Brexit presents the biggest single challenge that the Irish Agri-food sector has faced in decades.
This day last week at the AGM of the ICMSA and in the course of a masterful analysis of the situation, former Taoiseach and former EU Ambassador to the US, John Bruton, likened the possible negative fallout to the ruin inflicted on our farming sector during the Economic War with Britain in the 1930s.
But we have to keep reminding ourselves that we’re not entirely bystanders in this process: we have a voice and we should be articulating our national interest right now — early and often.
Our Government, the UK government, and the EU all have it within their powers to ensure a relatively smooth transition and they need to announce that as their ambition.
Even this early in the process, we don’t need sabre-rattling on possible changes in trade arrangements.
We will need an agreement between the EU and the UK that protects both economies and protects the livelihoods dependent on trade between the two parties. Ireland has a centuries-old food export trade, with England in particular, and that has to continue. ICMSA thinks the Government would be very wise to set that position out now as a national strategic imperative that we will insist other member states respect and incorporate into any final arrangements.
In the short term, I would ask the processing sectors of Irish agriculture not to take advantage of Brexit and the resultant currency volatility by cutting producer prices. We should not undervalue what we produce here in Ireland and if sterling weakens, we need to be saying to UK retailers that they will simply have to pay more.
The systematic undervaluing of farmers’ work needs to stop now and we cannot be expected to pay for Brexit. Nor do we want to hear that the processors are ‘up against a wall’ in terms of what they can pay: We saw with the introduction of the Voluntary Milk Supply Reduction that milk processors — almost literally overnight — were able to pay more.
Farmers have to stop being the fall guy; the first option to cut when processors do not like the look of their own figures. Whether you are an Irish or South American exporter, the impact of sterling’s fall is the same and we need to stop undervaluing ourselves and our produce.
It must also be stressed that farmers BPS/Greening payment cannot be cut due to Brexit — for too long we’ve had issues arise at EU or world level that are totally unrelated to farming but which always seem to end up with farmers carrying the financial can — the Russian ban is a case in point. This has to stop.
From a milk perspective, 2016 has been a disaster and it is quite clear — if it wasn’t already — that the current ‘toolbox’ of policies is hopelessly insufficient to address farm income volatility.
We now need to look at new and innovative ways to support family farms and I want to stress that again because it is the family farms that are the economic and social lifeblood of rural Ireland.
Our members will not accept the line that ‘the market’ sets your price when ‘the market’ is hopelessly rigged. The market is being abused by large processors and retailers and it needs to be fixed by our regulators. Farmers are regulated almost out the gate at this stage but yet the powerful links further up the chain appear to be able to set their own agenda with no interference from our government or the EU.
Neither the consumer nor the farmer is benefitting from this flagrant market abuse. The EU Agri-Markets Taskforce recently published a report on how to protect primary producers in the supply chain and, to be frank, while many of the recommendations are laudable, they just will not protect primary producers or address the dominant position of some players in the supply chain.
We produced milk below the cost of production right throughout 2016; we’re only approaching a breakeven milk price now after the better part of two years. No milk processor will make a loss in 2016, no multiple retailers will make a loss, the farmer price fell by over 40% while the consumer price at EU level fell by about 2%, farmers were wiped-out but someone along the supply chain benefitted from that wipeout.
The Agri-Markets Taskforce hasn’t addressed this issue and I believe this is the issue that our Government and the EU chose to ignore.
Ireland’s family farms are being ripped off by the powers further along the supply chain and this will have to stop.
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