Thursday, 19 January 2023
Agricultural and Food Supply Chain Bill 2022: Second Stage (Resumed)
Agriculture in Ireland is in a state of crisis. I do not say that lightly. Every year a large number of farmers are leaving the sector. The number of farmers has reduced significantly throughout the State over the past decade. According to Teagasc, which analysed the income of farmers, a full third of farmers were making a loss from their business. They were either going into debt or poverty. That is an incredible situation.
The current average salary of a beef farmer is around €16,000, a fraction of the average industrial wage. One third of farmers are only making a living because somebody is working off the farm as a teacher, nurse or some other enterprise off the farm. A full two thirds of the agricultural sector do not make a living wage from their farms, which is an incredible situation. One of the most important sectors in society, which creates food for the country and is the backbone of the rural community is, in truth, dysfunctional, not viable as currently structures and is collapsing in many parts of the country.
If the family farm dies, the whole of rural Ireland dies with it. That is an important point. We can have food lots and industrial sized farms to keep production up and make the figures look okay on a national basis, but they will not send children to local schools, play football for local teams or buy at local shops. As a result, the emptiness Deputy Durkan mentioned will increase in sectors of society. Truth be told, that emptiness is increasing due to Government policies.
I was in Castlepollard at the start of the week. People there are up in arms because the Government has closed the social welfare office. One of the key stakeholding enterprises or community organisations in the town which brought people into the town is gone. People are suffering as a result and have to travel further. Fewer people are coming into the town, which is hitting other enterprises.
I do not think this change in farming is happening by accident. The Government has driven it in many ways. There is a close relationship between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and many of the stakeholders in the sector. That is an important thing to say.
I was a member of the Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the last Dáil. I made the case for an Aontú Bill, namely the Equitable Beef Pricing Bill. If implemented, it would put a floor under the price beef so that factories could not buy beef from farmers at below the cost of production. I made the case for the Bill before the committee. The Fine Gael Chair of the committee at the time said it was unreasonable for farmers to expect a price above the cost of production for beef. That was an incredible statement. The current Minister, who is on his phone, was also at the meeting of the committee on that day. He agreed with the Fine Gael Chair of the committee that it was unreasonable to expect a price above the cost of production for beef. There is a difficulty straightaway in terms of how the two political parties are treating this issue.
The second issue is that Ireland is becoming a city state. There is no doubt about that at the moment. The spatial planning in this country is heavily focused on Dublin to the detriment of that city. Dublin is overheating. People cannot get homes, they cannot travel around, they cannot get their children into schools and so on. A third of the country is a sprawling commuter belt where young people are spending three hours a day commuting back and forth, in commuter hell, to Dublin to work. At the same time we have rural and regional Ireland emptying of its young people. It is incredible. The average age in Mayo is ten years older than the average age in Balbriggan. If young people want a job, they have to go to the commuter belt to get one. Again, that has not happened by accident. If one looks at the centre of political gravity in Fine Gael in particular, it is very clearly in Dublin. Just in the last week, Fine Gael nominated all of its Deputies from the Dublin Rathdown constituency as Ministers of State. It was kind of like "The Late Late Show". I wanted one for Deputy Durkan too but unfortunately the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, was not listening to me at that moment in time. It was like "The Late Late Show" for ministerial positions, with one for every Deputy in the constituency. We now have 12 Ministers or Ministers of State in Dublin. Put another way, 40% of those holding ministerial positions are in Dublin but County Dublin only makes up 26% of the population which means that there is a serious discrepancy in relation to representation and population. At the same time, 60% of counties in Connacht have no ministerial cover whatsoever. Human nature is human nature and people make decisions on the basis of the place that they know and they typically make decisions in favour of the places they know. That is one of the reasons we have a farming sector that is absolutely stuffed. Bad and all as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are with regard to rural and regional Ireland, it is wrong that the Labour Party and People Before Profit have not shown up for this debate. A national party should want to represent everybody living in the country but members of regional parties will not turn up for debates such as this one.
Farmers have fought hard to get this Bill to this stage. There is no doubt that they have had to pull the Government, kicking and screaming, to this point. I stood at a dozen factory gates during the protests back in 2019 when farmers were simply seeking a decent price for their beef. I went to the High Court on behalf of particular farmers who were suffering at the time. I was asked by farmers supplying the Dawn Meats factory in Slane to be their representative in talks with the Government. That was a very difficult protest for them but I am glad that there was some result from it. That said, poultry farmers in Cavan and Monaghan were forced recently to protest outside certain supermarkets and pig farmers were also forced to protest.
At the heart of this crisis is the supply chain for farming products, which is very profitable. The three elements of that supply chain are farmers, factories and supermarkets. Typically, all of the profits go to the factories and the supermarkets, with the people who are producing the goods getting very little. That is at the heart of this crisis. We have a dysfunctional market that favours the two end elements of the supply chain. In a normal economy, those factories and supermarkets would not be allowed to get to the critical mass that they have reached because it affords them enormous buyer power. There are so few of them and so many farmers that the factories and supermarkets can dictate the price and all of the other conditions of supply. That imbalance is the heart of this and that is what needs to be tackled through this Bill.
It is not unusual that the agricultural market is broken. The State's housing, banking and insurance markets are also dysfunctional. Unless we rebalance the agricultural producer element of the supply chain, we are not going to fix the market. How do we do that? Aontú's Bill would have put a floor under the price of beef. Teagasc would have been tasked with setting the cost of production every year and the factories would have had to purchase beef at a price above the cost of production.