Independence has been a hallmark of ICMSA’s work on behalf of dairy farmers for their 70-year history.
As if to emphasise that, in their anniversary year, the Milk Suppliers Association has this week stood alone among farmer organisations in supporting the PGI application for Irish Grass Fed Beef.
ICMSA says it’s an opportunity to be seized. Few could argue with that. If the application is successful, and it’s as successful as the other products across Europe with PGI (protected geographical indication) status, it could be a game-changer for the troubled beef industry.
This identification of products linked to their place of origin is a winner with consumers who trust these quality products. It sets them apart from food commodities which may be produced in one country, processed in another, and packed in a third country.
The name of Irish Grass Fed Beef would be reserved for quality Irish beef raised on a grass-based diet on pasture grazing farms in Ireland. It’s meat from cattle raised naturally, and processed in Ireland.
Across the EU, the sales value of these protected name products is on average double that for similar products without a certification.
Foods and drinks whose names are protected by the EU’s Geographical Indications have a total sales value of €74.76bn, more than one-fifth of which is outside the EU.
Producers can sell these products at a higher price, to consumers looking for authentic regional products.
EU schemes promote the unique characteristics of such products.
They serve as flagships for the traditional culinary heritage of regions, and as economic drivers for the national agri-food sector.
Geographical indications represent 15.5% of the total EU agri-food exports.
That has been a help for exporters of Irish whiskey, which sits alongside other famous geographical indication beverages such as Bayerisches Bier, Champagne, Kalamata olives, Parmigiano Reggiano, Polish Vodka, Queso Manchego, and Roquefort.
The only problem is that so many people hate Ireland’s beef processors, and that’s not too strong a word for it.
ICMSA has risen above that and proposed that the farmers on whose behalf the PGI application for Irish Grass Fed Beef is being made overcome their distrust of processors (which some in farming now extend also towards Bord Bia, which is making the draft application for PGI).
The Independent TD for Clare, Michael McNamara, who has come to prominence as the chair of the Oireachtas Covid-19 committee, said in the Dáil last week that all of the schemes that Bord Bia has promoted have worked not to the benefit of producers but solely to the benefit of processors.
“They are all being used to hammer prices.
“This nationwide PGI, while a good idea in theory, will be just one more thing that farmers will be penalised by processors for not adhering to.
“Further, it will make it harder for individual farmers who wish to register a PGI, because there will be one PGI register for the whole country which will be in the control of processors rather than producers.
He said the way the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) and Bord Bia work is to give power to processors rather than producers.
Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue responded that he and his Ministers of State and the DAFM will work to get the best possible return for farmers and their work.
But the truth is that farmers are not in a mood to co-operate in any way with beef processors.
In other words, nothing much has changed in farmer-processor relations since the Beef Plan blockades which ended at beef factories just over a year ago.
ICMSA president Pat McCormack, after meeting with the DAFM and Bord Bia, said there are aspects of the PGI application that should be amended, but it is a reasonable basis to get a PGI status for Irish beef without any additional conditions being imposed on farmers.
With no new conditions for farmers over and above existing Bord Bia quality schemes, McCormack suggested Bord Bia provide written assurances of no new rules and that farmers will be free to sell their cattle to whichever meat plant they wish, and to transport them to the plant themselves if they so wish.
He said beef producers, whether suckler or dairy beef, are highly vulnerable to a no deal Brexit, and PGI provides an opportunity to brand and hopefully add value.
He said PGI won’t solve profitability problems in beef production, but is a move in the right direction.
It’s the kind of constructive proposal which has helped the dairy industry progress, while the beef industry goes from crisis to crisis, at farm level at least.
Just how bad things are in the beef industry is illustrated by the bill introduced in the Dáil by Aontú party leader Peadar Tóibín, TD, seeking to ensure the provision of an equitable price for beef to farmers as a sustainable means for them to earn a livelihood.
It’s a poor state of affairs when legislation is proposed to help farmers survive while supplying raw material for an industry with €2.2bn of annual exports.
Mr Tóibín told the Dáil the processing industry operates as an oligopoly with a small number exerting enormous control over every aspect of the market, such as the price and all the conditions of sale, while supermarkets make supernormal profits from beef. Meanwhile, the farmer is generally paid less than the cost of production, and would be making a significant loss, if the European income supplementation were removed.
It will be interesting to monitor Dáil debates on the Bill. Rural TDs can hardly speak or vote against it, with few of their constituents having a good word to say for processors.
Meanwhile, the role of processors in the Covid-19 pandemic could also sway opinion against them. In fairness to processors, they have agreed a wide-ranging safety protocol with the Siptu union to suppress Covid-19 at plants and reduce the chances of future outbreaks.
However, not all meat workers get sick pay, and Siptu warned there will be more virus outbreaks at plants while that is the case.
Meat workers with symptoms don’t really have a choice but to go to work, says Siptu.
The Aontú bill proposes that beef processors pay a beef price at or above the cost of production.
That would be a dream result for cattle farmers, and hopefully processors would have a few bob left over for sick pay for all their workers.