises, is in play because neither FF or FG can easily form a government without the Greens.

Indeed, it is so pertinent, a propaganda campaign to paint the Greens as the enemies of rural Ireland bubbles away in forums where emotion trumps logic.

Climate collapse aversion is not the only area that seems to put emotion before logic.

It is expected that Government will confirm a €50m package for beef farmers on foot of Covid-19.

This latest subsidy brings to over €200m unplanned national funding provided to the sector over the last two years.

This is in addition to other subsidies, including EU payments of almost €1.8bn in 2018.

Yet, beef farmers’ inability to make a living is the recurring theme of this conversation.

That reality was behind recent protests at meat plants and supermarkets, protests that won considerable support right across society.

Irish Examiner View: Who really benefits from beef subsidies?

So, it seems reasonable to ask who these huge subsidies actually benefit.

Is it the processors? Is it the supermarkets who have the whip hand in these relationships?

Is it those who export the 90% plus of our beef? Is it those who import Irish beef?

Is it foreign retailers? Is it those who inherit the family farm? That farm’s suppliers or bankers?

Are these subsidies a version of those tax measures usually designed to help first-time homebuyers but ultimately benefit everyone in the process except those they were intended to help?

These are increasingly valid questions as beef production, no matter how efficient, is a significant contributor to climate change and the levies that will bring.

Like it or not, these subsidies drive climate change.

This has proved, so far at least, a very difficult conversation, especially as demographers warn that we must double food production within three decades.

If current arrangements seem flawed from a consumer perspective they must certainly seem flawed from a farm perspective.

Surely, as issues around social equity and fairness, the environment, property rights, and basic dignity of work-and-reward are involved we can break this vicious circle so viable beef farmers can make a living in a sustainable way?

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