There has been a lack of meaningful progress which will truly benefit the beef sector following the conclusion of crunch talks between industry stakeholders, according to Michael Fitzmaurice TD.
The independent TD was reacting to the news that negotiations surrounding the current state of the beef sector and how to ensure that farmers receive a sustainable price for their produce have seemingly drawn to a close.
Reacting to the developments, he said: “It is obviously disheartening for farmers to hear that there will be no immediate improvement in the price they receive from factories for their cattle.
“From reading the documents and proposed changes that have emerged from the talks in recent days, it appears that the fundamental issues facing the beef sector have still not been addressed.
“But this cannot turn into a blame game. The reality of it is that if the status quo is allowed to continue, beef and suckler farmers won’t be able to survive – and Irish people will end up eating beef produced in other countries which isn’t as credible or traceable as what we producing here at the moment.”
The Roscommon-Galway representative expressed his frustration around the lack of movement regarding the 70-day residency rule and the 30-month rule in order to be eligible for the in-spec bonus.
Continuing, he said: “These rules and regulations are used as sticks to beat the farmers with.
“The proposed reduction of the 70-day residency rule by 10 days is laughable – while the decision to maintain the 30-month rule will basically mean farmers will be forced to continue to take whatever price they are offered when their animals are coming close to this limit.
“As it stands, farmers are price takers and it seems as if they are regularly taken advantage of.
“In my opinion, both processors and retailers alike have to come out and answer some difficult questions – rather than ducking for cover and hoping that this will all blow over in time.
“Why is it that farmers are expected to solely carry the burden of any market difficulties that arise? It seems that at any sign of market volatility, price cuts are handed directly back to the producers.
“But when markets improve, one would have to wonder if processors and retailers are as quick to pass on price increases?
“Processors also need to introduce a flat fee payment per animal for the fifth quarter – rather than sticking to the line that the value of the fifth quarter is already incorporated into the overall price per kg.
“There is a clear lack of communication between processors and retailers and the primary producers. Meanwhile, there is little or no transparency of how money is divided between processors, retailers and farmers.”
Fitzmaurice believes it is time for processors and retailers to clarify their stance on where they see the beef and suckler sector in the future.
“If this situation continues, there will be less and less factories in the country – because there simply won’t be enough cattle in the country to sustain their current numbers.
“This will also mean widespread job losses in the meat processing industry, where a 3-day week contract is already common place for some workers. In some instances, these workers are then forced to turn to social welfare to make up the difference.
“If processors cannot provide farmers with a sustainable price for their cattle, then why is it that this Government and Bord Bia are continuing to spend taxpayers’ money on promoting Irish beef abroad when the only ones that seem to be benefitting are the processors?
“The Department of Agriculture is not shy about announcing the opening of new markets for Irish beef. But despite more and more markets coming on stream, the price offered to Irish farmers has continued to slip.
“A review of the money spent to date to secure these markets needs to be undertaken, along with an evaluation of the volume of exports to each of these markets.
“It is imperative that these markets are capable of ensuring that Irish farmers receive a sustainable price for their cattle and that taxpayers receive a dividend for the initial investment in securing access to these markets.
“As well as this, the importance of live exports cannot be underestimated in all of this. It provides another avenue for beef farmers to receive a decent price for their livestock and it ensures competition around sales’ rings in marts around the country.
“We also need to ask ourselves whether it is time to take the bold step to establish a co-operative which will market and sell premium Irish beef abroad, as Ornua does for the dairy sector.
“As Ireland’s largest exporter of dairy products, Ornua exports to over 100 countries around the world and its sales exceed €2 billion annually.
“The model is already there on how to do it successfully, why can the same not be done for the Irish beef industry? E, U and R-grade beef from the suckler herd could be marketed globally as a premium product through this initiative.
“Both meat factories and farmers would have an input on how the initiative would be run and established. The co-op would be able to drive home the message of grass-fed beef reared on family farms in Ireland being a premium product,” he said.
Fitzmaurice added: “Retailers and other major purchasers of Irish beef also have serious questions to answer.
“How can they justify advertising and selling Irish beef to consumers, if the farmers who are producing this product are literally going broke?
“Are they content for the primary producer to keep receiving a hammering year-on-year? Are they happy that farmers are struggling to put food on the table for their families?
“It is common knowledge that farmers lost their shirts on cattle last year, and continue to do so in 2019.
“The Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed, was recently quoted as saying that ‘we couldn’t contemplate failure’ ahead of the first day of the crunch beef talks.
“Well if he considers the results of these talks a success, then he must have set the bar very low,” Fitzmaurice added.
Continuing, the independent TD lamented the lack of supports available to new entrants to beef or suckler farming.
“If a young farmer decided that they wanted to establish a dairy enterprise tomorrow, they would be showered with support and advice on how to get started.
“The co-op would have a rep out to them as soon as possible, a Teagasc adviser would immediately jump on board and there is a variety of educational initiatives open to them.
“If a young entrant wished to set up a beef or suckler enterprise, people would be encouraging them to rethink their decision.
“Banks also have a role to play here. They are eager to talk to someone establishing a dairy enterprise; but if a beef or suckler farmer comes knocking on their doors, they are much less reluctant. Structured support mechanisms need to be put in place by banks which are tailored specifically for beef and suckler farmers.
“Realistically, a roadmap detailing the make-up of a beef farmer in the future and the potential opportunities that will be open to them needs to be commissioned.
“Whether the results of this review are good, bad or indifferent, farmers need to know the truth – because they cannot continue the way they are, as they are losing money hand over fist.
“This type of review has been carried out successfully in the dairy sector, with accepted benchmarks outlined to ensure that dairy farmers receive a sustainable income.
“Bord Bia also needs to up its game when it comes to informing farmers, with monthly updates, of the state of national and international beef markets. Armed with this information, beef farmers would be in a much better position to make profitable business decisions.
“Meanwhile, Minister Creed needs to clarify – when it comes to Ireland’s rules around nitrates – whether he intends to back family farms over the feedlot system,” he said.
‘Deep anger and frustration still evident’
Following the conclusion of the crunch beef talks, Fitzmaurice indicated that there is still deep anger and frustration evident among farmers.
“From talking to farmers throughout the course of the day, since the news broke that the talks had concluded, they seem to be very disillusioned.
“The hope was that these talks would unearth a clear pathway for the survival of the beef sector and that farmers would begin to receive a sustainable price for their cattle.
“However, farmers have been left disappointed and they feel that the key issues which needed to be addressed have been stifled.
“From listening to farmers this morning giving their analysis on the results of these talks, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them returning to picket lines across the country,” Fitzmaurice concluded.
Michael Fitzmaurice TD – 086-1914565