Thursday, 19 January 2023
Agricultural and Food Supply Chain Bill 2022: Second Stage (Resumed)
I welcome the introduction of this Bill. It is certainly long overdue that this issue would be addressed. Along with many in this House, and many farmers - I wish to declare that I am a beef farmer - I took part in some of the protests outside. It originated with the Beef Plan Movement in 2018 or 2019. Contrary to what previous speakers said, in a way this Bill has its genesis in that. I heard Deputy Ó Cuív's contribution. He spoke about his efforts back in 2014. I was a member of the agriculture committee then when he raised the issue. Indeed, he proposed former Deputy, Andrew Doyle as the Chair of that committee. Quite an interesting report was done by the committee at the time. A number of interesting experts from across Europe were brought in, in particular from the French Observatory of Food Quality. Deputy Ó Cuív mentioned the fact that they seemed at that time to have one of the better systems in Europe for looking at who exactly is getting the profits in the sector. At the time it was increasingly apparent that it was not farmers. That trend worsened certainly in the beef sector, leading to the Beef Plan Movement and the protests. Like many, I was quite disappointed with the lack of any tangible outcome to those protests. There was a little bit of movement on the bonus issue, but essentially the difference between in-spec cattle under 30 months and cattle over 30 months remained the same. I would have to say that realistically very little was achieved by those protests. Unfortunately, I am of the view that very little will be achieved by this Bill as it stands. I very much welcome the intention behind the Bill, and I also welcome that the Minister has said he is willing to look at suggestions from across the House as it progresses through the House.
One of the big problems is that in Ireland it is hard to ascertain who, if anyone, is making money out of agriculture. I find it hard to believe that nobody is making money. People will say that farmers are always complaining. However, I am beef farmer and 2022 was quite a good year for prices for beef farmers, at least up to last summer or the earlier part of it. Prices were cut quite severely as the year progressed. It made up for the fact that the beef factorises had to pay quite handsomely for beef in the earlier part of the year. They more than compensated for that towards the end of the year. Weather conditions meant that farmers were under pressure to get cattle off the land and sell them into the factories. They become once again price takers. They were not in much of a position to negotiate the price they were going to obtain for those cattle. While farmers' margins are being squeezed throughout, especially within the beef sector, big processors have done very well. I am not one to criticise a successful businessman but Larry Goodman's success as a businessman has been remarkable. He has done sufficiently well to be able to own the building, along with others, that the Department of Health is located in - I am not suggesting there is anything untoward in the fact that he owns it - but this is not indicative of a sector where nobody is making money. Certainly he has managed to make quite a lot of money out of that sector.
The big problem we have is that we do know where the money is being made in the sector. We know what farmers are being paid for their beef. We know what their input costs are, so we have a rough idea of the cost of production. We know what beef is being sold for. One can go into any butchers to find out what they charge for a kilo of various cuts. One can go down any supermarket aisle to see what the supermarkets are charging, but we know nothing in between. That came to the fore during those protests. We do not know what the various outlets are paying the processors for the various cuts of meat. We do not know what their conditions are around age, for example. This was one of the issues that featured in those protests. If I am not mistaken, Aldi said they did not care whether the beef was under 30 months. This announcement was very much welcomed at the time. The others, including Supermacs, said the same thing. While Supermacs is not a retailer of raw beef, it sells a large volume of Irish beef, which is welcome. The processors always hid behind, "Well, that is what the retailers are looking for and they want beef under 30 months". Nobody was in a position to independently verify that.
If the retailers were looking for beef under 30 months, what was the reasoning behind that? Was there any reasoning behind it other than that it was something they were able to use to push down prices? There was quite a scarcity of beef in the first part of last year, such that prices were okay for farmers. We could not complain about what the prices were. Nobody cared whether they were under or over 30 months. It did not really feature in the discussions. When beef was plentiful again towards the latter end of the year, the weather was bad and farmers were under pressure to sell, suddenly there was a world of a difference between cattle that were in-spec under 30 months and cattle that were over. That leads farmers to be very cynical about this grading system and the 30-months requirement.
I appreciate the Minister is from the west and from a farming background, as are many Deputies. It is difficult, if not impossible, to finish cattle on grass under 30 months unless they are fed meal or nuts. We had a discussion once and the Minister said it was very possible. I still disagree with him and believe it is very difficult to finish cattle under 30 months in Ireland unless they are given supplements. Of course, supplements are expensive and becoming increasingly so. Many of the ingredients that go into those rations are imported from across the world, many of them from the southern hemisphere. That brings with it its own carbon footprint. One of the Department's responses has been to suggest that we are going to reduce emissions in the agriculture sector, particularly the beef sector, by reducing the age at which cattle are finished. It will simply not be possible to finish cattle at 24 or 26 months without giving them large amounts of rations. If we are going to count in the carbon footprint of those rations, it will be highly counter-productive. While the beef retailers and processors are forcing cattle to finish earlier, I am not convinced it is particularly environmentally beneficial to do so. The majority of cattle in Ireland are born in the spring. If they are not being fed supplements, they are ready to be killed towards the latter half of their third summer when they are 30 months if the farmer is lucky, or up to 36 months. That is the cheapest way to produce cattle in Ireland. This 30-months requirement is forcing farmers into a more expensive production model. Whom does that benefit and what is its purpose?
Can we have a little bit of transparency around this? Unfortunately, the Bill relies on information that is already in the public domain. The price that retailers pay processors is not in the public domain. There is a Bill in America that was introduced in response to the power-----