Dáil debates

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

4:30 pm

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann:notes that:

— current beef prices are in the €3.75-€3.85 per kilogram range, which is below the cost of production;

— suckler farmers continue to depend on Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) direct payments for their livelihoods, with average incomes just below €13,000 according to Teagasc;

— there are 951,397 suckler cows kept on 66,069 Irish farms;

— 90 per cent of all beef produced on Irish farms is exported, with total beef exports worth €2.4 billion in 2018;

— Brexit poses one of the biggest ever threats to the beef sector for suckler farmers, exporters and related jobs, with 50 per cent of all beef exports going to the United Kingdom (UK);

— a no deal Brexit would be catastrophic for the Irish beef sector with World Trade Organization tariffs of 70 per cent on exports entering the UK which would result in an additional €780 million cost, while the price of beef produced by farmers would fall to an estimated €2.50 per kilogram;

— only 13 per cent of Irish beef exports went to non-European Union (EU) countries in 2018;

— Ireland has just three agricultural attachés stationed in embassies outside Europe currently, while Bord Bia has offices in five countries outside of the EU to grow market share for Irish beef produce;

— the Beef Forum has become a talking shop and failed to deliver on commitments entered into for farmers, including the introduction of a market index for price transparency;

— insufficient urgency has been shown by the Government to address the lairage capacity issue flagged last year that is constraining the live export of calves to the continent;

— farmers have lost faith in the Quality Pricing System (QPS) grid; and

— the Government has failed to adequately promote and incentivise the uptake of Producer Organisations (POs) in the beef sector resulting in zero registrations with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine since a legal basis was given to POs in 2016;

further notes:

— how recent comments by the Taoiseach regarding meat consumption have greatly angered beef farmers across the country and undermined commitments in the Programme for a Partnership Government, as well as Bord Bia’s ongoing work to promote Irish beef produce in markets abroad;

— that the Brexit Loan Scheme for farmers, fishermen and food businesses announced in October 2017 has still to open 17 months on; and

— that the Government has signed off at EU level to permit 70,000 additional tons of South American beef into Europe for EU-MERCOSUR negotiations;

and calls on the Government to:

— immediately request Brexit mitigation funding for farmers, specifically exceptional and market disturbance aid for beef and other vulnerable sectors under Article 219 of the CAP Common Market Organisation Regulation;

— seek relaxation of State aid ceilings in order to increase the grant aid permissible to safeguard exposed exporting enterprises and associated jobs from Brexit in the agrifood sector;

— work with Bord Bia, livestock exporters and French authorities to deliver enhanced lairage capacity at Cherbourg Port in order to increase the live export of calves;

— deliver a fully funded, fair, and simpler CAP post 2020 that safeguards direct payments with measures to directly support all low-income farm sectors, including the beef sector;

— introduce a beef market index for price transparency as committed to under the Beef Forum and examine the feasibility with stakeholders of requiring processors to report wholesale prices on a regular basis;

— increase farmer transparency and introduce more robust measures around carcase trim and grading, including publishing details of on-the-spot fines for factories breaching EU carcase trimming rules;

— strengthen the position of the primary producer in the food supply chain and transpose EU Directive (2018/0082) on unfair trading practices into Irish law swiftly, which should be enforced by an independent authority;

— consult with stakeholders and tackle any barriers associated with setting up beef POs;

— protect the beef sector and suckler farmers in all upcoming EU trade deals and reject increased beef access in any potential agreement with South American MERCOSUR countries;

— secure additional funding in the next CAP programme to achieve a suckler cow support payment of €200 per cow;

— work with stakeholders to ensure all animals which come from a quality assured farm should receive some level of bonus payment;

— commission a full review of the QPS grid and the four movement rule;

— secure Protected Geographical Indication status for Irish grass-fed suckler beef at EU level in order to increase its promotion as a premium product; and

— immediately open the Brexit Loan Scheme for farmers, fishermen and food businesses, which was originally announced in October 2017.

I welcome the many people in the Public Gallery, which is entirely full for the motion this evening. In particular I welcome the very large delegation from the IFA, led by its president, Mr. Joe Healy, and its livestock chairman, Mr. Angus Woods, accompanied by its general secretary, Mr. Damian McDonald. It has a very strong representation from throughout the country, including from my county, led by the Donegal chairman, Mr. Brendan McLoughlin. I also welcome Mr. Patrick Kent, president of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, ICSA, and its general secretary, Mr. Eddie Punch, and, from the Beef Plan Movement, Mr. Eamon Corley, Mr. Mick Rafferty, Mr. Conal Tiernan and Mr. Seamus Scallon.

Our motion contains 14 key policy points, and we want the Minister, Deputy Creed, to act on them immediately. We are now in an immense crisis for the beef sector and the agrifood sector in general. It comes against the ever-changing backdrop of Brexit, the massive threat it poses to our agrifood sector, and the vista which has emerged in recent months of beef farmers losing money hand over fist in beef production, and finishing animals in particular. If not for the performance of the Government we would not have to move this motion tonight. It has demonstrated that it is totally tone deaf and has a lack of understanding of the pressure that many in our agrifood sector and many farmers are under. It has taken a very stiff-legged approach in reacting to the difficulties in this area. That is no surprise. The Taoiseach's instinctive response a few weeks ago, in a discussion on climate change, was to indicate that he would be eating less beef due to the issue. That is the kind of leadership offered by the Taoiseach, despite the fact that he is charged with leading the promotion of the agrifood sector internationally, along with Bord Bia, using the €50 million budget in place for that purpose.

Unfortunately, the record of the Minister, Deputy Creed, has been poor over the past couple of years in terms of responding to the needs of farmers. This was clear during the grain and tillage crisis a couple of years ago. It took a motion from Fianna Fáil to make the Government put a compensation scheme in place. The same is true of last year's fodder crisis, where it was clear that the Minister was not listening to the difficulties farmers were experiencing. It took another motion to make him move on that occasion. We are now facing the same in our attempts to convey the difficulties the beef and suckler cow sectors are under. A motion, opposed by the Minister and the Government, was passed by a large majority.

I welcome the fact that the Government is not opposing our motion. However, accepting the motion is not enough. We have to see action, which is something which we have not seen in the past. The measures called for in this motion have to be taken seriously. Our 14 points range from the urgent need for clarity on the funding that will be made available in the event of a hard Brexit, but also the need for immediate aid for farmers, particularly our beef farmers, because of the massive pressure they are under. Unfortunately for farmers, Brexit is not just something that will happen in a couple of weeks but something that has been happening for months, and it has been hitting farmers directly in the pocket. There must also be a relaxation of state aid rules. The motion also calls for clear, serious action from the Government to improve the route to market for our live calf exports, especially by increasing capacity for lairage at Cherbourg port. Unfortunately, over recent months the Minister has been asleep on the job in terms of his responsibility to ensure that there is a proper route to market and that there is no cap imposed on the viable trade in live calf exports to Spain and Holland. The Minister has belatedly turned his attention to that, but it is too late. As a result, the chance to take one clear measure which would have resulted in the removal of some animals from the country at calf stage and avoided an oversupply in months to come was missed.

The motion also calls for more transparency for our food chain and the transposition of the unfair trading directives recently brought in at European level. It also calls for the Government to work towards an increase of €200 per suckler cow and makes a clear call for the introduction of the Brexit loan scheme. I note that, just a few hours before the Minister was due in the Chamber to deal with the motion and almost 18 months after he initially promised to introduce the loan scheme, it was introduced, a few days ahead of the new Brexit deadline of 12 April.

I hope that the Minister, for once, will act on the motion which will pass tonight. I look forward to the contributions of others in this House and support across the floor for the 14 commitments and policy actions we are demanding today.

Photo of Jackie CahillJackie Cahill (Tipperary, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome my fellow farmers to the Public Gallery. The numbers present tonight show the huge depth of feeling around the crisis in the beef industry. All sectors of the beef industry are in serious trouble. Whether suckler farmers, calf to beef producers, store producers or finishers, everyone is losing money. The number of animals going through our processing plants at the moment is too high to provide a viable return for beef farmers. We have to look again at Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025. When a viable return is not given to primary producers, there is no point in producing beef for foreign markets. No initiatives have been taken to attempt to improve the situation of the beef farmer. We suggested a couple of months ago that more research should be carried out in the area of sexed semen. Nothing has been done in that area, but it must be addressed if cross-breeding is to continue into the future. Processors are now talking about dairy calf to beef systems and how profitable they can be. A number of years ago the same processors pressed people to go into Friesian and bull production, yet 18 months later left them high and dry. The way bull finishers were treated by the processors was despicable. Age limit and weight restrictions were used to put the final nails in the financial coffin of bull finishers.

Articles are now being written which suggest that dairy calf to beef is more profitable than suckling. The point is being missed. Nobody is making money. It is a question of losing as little as possible. Weight restrictions mean that fewer animals qualify for quality assurance. These are all things that the Minister should have made sure to address at the beef forum.

We have not yet discussed the hazardous road of Brexit.

Post Brexit, the EU will be 116% self-sufficient in beef production. Even with that scenario staring us in the face, the Commission has made concessions for Mercosur that will allow up to 100,000 tonnes of beef into an oversupplied EU market, which will be another nail in the coffin of the Irish beef industry.

On umpteen occasions, we have heard fanfare about the number of open markets for our beef. We hear of 170 markets worldwide and live exports open in this market and that market, but very few cattle over 12 months of age are exported live. Mere wheelbarrows of beef are exported to markets outside the EU. My colleague has spoken about calf exports. The opportunity to return the market to a state of equilibrium and reduce the numbers available for slaughter in 18 to 20 months has been missed. The Minister's Department and Bord Bia have not risen to the task of putting the infrastructure in place to increase the number of calves exported from this country this spring. While the Minister will tell us that calf exports have increased, not enough have been exported. One can say anything about the percentages, but the markets for our calves exist yet we have not put the infrastructure in place to get calves out of this country in the numbers that are needed. Some weeks this spring, farmers had to accept poor prices for calves because lairage was not available on the Continent and ships were not available to take our calves.

The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission is well able to tell us as farmers what to do and what we can and cannot do. Has it examined how beef factories operate? In January and February of this year, 54,000 cattle from factory feedlots were killed, which accounted for 17% of the kill, although it did not include contracted cattle. In 2018, 295,000 cattle from factory feedlots were killed. Factories operate a monopoly on price and manipulate the price with the number of cattle that come from factory feedlots, but the competition commission has not addressed this or refuses to examine it.

Farmers are making the decision to close the gates for the last time. Despondency is rife in our beef industry. We need concrete facts about how the Commission will manage Brexit and figures on the commitments. We need to know what financial aids will be put in place to try to salvage the industry. Farmers are turning their backs on the industry and we must reverse that trend now.

4:40 pm

Photo of Bobby AylwardBobby Aylward (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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The Government must take urgent action to safeguard the livelihood of farmers in the beef sector. The motion features 14 policy actions which we believe the Government must accept immediately, including seeking market disturbance aid from the EU as outlined under the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP; opening the Brexit loan scheme, which was first announced in 2017, to farmers; increasing live exports of calves by enhancing lairage capacity, as has been mentioned twice; ensuring that the next CAP is fully funded; and providing a €200 suckler cow payment, as well as the introduction of a beef market index. We also call for a full review of the quality payment system grid and more robust measures for carcass trimming and grading, including publishing details of on-the-spot fines for factories breaching carcass trimming rules. It is also my party's view that a new independent authority is required to enforce the new EU directive on unfair trading practices to ensure that farmers will buy in.

I received a response to a parliamentary question from the Minister yesterday which was full of terminology about the Department's acute understanding of the situation in which we find ourselves, bilateral discussions with the European Commissioner, Phil Hogan, and the position that the UK has taken on this and that, which presents various challenges for A, B or C. I read an awful lot of rhetoric but nothing by way of concrete Government action. We should be better placed than we are to absorb the potential hits to the beef sector, given that we have a man who is Irish, a member of Fine Gael and from Kilkenny in the position of European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, but the Government is failing to take advantage of this. This wait-and-see approach and the conveyance to the public via soundbite that it is a UK problem, which has been adopted by Fine Gael in the past two years, will not wash with the beef sector, which is all but obliterated. The beef sector and suckler farmers are at their wits' end. They can take no more from a Government that has shown only ambivalence to their challenges. Hard Brexit or soft Brexit, both scenarios are bad for the farming sector, although a hard Brexit could decimate it.

It is an indictment of the Minister and the Government that farmers in this country, who produce the best beef in the world, having fed the cattle grass and reared them for between two and two and a half years, cannot make a profit from the animals. There is something wrong with the system in this country when farmers do not receive fair pay for what they produce. The Minister must wake up and see the wrong in that regard. Factories and cartels are creaming off but the man or woman who produces the animal for fillets of beef is being left behind. Something needs to be done to change the system.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Sligo-Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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Article 39.1(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union states that one of its objectives is "to ensure a fair standard of living for the agricultural community, in particular by increasing the individual earnings of persons engaged in agriculture". What are we doing to achieve that? What is Europe doing to achieve it? We are nurturing a system that has anti-competitive practices. The four movement rule, the 30-month age limit and a series of BSE-era restrictions throughout the world are hampering our marketing and our search for other markets. We have only three agricultural attachés in embassies outside Europe. We must get up to speed with the situation, stop talking the talk and represent farmers' interests. There are many measures in place, such as supermarkets selling products effectively below cost to bring in customers and make their margins on other products. There needs to be some form of food regulator or food ombudsman to ensure that farmers can meet the cost of production and earn a profit. There are issues with factories, multiples, anti-competitive practices, unnecessary restrictions and the need to sell to new markets.

I have no heard no talk of market supports. In theory, a hard Brexit could happen on 12 April. What is the situation with introducing intervention or aids to private storage? Has the Minister discussed the matter with the Commissioner in Brussels? What is the position? Can something like this be introduced overnight? We need to talk about it now, not when the horse has bolted. The payment of €200 per suckler cow for the first 20 cows in the herd is vital, as my colleague has outlined. Under Pillar 2 in any reform of the CAP, we should consider a viability grant for small holdings for farmers. These are the kinds of measures that are needed.

I welcome the various organisations in attendance, particularly the newest of them, which is the Beef Plan Movement. I appeal to the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, and other established organisations to listen to it and take on board the 86 issues that it has highlighted to improve the situation. It would be remiss of me not to welcome to the Gallery the newest female member of the national council of the IFA, Kathleen Henry BL. I ask the Minister to listen to this person because she has the expertise and knowledge of what small farmers in the engine room of the suckler cow herd in the west need. I hope that he will act on her recommendations.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Roscommon-Galway, Fianna Fail)
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The suckler cow herd of almost 1 million is pivotal in supporting the local economy in rural Ireland, with every €1 of support provided to suckler farmers generating more than €4 of economic activity in rural parishes. We need this badly because our villages and towns have fallen to rack and ruin. If not for rural farming people, many of them would have closed completely. Farming families underpin annual beef exports worth €2.4 billion, but these farms generate average incomes below €13,000 and fully depend on CAP to maintain their livelihoods. Average cattle-rearing farms earn an average income of €12,680 when suckler cow production is the dominant farm enterprise. I do not need to tell the Minister about the cost of beef production, and he knows well that beef farmers feel the squeeze. The average beef price is hovering at €3.75 per kilogram or lower and the average cost of production is €4 per kilogram. This is not sustainable, as the Government has heard over and over again. It had to be pulled kicking and screaming to bring in the allowance for the suckler cow and it brought it in at a rate of €40, but that is no good.

My colleagues and I have only a short time during the debate to put forward our case. I am passionate about the issue because I was reared on a small farm. We will stand with the farming communities in attendance and fight for them in order that they might obtain a better deal. They cannot and will not survive on what is currently available. The president of the IFA recently stated the beef forum has not worked for the farming community, that it was a talking shop and that it is not achieving what it was supposed to achieve when it was set up by the former Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, in 2014.

Let us get moving on this issue, give the people concerned a fair deal and back the Irish Farmers Association and the Beef Plan group which have put a significant number of people together to fight for a good, honest deal for the farming community.

4:50 pm

Photo of Niamh SmythNiamh Smyth (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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There is a crisis in the beef industry. Beef farmers are at the pin of their collar in selling their produce below cost. We know that no business is sustainable when selling below cost. We have heard false promises about the loan scheme which has taken almost two years to come to fruition. Meanwhile farmers in counties Cavan and Monaghan and across the country are going under. The Government has ignored the plea of farmers and been asleep at the wheel, while profitable untapped markets such as Holland and Spain have been completely ignored. Brexit has already affected farmers and factories are exploiting the critical situation in which beef farmers find themselves by manipulating the crisis and using Brexit as an excuse for putting farmers out of business.

The Minister has failed utterly on the issue of calf exports. Options are available to him to put in place infrastructure to address the issue, but he has been asleep at the wheel and done nothing to help hard-pressed farmers who are struggling to survive. He must secure additional funding for the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, programme and achieve a suckler cow support programme, with €200 per cow. There is severe market disturbance afoot for farmers who are not even breaking even. Instability exacerbates the situation and the Government is doing nothing to secure or create a stable future for the industry. We are on the cusp of D-Day for Brexit and it is unforgivable that, at this late stage, there are no supports in place for farmers. Brexit poses one of the biggest ever threats to the beef sector, suckler cow farmers, exports and related jobs, given that almost 50% of our beef exports go to the United Kingdom. Farmers are losing money hand over fist and losing heart in the industry.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the chance to contribute to the debate. As a beef farmer and Minister of State with responsibility for this area, I am keenly aware that beef farmers are going through a difficult time. A sustained period of low prices, following on from additional costs last year arising from the unprecedented weather events, has presented challenges for the sector. The prospect of a hard Brexit also presents a significant challenge, giving rise to continuing uncertainty. Given the scale of the challenges, I hope the debate will be constructive. It is very easy to criticise low prices and call on the Minister to condemn beef factories, but where will that get us?

As public representatives, we need to work collectively to consider how we can strategically support the beef sector to secure the future of beef farmers and their families. While the Government cannot determine commodity prices, it can support farmers through a range of schemes. These supports are critically important, especially for beef farmers. Ireland has established a major scheme for suckler cow farmers in its rural development programme. The beef data and genomics programme will provide beef farmers with some €300 million in funding in the current rural development programme period. It is aimed at improving the environmental sustainability of the national suckler cow herd by increasing its genetic merit and efficiency and reducing input costs on beef farms. In addition, the Minister, Deputy Creed, recently launched the beef environmental efficiency pilot scheme, a targeted support of €20 million for suckler cow farmers which is specifically aimed at further improving the economic and environmental efficiency of beef production. Beef farmers are beneficiaries of the €23 million in additional funding provided this year for the areas of natural constraint scheme, in addition to the delivery of the programme for Government commitment to provide €25 million. A legal framework and funding have been provided for the establishment of producer organisations. We are committed to the promotion of these groups across the sector.

The Minister is firmly committed to ensuring suckler cow farmers will continue to receive strong support under the next CAP. Critically, Ireland has called for the protection of the CAP budget and the Minister has engaged extensively with other member states to seek support for this position. The Taoiseach has indicated that Ireland is prepared to increase its net contribution to the EU budget but only if core policies, including the CAP, are protected. The motion calls on the Government to support low income farmers under the CAP. The current CAP is directing €100 million in payments from farmers on higher payments to farmers on lower payments and has introduced a cap on payments for the first time.

On Brexit, the Minister and his officials have been working hard for quite some time to sensitise other member states and the European Commission to the potentially very severe impacts of a no-deal Brexit on the Irish agrifood and fisheries sectors. The work undertaken has included a detailed analysis of the possible impact of the proposed UK tariff schedule in the event that there is a no-deal Brexit. It is clear that the imposition of such a regime would have serious implications for the beef sector in Ireland. With this in mind, the Minister held further bilateral discussions with Commissioner Hogan on the issue on the margins of the Council of Ministers in Brussels just last week. The Minister stressed the need to be ready to deploy a range of measures to mitigate the potential impacts on farmers and processors, including through traditional market supports and the exceptional aid provisions under the CAP's Common Market organisation regulation, as well as increased flexibility under state aid regulations. Commissioner Hogan has indicated that the European Union is ready to support Ireland and contact on these issues will continue as the situation evolves. The terms and conditions of any aid package will be announced in due course in the event that a disorderly Brexit occurs. We continue to hope this outcome can be avoided.

The value of Irish agrifood exports increased by 73% between 2009 and 2018, from €7.8 billion to €13.6 billion. This growth was driven by the strong reputation of Irish product in meeting the highest standards of food safety and animal welfare, quality and nutrition. Live exports are part of this dynamic and provide a critically important alternative market for farmers. In 2018 the volume of live exports increased by some 30%. The provision of lairage capacity at Cherbourg, an issue raised in the motion, is, of course, a commercial matter. However, the Minister has spoken to his French counterpart about the matter on a number of occasions and officials have also been in touch. Recently, the French authorities have approved an increase in lairage capacity in Cherbourg for approximately 400 bovines.

Photo of Bobby AylwardBobby Aylward (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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It is too late for this year.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Market development and diversification are also key responses to the challenges Brexit poses for the agrifood sector, especially the beef sector. In 2018 a number of additional markets were opened, including the Chinese beef market, following years of sustained effort. The economic partnership agreement recently signed between the European Union and Japan provides very welcome preferential access to the lucrative Japanese market. The other side of the coin is the protection of Irish interests in the context of international trade negotiations. Nobody has done more than the Government to protect vulnerable Irish sectors in international trade negotiations, including with Mercosur countries. The need to ensure Irish beef is protected will continue to inform our engagement in all such negotiations.

Photo of Pat DeeringPat Deering (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak to this important motion. I speak not just as a Member of the Dáil but also as a farmer who has always championed the cause of agriculture and farmers in rural Ireland. It is an important sector which supports thousands of farmers in rural Ireland. I listened to Deputy Eugene Murphy speak about the demise of rural Ireland. It is unfortunate that we keep talking it down. Many good things are happening in rural Ireland, even though this is a difficult sector in which to be involved. It is important we realise the difficulties as it is easy to come up with motions and talk. Talk can be cheap, but it will not put an extra shilling in anybody's pocket. In the past fews weeks the committee which I chair, the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, decided to put together all of the stakeholders involved, including the farm organisations and Meat Industry Ireland, to try to find out what the issues were and where things could be developed to make sure there was a successful outcome. We have received 22 submissions so far. In the coming weeks we will invite stakeholders to make their presentations to the committee. We will then produce a report which will I hope highlight what the challenges and strengths are.

There are a couple of key points which I would like to make. The biggest challenge in the future will be presented by the CAP. In the past we engaged in very successful consultations and discussions on the CAP.

A total of €12.5 billion will be delivered in the present CAP. It is important that we maintain that budget in the future. In any discussion on beef and agriculture we have to be honest with ourselves. It is very easy to talk about what can and cannot be delivered. I hear talk about a €200 suckler cow premium and I do think the suckler cow needs to be protected but we have to have an honest discussion about where that money will come from. Is it going to be taken from pillar 1, which would be detrimental? Pillar 1 is important for farmers to have certainty about where their money is coming from in future. Will money be taken from pillar 1, with a payment coming out of that with a negative effect on farmers' payments in future? Or will it come out of pillar 2 which would be challenging as well? We have to have that honest discussion. It is important to do our best to maintain that budget. Much work has been done already in that regard to make sure that when the multiannual financial framework, MFF, is decided later this year we at least maintain that budget. I compliment the Minister on bringing as many European countries as possible on board. Hopefully over the next few months we can have more unanimity to make sure we can get the cuts that have been proposed reversed.

We have heard much talk about live exports this year. We have seen them increase for dairy calves in particular. We need to nurture and manage these because if we do not we will have difficulties. We can keep talking about live exports in a negative way which could have a very negative effect on what will happen in the future. We need to be careful. Exporters need to come together to make sure they have a common plan. It is disappointing that has not happened. There have been many moves made to try to get them together. I welcome everybody who is here tonight in the Gallery and I ask them why they are not working together. If I was a cynic I would suggest they have an agenda because it suits them to pay €5 or less for a calf in the marts. It suits certain people to keep that price down. We need to see more action to ensure live exporters work together in a constructive way.

On unfair trading practices, the decisions that have been made in Europe in recent weeks have been an important first step but we need to see more developments at local level in that regard. In these difficult times for agriculture we need more joined up thinking between all farm organisations working together with a common bond.

5:00 pm

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry, Sinn Fein)
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Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I thank the sponsors of this motion. Sinn Féin is supporting it and I am glad to see that the Government will not oppose it. There have been many Private Members' motions passed here over the past few months which are sitting on shelves, going nowhere. It is up to the Government parties in particular to seize the nettle and push this motion forward and make sure its content is implemented.

We could not emphasise strongly enough the crisis in the beef sector. It is probably the most neglected side of agriculture in this country. The crisis is probably at its worst insofar as those of us who come from rural Ireland know first hand the difficulties the beef farmers, particularly those in the more rural isolated areas are enduring. It would be remiss of me not to say that the control of the beef sector is in the hands of a cartel. This has been going on for years, unchecked. This cartel can decide when it wishes to reduce the price of beef and use it for its own very selfish reasons. The cartels are supported by feedlots. The feedlots are there for one purpose alone, to ensure that the price is suitable to the cartels. There is no way of dealing with this upfront. Brexit will create further problems unless they are confronted face on.

I doubt very much whether there would be such an interest in the beef sector were it not for the Beef Plan Movement and its work over recent months. I have attended approximately five of its meetings where many farmers turn up at cattle marts in the cold and dark of night to outline their grievances and what they hope to see happening. It is very encouraging for those of us who are active in trying to do better for people who live in that situation. It has forced this onto the agenda and I applaud them for it but it needs to continue.

We need to tackle and break these cartels. Part of doing that is a beef market index, as mentioned in the motion. There is a way to do this through legislation or something similar to what was brought forward in the United States. That means we know what the farmer gets for his beast and we know what the consumer pays for it but we do not know what the processor is selling it on to the multiples for. That is where there is a huge gap. If we could get all-party agreement on legislation to make it mandatory for the processors to declare weekly what they are selling to the multiples for and the discount the multiples are getting from them, then we will see the massive gap between what the consumer pays and the producer gets. That is something positive we can do together, if the political will is there to do that.

The expanding dairy sector is a big problem and the type of calf that is becoming available, almost invariably frieisian calves. I have seen fine bull calves bought for €30 and €50. Mother of God Almighty, that is just giving them away. Someone has to try to do something to ensure there is a sustainable quality of calves coming through so that we can get the best value internationally for our beef.

Another fierce worry I have is what is happening within the EU and the Mercosur initiative. Apparently 99,000 tonnes of beef will come into the European market which will put extra pressure on the farming community and the beef sector even this side of Brexit. This is coming in because Germany wants to sell car parts to South America and it is pushing the deal for its benefit. That will affect our little island. That is why we need the Government to do everything in its power to ensure that this market is protected and that no animals can come into the EU unless they have the same stringent checks and balances, health and safety measures and traceability applicable to animals produced within the EU. I saw a fantastic TV programme made by the IFA in South America which showed the type of beef that will have access to the European market. Certainly after Brexit - if the Brits bow out - it will go into the British market and inevitably will find its way in here and into Europe. There are wild herds with no traceability whatsoever which could bring in foot and mouth and other diseases. I am glad everybody is on board here tonight.

The 70 day age limit for quality assurance, 13 months for steers and heifers, 16 months for bulls, grading machinery, excessive trimming: all of that was very well explained by the Beef Plan Movement to everybody present.

The situation in that regard also needs to be looked at.

The transport rule on the 125 km is causing great problems with the trimmings that are being taken from that. It is almost inevitable that this is profit for the cartels and the beef factories. It is not going back into the farmer's pockets. They are at a loss again in that regard.

I again welcome everybody from the farming sector and the beef sector here tonight. We need to try to assure them that all of us will work collectively together for their interests. I assure them, on behalf of my party, that I am not one bit afraid to tackle Larry Goodman or his ilk for what they have done to the Irish market and the way they have controlled it, manipulated it and used it for their selfish interests. We need to stand together with each and every farmer here today to ensure they will get a fair and decent price and that they will get the justice to which they are entitled and deserve.

5:10 pm

Photo of Pat BuckleyPat Buckley (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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I also welcome the opportunity to speak here tonight. For the people who are looking in from outside the Pale, I want to educate those who are looking on and to paint a picture of the position of members of the farming community and how much pressure they are under. We all know that farmers are getting very low prices for their beef, which is not covering the cost of production, especially not at this time. More importantly, we know that Irish beef is probably the finest quality beef in the world. Some countries may not agree with that but we have the grass production and we have everything going for us here. It is a product and we cannot expect beef farmers to sell their product below cost. We are aware that it is roughly working out at €3.75 to €3.85 per kilogram for this product and that surely is well below the cost of production. We also know there are more than 950,000 suckler cows on approximately 66,000 Irish farms, and suckler farmers continue to depend on the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, direct payments for their average income, which is just below €13,000 a year. More startling than this is that at present, approximately 13% of Irish beef is exported outside the EU, but with the current Brexit situation, what is more worrying is the fact that 50% of Irish beef is going to Britain. In the case of a no-deal Brexit, the British have threatened tariffs on Irish agrifood, which would spell absolute disaster for the sector. Again, a no-deal Brexit would be catastrophic for the Irish beef sector with World Trade Organisation tariffs of 70% on exports entering the UK, which in turn would result in an additional cost of nearly €780 million, while the price of beef produced by our farmers would fall to an estimated €2.50 per kilogram. This scenario is potentially a major disaster waiting to happen and many livelihoods will be lost and more and more families will be facing very tough times ahead.

Something that is being lost in this debate is the effect of what is happening on families. Farms could potentially shut down. People who have families will not have an income. People will struggle with houses, mortgages, debts and loans. There is obviously a knock-on effect there where that feeds into family life. There is the potential for marriage break-ups and it goes on and on. Mental health problems are also possible due to the stress and strain. Another problem is that many of our young farmers will possibly emigrate. One thing that could help struggling farmers at present is the Brexit loan scheme for farmers, fishermen and food businesses. Members mentioned that it was announced in October 2017 and we found out in the past hour or two that this proposal has been approved by the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, and the Minister for Finance and for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, which I welcome. That is a positive start but maybe it is a little too late.

Another matter I want to address is what we should be doing about working toward a fully funded and fair CAP post 2020. We need to safeguard these direct payments and this in turn would support all low-income farmers, including beef farmers. It also would protect the beef sector and suckler farmers in all upcoming European Union trade deals, which is something to which we must look forward in our forward planning. I urge our Commissioner in Brussels to get the finger out, open his mouth and start shouting on behalf of the farmers of this country. It is another heartbeat here, we have a fabulous reputation and it was not built willy-nilly; it was built on fact, on production and on what the farmers produce in this country. It does not matter if it is poultry or whatever it is. I ask the Government to get real on this. I know the Government is not opposing this motion tonight but we have had many motions passed in here where nothing has happened. As we also have had all-party agreements on certain matters where we can push through, there is political will.

I want to touch briefly on how farmers have lost faith in the quality pricing system. My information is that the uptake for producer organisations in the beef sector has resulted in zero registrations with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine since the legal basis was given to producer organisations in 2016. That is not a very positive outlook. Farmers have been losing faith and we do not want them to lose faith again. This time they are probably losing faith in the Government and I ask the Government not to let them down and to do the right thing here because as I said, there are massive implications, not only within the beef sector but within the farming sector as a whole. A Member opposite mentioned rural communities a while ago. Let us be honest, where there is an action there is an instant reaction. If we start losing families and rural farms, and this is not anti-rural, the knock-on effect of that is that local businesses are affected, schools are affected and it goes on and on. I appeal to the Government to state it is in support of the motion. I call on the Government to get behind it. Let us all do the right thing and support the farmers of this country.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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We will move on to the Labour Party slot. They have nine minutes and I understand they are sharing with Deputy Niall Collins.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
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We are sharing in the interests of social solidarity. First, I welcome everyone here. Some people have travelled some distance so they are all very welcome tonight. The Labour Party will be supporting this motion and I am glad the Government is not opposing it because we absolutely need to do everything.

I live in a quite rural constituency but I also come from a dairy farm and I live in a large farming area. To protect the rural economy we need to address what is put down in this motion. On top of that, we obviously have the whole shenanigans that are ongoing with Brexit, which is changing as we stand and sit here tonight. The consequences could be potentially disastrous for one of our most important industries, with the UK Government indicating in its published draft that protectionist tariffs would remain for beef and dairy products, even if the British widely apply zero tariffs in other areas. We have to think of how we will address this issue. As there is no doubt that any restriction for beef exports to the British market will cause huge, immediate and intense difficulties, every effort needs to be made to look at alternative markets and to put in place measures to assist all of the farmers and exporters to open up to new markets and increase market share in markets where we already have a foothold. However, even if the UK does crash out with no deal, it is highly likely that they will have to return to negotiate a trade deal with the EU and deal with the issues we are talking about tonight almost immediately, which we also need to prepare for as a contingency. We will have to see what happens after this week and the coming weeks to deal with all the issues that have been outlined by me and by others in this House.

I want to deal with the fact that we have been saying to the Government for months that it will have to put supports in place to save jobs and businesses that are at risk in these worst-case scenarios. On what we know is going on around the country, I meet farmers all the time who are at their wits' end with their financial situation. There have been many public meetings and we really need to look at the pricing model and to create a sustainable, consistent pricing model for farmers inasmuch as that is possible.

There is no doubt that the cost of production means we have farmers selling below cost at present and that cannot be allowed continue. I agree with those who have spoken about the business model of beef processing, how it is structured and its whole cartel nature. I spent three summers working in meat factories in order to go to college. I know what they are like. I know where they have come from and where they are going, and it is not nice and cannot continue. As a country and an industry, we need to stand up to that and to do so pretty quickly because of everything else that is going on. I support those who are trying to mobilise and deal with this issue because what is going on is not sustainable.

In the limited time I have, I will deal with some of the issues in the motion before us. I absolutely agree with the suggestion in the motion that the Government should look at relaxing the EU state aid limits in this period of uncertainty and crisis. This is something I have spoken about at length before. We need to use the leverage we have to change the state aid limits in respect of this sector. It was done before and can be done again. In addition, the Government should ensure that the EU's European Globalisation Adjustment Fund is available to support food industries. I was an MEP for two years and as the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund was used for a number of other sectors and industries, I cannot see why it could not be used for these sectors as well.

The contingency that most worries me is the risk that the UK will engage in a cheap food policy whereby it would let in food from outside the EU that might not meet our quality standards. There has been a lot of mention of chlorinated chicken in the media but what about hormone-treated beef from the United States or cheap beef from Brazil or Argentina? I note that the motion calls for no increase in beef access in any trade deal between the EU and South American countries in Mercosur, presumably for precisely this reason. However, if the UK is outside the EU and opens the floodgates, there is a risk that we could permanently lose market share for beef in the UK which, over a period of time, despite the best will in the world of any new trade agreement, will be difficult to replace. I want to know that the Government is engaging in serious planning around all these scenarios and to date I do not have confidence that it is all happening. We need to look strategically at how we will deal with these competing threats based on different scenario outcomes over the coming weeks.

There are other suggestions in the motion that I also support, such as securing additional funding under the CAP for suckler cow payments. This is absolutely necessary. These farmers are totally dependent. We need to leverage our position to get additional funding. We also need to look at transposing the EU directive on unfair trading practices into Irish law in order to support farmers. There undoubtedly are other measures like this that need to be supported. There is no doubt but that there is pressure on the sustainability of livestock farming in this country. As the son of a dairy farmer, I have to say that the Taoiseach's flippant remarks about eating less beef were extremely badly received, not alone in my constituency but across the country in respect of an industry that is obviously struggling.

Other issues I do not have time to deal with include the staging of production and production limits and how we can manage that better into the future, as well as the other incentives we can put in place for farmers; agricultural emissions; finding other sources of income for farmers to make a decent living; and ensuring we can mitigate against costs that could be coming down the line because farmers cannot take more shocks. They are completely caught without the ability to be flexible enough to deal with the shocks that are hitting the sector. We have to create a far more sustainable situation with Government support and flexibility from the EU in order that they can deal with issues that are hitting them.

5:20 pm

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Kelly for sharing his time with me. I join others in welcoming the IFA, the ICSA and the Beef Plan Movement to the Gallery for this important debate. It is striking that the Gallery is full. In my years in this House we have seen many debates on agriculture for which the Chamber was full yet it is striking that there is such poor attendance by many Deputies this evening, although farming is the backbone of rural Ireland beyond the Pale. We need to set that in context. The Minister knows that farming is a very precarious occupation and there is great uncertainty. It behoves him, the Government and all of us to ensure that this uncertainty is mitigated as much as possible. Unfortunately we have not seen enough action from the Minister or the Government to mitigate that uncertainty or reassure our farm families. There are 4,500 farm families across Limerick engaged in various forms of farming such as dairy, beef etc., and they are very worried, particularly with the backdrop of Brexit. On the beef issue, which we are primarily discussing today, how can any farmer or farm family be expected to survive when, although prime beef is retailing on the shelf at €22 per kilogram, the farmer is getting €3.70 for it? He or she is selling it below cost. We cannot continue to stand over a situation where we are engaged in below-cost selling. It is just not sustainable.

In the context of Brexit, I have heard the Minister and the Taoiseach say on many an occasion that they, the Government and the European Union stand ready, willing and able to step in to support our farming sector and our farm families. However, they have not given us any detail. They have not told us what kind of money or funding is available. We have detailed 14 actions in our Private Members' motion, which the Government is accepting. I urge the Government to give the farm families of Limerick and Ireland some detail as to how much money it will have at its disposal to help them once Brexit kicks in.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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Solidarity-People Before Profit has allocated its time slot to Deputies Michael Moynihan, Breathnach, Brassil and Fitzmaurice. It is a matter for the Deputies but I understand they are taking two, two, two and three minutes, respectively.

Photo of Michael MoynihanMichael Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to address this issue. I compliment Deputy McConalogue and the agricultural team on putting down this motion because we have been in a real crisis in agriculture over the past 12 or 18 months. Many people are saying it was the inclement weather during 2018 but the factors that have led to the crisis in agriculture today are much greater than that. We are at a crossroads. I am a small suckler farmer myself. I have seen the challenges at first hand right across the beef sector and they are creeping into the dairy sector as well. Fundamentally, the challenges have manifested themselves in terms of the calves this spring. In many parts of the country, we have seen the demise of the mountain sheep farmer. I predict that unless something very serious is done, we will see the wipe-out of the suckler farmer and the beef farmer. There will be whole swathes of countryside, particularly marginal land, where we will see land abandonment. We see it already in some of the most marginal parts of the country. In the Sliabh Luachra area and right across the Cork, Kerry and Limerick borders there is significant potential for land abandonment. Over the past six or eight months, there have been massive meetings in marts and elsewhere by the Beef Plan Movement and that has manifested itself in terms of the crisis that they see at the farm gate and the challenges they see. We really have to make sure we stand up to the crisis. Farmers are under mental health stress and beset by financial challenges. They have a whole variety of challenges and they do not see any markets for their product. They are proud people. We have built up a massive industry under regulation after regulation over the last 25 or 30 years. We have the best product on the international market but we are not doing enough to make sure we give them the lifeline. On the markets, particularly for the dairy calves this year, there is no attempt made to get the calves to the market as fast as possible. There are great challenges. There is a raft of changes that are looked for under the beef plan and elsewhere. It has to be implemented and we have to challenge the status quo.

5:30 pm

Photo of Declan BreathnachDeclan Breathnach (Louth, Fianna Fail)
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The seanfhocail "Mair, a chapaill, agus gheobhaidh tú féar" or for those not too familiar with it "Live, horse, and you'll get grass" reminds me of the Government's attitude particularly since the onset of Brexit. The farming community is not seeking a handout; it is seeking the Minister's hand at the tiller supporting them, encouraging them and seeking the necessary measures to make it viable. No farmers here want a handout; they want a hand up.

The crisis in our beef industry has been severely compounded by stock numbers and the uncertainty of Brexit. In 2018 we had the highest kill in 15 years, with 1.8 million cattle killed, 80,000 more than in 2017. Over a five-year period, the increases ranged from 40,000 to 120,000. Obviously those increased numbers have had an impact on both supply and demand. The perfect storm has been brewing and the Minister has known about it for a long time, right from the onset of the mushroom crisis when Brexit was announced, and coupled with this, the increased production I have mentioned has tipped the supply balance on the scales.

Farmers say that meat factories are making money and there is no doubt that they are. However, they are also struggling to sell prime cuts that have reduced from €8 per kilogram to €5 per kilogram. Many will claim there is a silver bullet with China or the wider Asian market, but we all know that they are mainly looking for the cheap cuts.

From a farmer's perspective, a poultry farmer in Poland can fix his price 12 months in advance. A grain farmer in Ireland can forward sell his grain. The relative success of the milk production in Ireland in the past five years has been based on farmers knowing well in advance the price per litre. I firmly believe it is time for the beef manufacturers and the beef producers to become friends and deliver what is needed for this industry, which is forward pricing.

Photo of John BrassilJohn Brassil (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on the issue and I welcome the those with a farming interest who are in the Gallery.

Irrespective of whether we have a hard Brexit, soft Brexit or indeed no Brexit, the beef industry is in crisis and action needs to be taken. Along with my colleagues in Kerry, I have attended various meetings of the Beef Plan Movement. We have attended lobbying events by the IFA. The issue has been creeping up over recent years. If an industry was in such a crisis with the potential loss of €1 billion to the Irish economy, task forces would be set up, state aid would be provided and all sorts of interventions would be made, but unfortunately we are pulling and dragging through this crisis. We need action now.

As my colleagues have pointed out, the quality payments system is no longer fit for purpose. New markets, such as the Chinese market, are not coming on stream. Licences are still pending and not being done quickly enough. Issues such as the four-movement rule, the 70-day retention and the age limits of 30 months for steers and heifers and 16 months for bulls are all contributing to the crisis and yet not enough action is being taken. Other practices and regulations requiring review are the nomad rule, the 125 km category 1 waste transport rule, factory-owned and controlled feedlots, and beef processors having access to farmer data. There is still no payment for the fifth quarter, which is worth approximately €200 to the processors, and yet the producer is not getting a cent of it. We need to tackle all those issues now to address the crisis that is on top of us.

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the motion. It is not just now that the beef sector is on its knees; it has been on its knees for a few years. An animal killed in England two or three years ago was making €150 to €200 more because of a cartel in existence here. The Minister needs to tackle the feedlots. In the past few months, 70% of cattle were wheeled out to ensure that the cattle the farmer was bringing to the factory were held at bay. Some 10,000 more cattle were killed last year for the same weights. Unless we put manners on the factory feedlot system, we are going nowhere. Once we go over a kill of 30,000 a week, the farmer's trousers are basically pulled down because the factories will use him or her.

Other Deputies spoke about the 70-day rule. If cattle come from a Bord Bia-approved farm and go to another one, the 70-day rule should not apply.

We have no say on Mercosur but we have to boycott extra beef trying to come into the country.

On beef genomics, we are now breeding cattle that are not the same frame and we are losing some live exports. Bord Bia needs to get involved with the live exporters. There is a major opportunity there. The Government also needs to get involved in lairage facilities.

The Government also needs to do something about this vegan advertising campaign in cities - whoever is funding it - trying to put people off beef when the best medical evidence is that people should eat a certain amount of it. In my opinion what the Taoiseach came out with in this regard is disgraceful.

We need to put a foot under the family farms. Every day we see more small farmers going. If the new CAP does not front-load the payments for the small farmer, if the family farm is not protected which the Minister does not seem to be worried about, we can say goodbye to 300,000 jobs in the country. Does the Minister want what the Brits are trying to do at the moment? Does he want landlordism back in Ireland and drive the people into the cities or does he want to get up and work with people to ensure they get the opportunity to live and work in the areas they come from and, above all, to be able to make a living from the farm as they could down through the years? They are leaving farming day by day. The statistics show what is going on. The reason is that the Government is making sure the big guy is looked after while the small fellow is kicked around the place.

Photo of Mick WallaceMick Wallace (Wexford, Independent)
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I also welcome the motion and the debate is needed. As the Minister and many people in the Gallery will know, I have been perceived to be anti-farmer at times, which I vehemently deny. I have been very critical of Government policy, which has led to many problems for farmers. I believe we are overproducing. I believe the emissions from the dairy and beef herd are an issue. Increasing the dairy herd by close to 50% has, of course, had a knock-on effect on the beef cattle numbers. Too many cattle need to be killed every week and there is an oversupply. There is no control on it; there is no measure. The Government could play an active role in putting a measure on it. Farmers can pay big money in a mart for a six or seven-month old calf from a suckler cow, but they have no idea how much they will get for it at the end. There is very little measure of what is going on.

Farming is probably our only indigenous industry and it is really important to protect it. Protecting it means changing the direction in which we have been going. We need to diversify more. Some Fianna Fáil Deputies spoke about the suckler herd, which is the bread and butter of farming in Ireland. I know many small farmers in my area who depend on it for their livelihood. However, people seem to be driven out of it and towards the dairy side. We know that efficient finishers, the ones who convert feed into meat weight, are not the ones coming from the dairy calves, but from the suckler cows. Our industry was built on it. The Government is ignoring the suckler cow farmers, who are generally the smaller farmers and the ones getting the most help are the ones who least need it, namely, the big dairy farmers.

I do not understand why there has not been more thought as to the direction we are taking. The Fianna Fáil motion also deals with the additional imports from South America. At a European level it would be crazy for Ireland to allow South American or US meat to come into Europe, to come into Ireland.

I was told by a Munster wholesale meat supplier about some of it being brought in illegally on a boat into Cork 18 months ago with the identities of the meat being cut off, which is something about which we should be very worried. There is no comparison between meat produced here and meat produced in South America and in the US. I would be wary that such meat would get into Europe eventually, which would be a disaster not only for our farming sector but for our health.

I know many reasonably small farmers who have gone into the dairy sector. The banks have pushed money on them but when problems arise the same banks will quickly look for that money back or for the land security. Many small farmers have gone into the dairy sector or expanded their dairy herds, gone into great debt and it has not been a wise decision. The Government has a much more positive role to be played in this area. There must be some control over it. We cannot keep over-producing. We must have some control over exactly what we produce. There must be more protection and more Government interest in the suckler herd end of farming. It is obvious the number of small farmers have been declining for many years. Government policy can change that. If it does not do anything about it, the number of small farmers will further decline.

5:40 pm

Photo of Clare DalyClare Daly (Dublin Fingal, Independent)
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I too welcome this discussion. We have a crisis in agriculture. It is real in terms of the impact on the environment and on the farmers' livelihoods and for the reason outlined by Deputy Niall Collins. He made an interesting observation in pointing out that years ago, a discussion on farming would have seen the Chamber full but there are very few Deputies present for this debate. The reason is that many of our small farmers have been driven to the wall. Farming families have had to pack up in essence because the big guy dominates and the numbers are down. We need to address this crisis and to put measures in place. In that sense, I very much welcome this discussion.

As Deputy Wallace said, there are many problems. One of them is a crisis of over-production. What is happening is ridiculous. We have so much stock piling up that the meat processors have said cold storage capacity in Ireland is critically short. As other Deputies have said, if there is a hard Brexit, or any Brexit for that matter, our beef surplus will increase. It is crazy that we are talking about an industry with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of beef and nowhere for it to go. That is wrong on so many levels.

There are a couple of solutions to it. The first is to produce less beef. Such an approach is not anti-farmer, rather it is pro-humanity and pro-farmer. It is not saying we would lead the farmers into the wilderness, rather it is saying we must put alternatives in place to allow them secure their livelihood in a more sustainable way. I have no problem with the Taoiseach's remarks about eating less beef. I am a vegetarian. My daughter is a vegan and I am seriously considering being a vegan. There are many agricultural products that come from plants. That approach is not anti-farmer. We have to develop a better way of looking at things.

It is a fact that agriculture accounts for a staggering one third of Ireland's national greenhouse gas emissions. They are going up when they should be going down. Contrary to the Minister's statements, we are not the most carbon efficient dairy producer in Europe. From statistics published last year, we are one of the most carbon intensive beef producers and the third most intensive diary producer. As the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Communications, Climate Change and Environment, has said, this could end up costing all of us €5.5 billion in fines by 2030 if the Government does not take serious action. It is in everybody's interest that we address this problem to support the livelihood of farmers.

Another way in which the Minister could deal with the over-production is to assist farmers in opening up new markets. We had this discussion yesterday with respect to the problems being experienced with a lucrative market in Iran that is crying out for Irish beef because of all of the faults with Iranian beef. The Minister told us yesterday that the market is open but he seemed to imply that the problem did not lie with the Government but with the farmers. He said the market is open but it has to be more rewarding. Obviously selling to Iran, which is a very developed market, is much more rewarding than some of the carry-on that is going on here but there are other factors at play here. If the Government was serious in assisting farmers in this respect, it knows what the Iranians want - which is what they have from every other European country that is selling massive amounts of its agricultural products to the benefit of its farmers - which is an embassy on the ground because it allows us to be much more in touch with what is going on there. It is ludicrous that the Minister would suggest that it is somehow the farmers' fault that the market is not open enough when the problems with that market have been readily addressed in other areas and farmers in other states are benefitting very well from that. We should go the extra mile to ensure that our farmers are able to trade in that market. To me, the onus is much more on the Government than on the farmers.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I want to be clear in pointing out that the Rural Independent Group has seven minutes.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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That is two minutes each.

Photo of Michael HartyMichael Harty (Clare, Independent)
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We are up against the clock.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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It has started ticking.

Photo of Michael HartyMichael Harty (Clare, Independent)
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On behalf of the Rural Independent Group, I welcome this motion introduced by Fianna Fáil. Beef farmers face an uncertain future and nowhere more than in west Clare do we realise that. In many parts of rural Ireland small beef farmers are under severe threat, receiving low prices for their beef cattle at the factory and at the mart. Even a negotiated Brexit will result in many beef farmers' livelihoods becoming unsustainable.

In an effort to maintain sustainability, a new movement, Beef Plan, has been developed. It is a growing movement offering an alternative to the existing meat factory proposing better prices and more control over the industry. Many farmers sell their cattle at prices well below the cost of production and Brexit will drive many farmers out of business. The Beef Plan meetings that have been held around the country have attracted up to 400 farmers demanding a changed percentage that they get for their product. Many farmers get only 20% of what the consumer pays for their product, with 50% going to supermarkets and 30% going to the meat factories. That is unsustainable.

Beef Plan proposes a minimum basic price for beef which covers production plus a sustainability margin. It organises farmers into groups which can represent themselves and, most important, it proposes to create a fair trade brand to allow customers to know that the product they are buying is from a producer who has been treated fairly and has been paid a fair price. This is a ground-up movement. Without this, farmer viability is not sustainable and the industry will collapse.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I thank Deputy McConalogue for bringing this motion before the Dáil. I welcome everybody who has come here this evening. This is a most important issue. Farmers across the country are on their knees. The suckler herd is under threat. Farmers' incomes are perilously low. It is unfair to think that farmers are in a position where they will literally give away calves. What is happening is sinful. Dairy farmers are selling calves for €10 or €20 and in many cases they are giving them away for nothing. On the other hand, when a person produces a calf into beef and goes to the mart or to the factory, I am talking about people who are relying on this income, all they are left with is a big bill in the local co-operative to try to play for their ration. It is a crying shame what is happening them. The Minister knows this in his heart and soul.

I thank the people who organised the Beef Plan meetings. People such as Eamon Corley and our own Dermot O'Brien from Firies were instrumental with other people in organising those meetings. I thank the farmers for going to those meetings. This is not a case of one organisation working against the Irish Farmers Association, rather it is a number of organisations which are all united in trying to help farmers to get a fair price. If they do not get a fair price, the farming unit, as we know it, will collapse because they will not be able to continue. All we want is fair play and a fair income for our farmers.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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The beef farmer has increasingly been squeezed out of business in recent years. The very mention of Brexit a few years ago gave the perfect excuse for the factories to cut their prices which are down from 25 cent to 40 cent per kilogram or approximately €150 per head.

This is a serious concern. Beef farmers are losing money and many of them will not be able to survive and stay in business. The price cuts have happened before Brexit has even hit us. There are over 170,000 people employed directly in the agrifood industry, while 250,000 are employed indirectly in the wider rural area. The impact of Brexit will be felt across rural Ireland.

I am shocked and appalled at the lack of urgency and concern the Government has shown to the beef farmers of Ireland. What they have gone through and continue to go through as they try to provide an income on their family farms is a scandal. I have called for the opening of an embassy in Tehran. Why has no effort been made to do so? When I mentioned it to the Taoiseach two weeks ago, he mentioned everywhere in the world, but he never mentioned where we would be able to sell our beef and perhaps do something for farmers. Why will the Government not agree to have a stand-alone Minister for agriculture? It needs to support farmers by ensuring a meaningful support package from the European Union will be put in place. There is no question but that the Mercosur trade deal must be suspended. We need to see live exports being supported with more lairage facilities and an increase in ferry capacity. The Government needs to acquire further markets for live cattle exports. In addition, it is vital that the suckler cow grant be €200 per cow, not the mean €40 the Government gave.

5:50 pm

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I thank Fianna Fáil for bringing forward this timely and important motion. I welcome all those in the Visitors Gallery. It shows the concern people around the country have. There is the same concern in County Kerry where there have been savage attendances at Beef Plan meetings. We thank the people involved for organising and attending the meetings. They are putting their shoulder to the wheel and saying enough is enough and that they are not going to take any more.

The Minister is not doing enough for live exports or to provide adequate lairage facilities in Cherbourg for calf exporters. He is not doing enough for the suckler cow men. There was a farmers' meeting in Sneem the other night and everyone in attendance was over 75 years. That is what is happening. Young people are falling away from farms and that trend is going to continue.

I appeal to the Minister and the Government. Deputy Creed is the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The Government will be remembered for what it does and what it will not do. This is its time. Farmers are on their knees and their heads are down. It is up to the Minister and the Government to do something to create more live exports. The rules the factories are using are keeping down prices for farmers. They include the four movements rule, the 24-month rule, the 30-month rule and the 70-day retention period. It is the Minister who must talk to the factories and bring them to task and ensure they are not using their monopoly against the farmers. He must take off his coat and go out. Charles Haughey went to Libya and into a tent with Colonel Gaddafi. Surely the Minister is as good and can do something like that and make a name for himself. This is the time to do it because farmers are on the ground. In the last couple of weeks there has been a small market for bulls in Turkey and already it is making a difference in places such as Castleisland in County Kerry.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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Please, Deputy. Time is up.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I am appealing to the Minister. This is his time. The Government is letting the people down.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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Last night the Minister informed me that since 2014, 38 beef grading machines had been found in unannounced inspections by Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine officials to be outside the legal tolerance limit of a mere 60% accuracy. To put it in plain English, on 38 occasions the grading machines were getting the grades wrong for more than four out of every ten animals that were being graded. The mechanical grading machines in use in beef plants across the country today were first trialled and tested over 20 years ago. The fact is that technology has come a long way since. At the time the machines were first tested, if we wanted to look something up, we had to look at an encyclopaedia. We do not need one today. The incorrect grading is having a significant impact on the payments received by farmers. The Minister must justify why Northern Ireland rules for the exact same grading machines require them to be checked every day but for grading machines in the Republic of Ireland reports are only produced on a weekly basis. Why is it that grading machines have only to be 60% accurate when they could easily be more than 90% accurate? There is a need for new grading machines and we need new rules to operate them that will be enforced by departmental officials to ensure they will not be exploited and that farmers will also not be exploited.

Photo of Margaret Murphy O'MahonyMargaret Murphy O'Mahony (Cork South West, Fianna Fail)
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I am very proud to be a member of the party that has brought forward the motion. Fianna Fáil does not just talk the talk, it walks the walk. I am very glad that the Government will not be opposing it and that we are receiving support from across the House. I welcome all of the people in the Visitors Gallery, particularly from the farm organisations. I urge them to work together. We are all in this together and it is important that everyone sing from the same hymn sheet. If we even left with that much tonight - with everyone working together - it would be fantastic.

Without doubt, the beef sector is in crisis. Farmers across Cork South-West are literally on their knees and desperate. With respect, the Minister has been asleep at the wheel and continues to be. Last August or September was the time he should have made sure live exports would be run more smoothly. That was the time to make sure lairage and other export facilities would be up and running.

I welcome the loan scheme, even though it was very late in coming, having been announced 18 months ago. It was probably the thought of me going out onto the Plinth this morning that made the Minister make sure it would be introduced today. Therefore, I will go out onto it more often. However, although I welcome the scheme, it is a loan. I would have preferred if it was a grants system. While the Minister is constrained by the amount of cash available, a loan must be paid back and farmers are already struggling. In all of this, I urge the Minister not to forget fishermen in Cork South-West. Especially with Brexit coming, he needs to engage more with the fishermen of Ireland.

Photo of Aindrias MoynihanAindrias Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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Beef farmers are under phenomenal pressure. My colleagues and I have raised this issue with the Minister repeatedly and it is well known across the country. Average incomes are between €12,000 and €13,000, which is just not sustainable. Farmers are producing beef for about €4 a kilogram, while they are getting €3.75 to €3.85 a kilogram in return. That cannot last. They do not believe their needs are being addressed by the Minister. They are under phenomenal pressure and although they are reaching out looking for support, the Government does not seem to be delivering for them.

There is a move away from suckler cows. We have seen this in my area, for example, in Macroom, where some 1,100 suckler cows have left the mart area in the last while. The reason is farmers believe they cannot make money on them. They are even under pressure if they try to expand and make ground against the milk farmer. When people are pushed out of beef farming, it means that there is less money circulating locally. Every euro the Minister or other Ministers provided in support generated €4 in the rural economy, but that money is going to be pushed out if support is not provided for farmers. We have highlighted the figure of €200 repeatedly, but all they are getting is about €40. I say "about €40" because the figure can change, depending on the number of cattle in the beef environmental efficiency pilot, BEEP, scheme. It needs to be much more substantial. The Minister needs to work towards that end.

On the issue of lairage, it should have been foreseen well back last year that there would be a bottleneck.

It should have been addressed much more quickly so that it did not become a bottleneck. Tá fíorbhrú ar fheirmeoirí mairteola agus caithfear an beart a dhéanamh ar a shon. Mar sin, iarraim ar an Aire gníomh ar son fheirmeoirí mairteola go tapaidh.

6:00 pm

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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I hope the Government's acceptance of this motion this evening is not a political response aimed at deflecting criticism and giving the Minister cover as he proceeds. The motion tabled by Deputy McConalogue contains 14 proposals that the Government is now signing up to but what we have not seen so far is any sense of urgency or even a belief that there is a crisis here. The Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, spoke about a lot of things that are in the distance, including the next CAP programme but there are many in the Gallery this evening and around the country who will not survive the current CAP programme because of the Government's lack of urgency. I contrast the lack of urgency in dealing with the beef situation with the fact that we are sitting tomorrow evening to deal with emergency legislation on sea-fisheries. The Government has put a considerable amount of work into resolving that issue and we need to see the same sense of urgency directed at the beef sector.

We have a broken beef market and the people paying the price for that are not the beef barons but farmers and particularly the small farmers of this country. We have a broken market in which the Government refuses to ask the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission to intervene. The Minister is dilly-dallying, along with his colleague, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation. They do not seem to understand the need for intervention. Why are farmers here getting so much less than what consumers are paying for beef? Why is Irish beef being sold at a price that is so much lower than that being paid in the UK and across Europe? We need answers to these questions from the independent authorities equipped to provide them.

Like Deputy Niall Collins, I am also struck by the paucity of the attendance in the Chamber this evening. If any other organisation had mobilised tens of thousands of people in the way that the IFA and Beef Plan have done, it would be headline news and there would be a full Chamber this evening. It seems that we are determined to take our farmers for granted and to leave them behind. We do not need words from the Minister and we do not need him accepting motions for the sake of it. We need action.

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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I hope the Minister will take heed of the comments made in the Chamber tonight. Beef prices are unsustainably low and farmers cannot live on an annual income of €13,000 or less. Money is being made somewhere. Somebody is making money but it is not the farmer, the producer of the beef. In terms of the threat to our beef industry posed by Brexit, the Minister is well aware that 50% of our beef is exported to the UK and market diversification will not save us in the short run. Brexit poses one of the biggest threats to suckler farmers and to jobs in the agrifood sector and the Minister knows, as do I, that a no-deal Brexit would be utterly catastrophic. Our farmers are looking over their shoulders at Brazil and Argentina and to the potential for a cheap food policy being pursued by the UK. We do not know what is going to come down the tracks.

We must also consider the CAP and what the next multi-annual financial framework, MFF, will mean for our farmers. Many farmers in this country, particularly small farmers, are relying on direct payments under CAP. We are looking at a reduction of at least 5% in the next CAP budget and that hole will have to be plugged somehow. Many farmers will not be able to take a hit. It is really important for rural communities that the small family farm is protected. It is not just about making profits. Money earned by small farmers is spent locally. It is used to put children through college and is spent in the local economy. Farmers look after their land and protect the environment. They make a huge contribution to the local economy. If we lose those farmers they will not be replaced. Young people who might consider farming as a career are looking at incomes of €13,000 or less and are walking away. There is a huge body of work to be done there.

In the context of the potential impact of Brexit, we must set up a mitigation fund. Funding must be provided to protect farmers. My concern is that we have no details yet as to what that fund might look like, how it will be accessed and what amounts will be made available. We cannot have the Government scrambling around in the days after Brexit looking for that money.

Photo of Kevin O'KeeffeKevin O'Keeffe (Cork East, Fianna Fail)
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We are at a crossroads in terms of the agricultural sector. On the one hand, we have Food Wise 2025, which followed on from Harvest 2020, while on the other hand, we have climate action groups and the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. Tonight we are here to ensure that rural Ireland does not lose out. That means fighting for support for family farms, especially those in the beef sector. I welcome the Beef Plan representatives in the Gallery this evening, supported by the IFA. Their presence shows the level of concern among farmers about this issue.

I join my party's spokesman, Deputy McConalogue and many other contributors in urging the Minister to implement the 14 policy actions contained in the motion that has been accepted by the Government to ensure the continued viability of the beef sector. The Minister should not do what his predecessor, Deputy Coveney, did when the tillage sector was in crisis. He suggested then that tillage farmers should convert to other farming practices. Farmers do not call for subsidies every year. They only look for intervention every so often. The tillage sector has shown clearly that prices go up and down and that the market is volatile. We must acknowledge that volatility in every sector of agricultural practice.

The Minister is good at going abroad as part of trade delegations and coming back with deals. The next time he goes abroad on such a trade delegation he should take some containers with him. We seem to be only selling the samples and there is very little follow up. I am open to being corrected but it seems to me that some of the agreements reached with countries in the Far East have yet to come to fruition. We need more and faster practical action. I also ask the Minister to make export credit insurance more viable in the context of north African countries so that live animal exports to that region can be increased.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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I would like to make some general observations before dealing with some of the specific issues raised in the motion and the debate. I fully acknowledge that while the Irish beef sector has a global reputation for excellence and is considered a world leader in terms of quality, food safety, traceability, welfare, genomics and sustainability, there are serious challenges. We must strategically and collectively tackle issues such as Brexit, low margins, sustainability and efficiency, dairy to beef challenges, as well as relationships and relative strength in the supply chain if we are to sustain the sector for the long term. None of these issues is new and none can be resolved easily. We have a collective interest in working together to think strategically about what measures should be taken to support the beef sector to deal with these challenges. It is not as simple as talking about price margins. No Minister or Government can dictate the price of beef, milk or a loaf of bread but what we can do is try to direct supports strategically in a way that builds efficiency and profitability at farm level.

I will now turn to a few specific issues raised in the course of the debate this evening. Deputy O'Keeffe alluded to Department’s presence in overseas markets. It is worth noting that we have had eight successive years of volume and value growth. I recently announced eight new agricultural attaché posts in a number of embassies, including in Mexico City, Tokyo, Seoul and Berlin, all identified by my Department as priority locations. We will also take on local hires in certain locations to provide local knowledge and specialist expertise in supporting our market access and trade development work. There are currently eight agricultural attaché posts in embassies in the European Union and across the world, including in Beijing and Washington DC. Last year, I also increased Bord Bia’s staffing allocation by 32, located both in Ireland and abroad. This will help to drive growth in our food and drink exports as a key response to Brexit.

An enhanced programme of agrifood trade missions will continue this year with plans for trade missions, informed primarily by consultations with the industry and following in particular, trade negotiations concluded by the EU in places like Canada, Japan and Korea, which I will be visiting. I will also be visiting Algeria and Egypt, which will be of interest to Deputy O'Keeffe in the context of his references to north Africa and its potential in the context of live exports.

The EU-Mercosur negotiations have not progressed to the point where any agreement is likely to be concluded in the short term. There are well known sensitivities vis-à-vis Mercosur beef access to the EU market and Ireland has continued to express its strong concerns, both directly to Commissioners Malmström and Hogan and through ongoing collaboration with like-minded member states. There undoubtedly is a need for continued vigilance in respect of the conduct of all future trade negotiations and I will continue to insist that they are handled appropriately and in a manner that safeguards our interests.

Exports of live cattle increased by over 30% in 2018, and this growth trend continued into 2019. I have always acknowledged that live exports are a critical part of Ireland’s livestock industry. They play a significant role in stimulating price competition and providing an alternative market outlet for farmers, underpinned by the highest standards of animal welfare.

The Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, has provided details of the additional lairage capacity anticipated in Cherbourg. Based on current ferry sailing schedules this provides increased capacity of some 1,200 animals per week.

With regard to flexibility on state aid ceilings, the European Commission recently announced that the maximum threshold limits under the agriculture de minimis regulation will increase from €15,000 up to €25,000. This will allow for greater flexibility and efficiency, notably in times of crisis.

My Department, working with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and Enterprise Ireland has also received approval from the EU Commission for an Irish state aid application, allowing an Irish food company to receive state aid funding for the diversification of its activities. The potential for this approval to act as a template for assistance to the broader agrifood sector within state aid rules is currently being explored.

As for access to finance, a €300 million Brexit loan scheme is available to SMEs, including agrifood businesses, to provide working capital support to enable eligible Irish businesses to implement the necessary changes to address the challenges posed by Brexit.

This morning, together with my colleague the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, I launched the €300 million future growth loan scheme, which has been developed by our Departments together with the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland and the European Investment Fund. I acknowledge that it is later than I would have liked. It was complex. We worked with strategic partners, the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland and the European Investment Fund, and it required primary legislation in this House. It is a long-awaited source of finance for young and new entrant farmers who often do not have the leverage in the marketplace that others do. I believe the scheme will provide an important opportunity for a particular cohort of farmer.

On bonus payments by factories, a quality payment system, QPS, providing for differentiated payments in respect of certain grades of cattle at slaughter plants was put in place in 2009. This payment system is a commercial matter, negotiated by meat processors with farming organisations. I am generally supportive of the proposition that the grid system should reward beef farmers for quality production and I have offered technical support from Teagasc if the parties involved wish to revisit the design of the quality payment system. I must emphasise, however, that the grid system is not a State property. The payment system is informed by where the cattle land on the grid, which is negotiated between processors and farm organisations.

Reference was made by a number of speakers to movements and residency with regard to the additional bonus payments. The conditions required to obtain the bonus payments are determined by processors - in consultation with the demands of the marketplace - to incentivise or reward production meeting the specifications of retail customers. They are not conditions determined by law or by my Department and we have no role in their operation or implementation. I believe that quality payment systems are important as they reward farmers for compliance with those regulations as demanded by the marketplace.

With regard to my Department’s role in carcass classification and presentation, as raised by my colleague Deputy Denis Naughten, controls in slaughter plants are carried out by a dedicated team of specialist staff in the beef carcass classification section within my Department. They take their work very seriously indeed. In 2018, almost 550 inspections were conducted. Since January 2019, controls have been supplemented by additional monitoring by the Department’s veterinary public health inspection staff in the factories. It is important to make it clear that the controls applied by this dedicated team of people in my Department are significantly in excess of those required under EU law.

I stress that one of the unique strengths of the agrifood sector has been the shared vision for the sustainable development of the sector in Food Wise 2025. It is crucial that we all continue to work together. At the last beef round table, I highlighted the need for stakeholders to recognise their interdependency and to work to increase the strength of all links in the supply chain. A collaborative approach could, I believe, significantly progress a number of important issues including: the development of beef producer organisations; exploration of new bioeconomy value streams; the development of geographical indication, GI, status for Irish beef; and initiatives to improve price transparency, building on existing measures such as my Department’s Beef Pricewatch app and the EU Meat Market Observatory.

Every effort is being made to improve the sustainability of beef farming in Ireland, economically, socially and environmentally. The sector faces a significant challenge in the form of a no-deal Brexit, but the Government is working hard to ensure that, if that worst-case scenario occurs, the right supports are in place to mitigate the impact on beef farm incomes.

In the brief time left to me I would like to acknowledge all of the people, including representatives from the farm organisations, who have travelled long distances to be in the Public Gallery this evening. I will respond in some detail to some of the issues that were raised by Members in the House.

Deputy Niamh Smyth seemed to imply that we were, for some reason, ignoring the Dutch and the Spanish markets. That is quite simply not the case. Almost one third of our exports go to mainland EU and European markets. The Netherlands is one of the most significant markets within that.

I agree wholeheartedly with Deputy Breathnach on forward pricing, producer organisations, negotiated contracts and strengthening the position of farmers in the supply chain. In discussion on these matters with farmers invariably I am confronted with the fact that we are price takers. While it is not the panacea for all the ills, if we can organise it can strengthen the relative position of farmers in the supply chain and in this regard we have approved a number of organisations to act as facilitators for producer organisations.

The motion refers to €200 per suckler cow. I believe that we need to have an honest debate around this. It seems to imply a coupled payment: if one was paying on every cow, then the more cows a farmer has the more he or she would get paid. This would run contrary to the direction of travel we have been going in, which is to reward quality and not make payments contingent upon having numbers, so farmers can adapt their holdings to reflect market realities. I have an issue with this but I am open to a discussion around it. I am certainly committed, in the context of the broader CAP negotiations, to get the best possible deal.

I cannot let Deputy Clare Daly's point go with regard to climate. If we could move the Irish beef industry lock, stock and barrel to any mainland European country that also has an industrial heritage history, our emissions profile would be insignificant. We have an emissions profile as high as it is because Ireland never had the industrial revolution industries here. This is not to claim that the beef industry needs a free pass. It will do more and it has to do more. Last week we were confronted by kids protesting. They are informing consumer decisions around the globe, not just here. Ireland is an international player in those markets so we have to do more to drive down our carbon efficiency. We start, however, from a very good point.

6:10 pm

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I will share time with Deputies O'Loughlin and McConalogue. Deputy Scanlon may not make it to contribute due to being delayed at an earlier meeting.

I am glad of the opportunity to make a short contribution on this important Private Members' motion, put forward by my colleagues. The motion contains 14 detailed measures. They are realistic and essential proposals, which need to be implemented at the earliest possible date.

Last night Deputies McConalogue and Breathnach, Senator Wilson and I met the farming community in Carlingford, County Louth: farmers from counties Cavan, Monaghan, Louth and Meath. They were at their wits' end, especially people from the beef sector, the livestock sector and the suckler herd owners. They outlined very clearly to us that they are not making an income and that returns are below the costs of production. They question how long they will remain in the sector. It is very worrying when one hears of good farmers, who have invested heavily in building up their herd and on-farm facilities, questioning their future.

All of us in the House, and those people in the Public Gallery this evening, know that food production is unlike the production of other commodities in that food production cannot be switched on and off. It cannot be switched on at the farm or at the processing or manufacturing sector. If confidence is undermined it is a very negative message for the future. If good people are exiting the sector it is a huge loss to the national economy and to the overall agrifood sector. These people are not making a living currently. These are hard-working farmers who have invested very heavily and have reared stock to the highest standards. This is even before Brexit. We are all aware of the concerns around the adverse impacts Brexit will have regardless of the type of withdrawal Britain will achieve in leaving the European Union.

It is essential that the Minister implement measures to ensure the issues outlined in this Private Members' motion will be addressed. In his opening remarks the Minister of State, Deputy Andrew Doyle, spoke about the significant growth in the value and quantity of food and drink exports since 2009. The Minister also referenced it. While that is very welcome, the Minister of State also referred to the fact that we sold to so many markets because of the high reputation of the products leaving the island. We all know that there has been a huge cost to individual farmers and the State in achieving those high standards. There must, therefore, be a return to the primary producer who is a critical link in the food production chain. We cannot allow farmers to continue to fail to derive the income they need in producing the top quality product this country is very proud to export to so many other countries around the world. I refer again to the CAP. Any reduction in overall CAP funding would be detrimental not only to the rural economy but also to the national economy.

6:20 pm

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome to the Visitors Gallery the chairman of Kildare IFA, Mr. Brian Rush, and the Kildare delegation. Farming and the agrifood industry are incredibly important to my county, Kildare, which has 2,618 farms and more than 21,000 beef cattle. Agriculture supports many thousands of jobs directly and indirectly in local shops and communities in County Kildare. The value of the agriculture industry is hugely significant to the economy of rural Kildare. According to the Teagasc data for 2018, average incomes on cattle rearing farms are just over €10,000 per annum. On mixed farms, incomes are just over €15,000. How is any family expected to live on that income, develop their farm, send children to school and college and meet basic household expenditure which we all must meet? Brexit uncertainty and the weakness of sterling have already impacted very negatively on cattle prices and the IFA estimates that a hard Brexit would cost the beef sector up to €800 million annually. We cannot stand idly by while the beef sector is at its wits' end.

Despite assurances from the Minister, I believe firmly not enough is being done. I am proud to stand with my party, in particular Deputies McConalogue and Cahill who have brought forward this Private Members' motion to highlight the urgent need to take action to safeguard the livelihoods of farmers in the beef sector at this time of crisis. We have outlined 14 policy measures that need to be actioned immediately by the Government to meet the severe challenges faced in the sector. The Government must take swift action to safeguard the sector and the rural economy. However, its delivery record to date has been suspect. The Fine Gael-led Government is losing touch with people in rural Ireland and the daily challenges they face. Regrettably, the Government's sense of urgency to date has been sluggish, as demonstrated by the hands-off approach it has taken to enhancing capacity at Cherbourg Port to increase calf exports to the Continent. It is unbelievable the Brexit loan scheme promised for farmers in October 2017, almost a year and a half ago, has yet to open mere days from a hard Brexit.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all of the Members who have spoken to and supported the motion. I hope they have contributed to getting the message across to the Minister on the need for action and to follow through on the 14 policy proposals included in the motion. I again thank the ICSA, the Beef Plan movement, the IFA and, in particular, the tremendous delegation from around the country that travelled with them to be here. It is crucial that we see action from the Minister as a result of the motion. As Deputy O'Loughlin mentioned, in the past few years and under the Taoiseach and during the Minister's stewardship of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, we have seen a Government that has been out of touch with rural Ireland and the difficulties facing farmers. In fairness, when we passed the tillage and fodder motions in the Dáil, the Minister acted on them. I bet, however, that in those cases he had no choice but to do so. We have had other motions on which he has failed to follow through. In the beef sector, in particular, we need to see action on the part of the Minister and an understanding of the massive pressure farmers are under.

In his contribution the Minister outlined how the figure in respect of de minimispermissions in a state aid context had increased from €15,000 to €25,000 a few weeks ago. However, that is just in respect of permissions. The Government must recognise that Brexit is already happening and having an impact on the beef sector and the agrifood sector generally. That recognition must come in the form of real assistance and funding to help farmers in their time of real need. The Minister must use the permissions under state aid rules to come up with a proposal to facilitate and assist farmers in their time of need and address the pressures they have experienced in the past few months. He must provide clarity on the supports that will be available if there is a hard Brexit. Of course, our overriding objective must be to ensure we avoid that scenario. We must also see more action on the part of the Minister to assist the live export trade. Unfortunately, however, the ships have been sailing on this issue, but without the numbers of calves aboard that might have been the case had the Minister acted earlier. There is still capacity, even at this late stage, for the Minister to help to address that issue. It is a major failure of his that such help has not been provided. We also need to see a continued effort to ensure the CAP is prioritised and that funding will be maintained. It is a key Fianna Fáil policy that there should be a maximum payment of €60,000 in that regard. As we have outlined in the motion, it is essential to ensure there will be a €200 suckler cow contribution to underpin the suckler cow herd.

We are telling the Minister that the Government must wake up to the fact that the farming sector is under pressure. He must be clear and upfront on his proposals for the sector and deliver immediately to relieve some of the pressure farmers are under. He must ensure they will no longer be left to fend for themselves without the support the Government could provide if there was a willingness to provide it.

Question put and agreed to.