Wednesday, 18 September 2019
Agriculture: Motion [Private Members]
“That Dáil Éireann:
notes:— that beef and suckler farmers are at their wits’ end, experiencing a severe income crisis, under significant financial stress, and struggling to maintain their livelihoods;
— how utter despair has forced individual farmers to resume protest at factories;
— the determined action by beef farmers in support of the Beef Plan Movement protests over a number of weeks which forced processors to the negotiating table last month;
— how beef prices have slumped downward even further to €3.45 - €3.55 per kilogram, significantly below the cost of production;
— the thousands of staff that have been laid off from meat processing plants;
— farmers’ dependency on direct payments under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for their livelihoods, with average suckler incomes in the region of €8,000 according to Teagasc;
— the low farmer uptake in the Beef Exceptional Aid Measure (BEAM) scheme;
— how half of all Irish beef exports go to the United Kingdom (UK) market, and that a no-deal Brexit represents an existential threat to the viability of beef farming with fully tariffed trade adding up to €800 million in costs, while prices would fall to €2.50 per kilogram;
— that the Government has failed to adequately promote and incentivise the uptake of Producer Organisations (POs) in the beef sector with just one registration greenlighted to date, despite a legal basis for POs established in 2016;
— the Taoiseach’s comments regarding meat consumption have infuriated suckler farmers and undermined State policy to promote Irish beef product in overseas markets;
— the Government did not build sufficient support with European counterparts at European Union (EU) level to prevent increased access of 99,000 tonnes of beef from Mercosur countries in the draft trade agreement; and
— the severe financial difficulties being experienced by knackeries, and the onerous provisions under the fallen animal scheme; andcalls on the Government to:— ensure meat processors return to talks and remove legal threats, while retailers must also attend stakeholder discussions;
— resolve the outstanding issues (fair prices, 30 month age restriction, four movement rule and 70 days residency requirement) with meat processors, retailers and farming organisations;
— work with the European Commission to immediately deliver an emergency crisis fund for beef farmers by using CAP market disturbance aid for price losses suffered since May, and to mitigate a doomsday no-deal Brexit for the sector;
— avail of all avenues to increase live export trade, and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Bord Bia must actively seek out new live export markets for cattle, which acts as a key safety value for the sector;
— ensure complete transparency with respect to market prices in the supply chain and establish a commission of investigation into the beef sector to examine retailer and processor margins;
— introduce a beef market index and require processors to publish weekly price reports;
— immediately commence the process of working towards the introduction of a €200 suckler cow payment;
— strengthen the position of the primary producer in the food supply chain and transpose the EU Directive on Unfair Trading Practices into Irish law swiftly, which should be enforced by an independent national food ombudsman;
— ensure all 2019 CAP payments issue swiftly, including:— Basic Payment Scheme;— extend the deadline for applications to the BEAM scheme, while making immediate changes to the conditions attached to the scheme, which are overly restrictive and preventing farmers from applying;
— Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS);
— Areas of Natural Constraint payment (ANC);
— Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Schemes (TAMS);
— Beef Data and Genomics Programme (BDGP);
— Sheep Welfare System;
— Knowledge Transfer Programme; and
— Hen Harrier Programme;
— give adequate financial support to establish POs in the beef sector;
— reject any final Mercosur deal, which would undermine EU climate change policy, increase the deforestation of the Amazon and depress prices in Europe;
— examine introducing a farmer’s charter, which processors and retailers would have to obey if they wish to avail of Bord Bia’s Quality Assurance logo;
— commission a full review of the Quality Pricing System (QPS) grid, while working with stakeholders to ensure all animals which come from a quality assured farm receive some level of bonus payment;
— market Irish grass-fed beef as a premium brand to extract an increased return to farmers, while secure Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status for our suckler beef at EU level in order to increase its promotional value; and
— provide additional funding to ensure the viability of the knackery industry, while reviewing the fallen animal scheme.”
I wish to share time with Deputies Cahill, Smyth, Troy, Butler and Scanlon.
Unfortunately, we have a very difficult situation in our beef sector. The motion addresses many of the key difficulties facing the sector. It was put down before the talks took place last weekend and I know those talks addressed some of the issues that the motion raises. However, it is not the first time Fianna Fáil has come before the Dáil with Private Members' motions. Indeed, last March, we had a very similar motion once again drawing attention to the massive crisis in our beef sector. This is a crisis that has been brewing for many years and one the Government has continued to ignore and not address. If we had seen more proactive engagement by the Government in regard to many of the issues that are at play, we might not have got to the crisis stage we are currently in, which has led farmers onto the protest line and resulted in the protracted situation which has been continuing since 28 July.
Underlying the current problem is the issue of price and the need for an income for farmers but, alongside that, there is a total lack of transparency in our beef sector which has not been addressed for many years. Farmers feel the Government has simply not been listening to them. Various representations have been made, either by ourselves in Dáil motions or by farming organisations and farmers, with regard to, for example, the lack of transparency around the 30-month rule, the four-movement rule or the seven-day residency, or around the need for a review of the QPS grid, but these have continuously fallen on deaf Government ears. Likewise, when farmers got into trouble during last year's fodder crisis, the Government did not respond or react promptly to assist farmers, as it had failed to respond to the previous grain crisis. They listened to the Taoiseach, one of whose main contributions to the beef debate was to suggest people should eat less beef in order to improve their carbon footprint. Just a couple of months ago, to put the icing on the cake, we saw the Government not hold the line at European level in regard to allowing a Mercosur deal to be proposed which would see beef coming into an already oversupplied European market from South America.
I acknowledge the work of the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, the Minister, Deputy Creed, and all of the farming organisations last weekend in the marathon talks and the effort that was put into that. I outlined last night in the Dáil how the Government could and should have been much more hands-on at various times during the crisis to get people into talks. Nonetheless, we now have a situation where the seven farm organisations have signed up and agreed, along with the meat processing sector, to the agreement made at the weekend. I know everybody is giving time and space to the farm organisations to have the necessary conversations with farmers across the country, and to explain the merits of that agreement and how it can be a starting point and key pillar to build upon in order to bring about transparency in the sector.
Everyone is agreed that the continuation of the current situation is undoubtedly impacting on and hurting the sector as a whole and is now affecting markets internationally. We see today the comments on the domestic situation affecting supermarket shelves and restaurants. Coming out of this, the factories have to understand that they must repair their relationship with farmers. There must be transparency and farmers must get a fair price. There is currently engagement across the country in regard to factories planning to reopen but they need to offer fair base prices to farmers with a view to restarting the kill. However, we all acknowledge it is essential that the protests finish and that everyone comes together in order to resolve the situation and avoid further damage over the coming period.
The motion calls for the Minister and the Government to go to Europe to get further funding to help compensate for the losses that have been experienced over the last weeks and months. We had the BEAM scheme, which was fed to farmers before the local elections as being a panacea in terms of the losses they had experienced but which has since then turned out to be a very different kettle of fish. The 5% stock reduction requirement has certainly seen a situation where many farmers feel it is not suitable to their needs, is simply making the wrong asks of them and is not dealing with the key issue of addressing the losses they have experienced up to this point. We have seen no sign from the Minister or the Taoiseach in terms of getting additional funding from Europe to cover the period from May up to now, a period in which farmers have lost more money and prices were poorer then previously.
We also have not seen any initiative from the Minister in regard to trying to improve the situation with regard to live exports. Only a small number of weanlings are currently going to the live export trade to Libya; more need to go and more initiatives from the Government are needed. We also saw the Government failure earlier this year in regard to maximising preparations for the live cattle trade through Cherbourg and the lack of facilities in place around that.
The message from Fianna Fáil is that it is time the Government woke up and started listening to farmers and started addressing these issues. Our motion outlines some key further policies and measures the Government needs to take to assist with the situation. We are asking that, once and for all, the Government listens and takes this on board and once this motion is passed tonight, actually follows through and implements it to bring about the necessary improvement to the lot of farmers to ensure they get fair play.
It is historic that this is the second day in a row that beef farmers' plight has been top of the agenda in the Dáil. I had a number of calls this morning from farmers who are part of these new producer groups that have been established to try to negotiate with factories. They tell me that factories are refusing to negotiate with them on price. If we are to get our industry back on any kind of level playing field, processors need to wake up and realise that they must respect farmers and commit to what they agree to. If it is the case that these newly-formed producer groups are not being recognised by the processors, we have a serious problem. As Deputy McConalogue stated, the lack of live exports is a key issue and one that I lay squarely at the doors of the Minister and Bord Bia. Live exports have always been the safety valve to put competition into the trade. With the abolition of quotas, we knew that there would be a lot of extra stock. We had the farce last spring of there not being enough space in Cherbourg for calves leaving this country. Again, only two entities can be held responsible for that, namely, the Department and Bord Bia. It will soon be October but I have not yet seen evidence of that shambles being rectified in time for next spring. That must be done immediately. We have no older cattle leaving the country alive. We have had numerous announcements of market after market being opened for Irish stock but, unfortunately, no cattle are leaving.
There is also a great deal of talk about the grid being reformed. I did not agree with the grid when it was introduced and I still do not agree with it. It needs to be reformed, and the O= grade needs to be used to set the base price rather than having a grid that allows processors to exploit farmers and pay the lowest possible price. As Deputy McConalogue indicated, we need a crisis fund. We need a fund that will be fair to farmers rather than something similar to the one introduced prior to the local elections. That fund was discriminatory and excluded some finishers from claiming compensation. We should also recognise that producers of stores and weanlings are also losing significant money. The crisis fund must address losses borne by all beef farmers and there must be a fair fund in place. Unfortunately, since 12 May, cattle prices have dropped by 30 cent to 40 cent per kilogram, so losses are probably even greater now than they were when this fund was introduced before the local elections.
One of the greatest sources of regret on foot of last week's talks is the fact that the price differential for cattle over 30 months of age remains the same. Attempts were made to camouflage this by increasing the bonus for cattle under 30 months of age. The reality, however, is that when cattle change from being 29 months and 29 days old to 30 months and a day old there is a price differential of 12 cent per kilogram. Farmers just do not accept that there is any basis for this differential.
It is now a generation since we had BSE in this country. Using that weapon to pay a lower price to farmers is just not acceptable. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission has clearly failed farmers. Whether it is in rendering or processing, farmers feel that a monopoly exists. We saw that when Slaney Meats was purchased by Larry Goodman, it was investigated but was said to be okay. This further eroded competition in the trade. Farmers need to get a viable price. If that does not happen very quickly, our industry will disappear.
Like my colleagues, I have met the farmers, male and female, across Cavan and Monaghan who have stood on the picket lines in recent weeks. It was heartbreaking to stand there and have conversations with them. There were women on the picket lines as well as the male farmers and they were there with their very small children out of love, passion and concern not just for their livelihoods but also for the land and where we are going when it comes to agriculture. The farmers in Cavan and Monaghan feel very passionately about this because they feel they are not getting a fair slice of the cake. Who could argue with that when we see some of the statistics that have been put out in recent weeks for the proportion they were getting as opposed to the meat processors and retailers.
My colleague, Deputy McConalogue, and with our agriculture team brought forward a motion to the Minister of State last March. They saw this coming years ago. I speak on behalf of the farmers in Cavan and Monaghan. They feel that the Minister has sat on his hands when it comes to the base price they have been offered, the 30-month age restrictions, the four-movement rule, the weight restrictions on cattle and so on. Above all this is transparency. Transparency is key, as is the ability to listen. While the Minister has left it to the very last hour to get people around the table, there is huge work to be done to restore farmers' confidence that there is a future in farming.
The numbers participating in last night's debate and the numbers seeking to contribute today clearly demonstrate that this is a huge issue in rural Ireland. Rural Ireland and its farmers feel totally abandoned by the Government. For months the Government has been put on notice that urgent intervention was needed, yet it failed to intervene until the 11th hour and only did so after farmers had endured thousands of lost man hours at factory gates and thousands of factory workers, who bear no responsibility whatsoever in the setting of beef prices, had been temporarily laid off. Some of those workers will not even be entitled to any social welfare.
I compliment the farming representative bodies that have come to the talks and achieved concessions, but it must be noted that these concessions are only the start. What the Beef Plan Movement has achieved in its establishment as a PO must be noted. There is, however, huge mistrust out there - of the Department, Meat Industry Ireland, MII and Bord Bia. What MII now needs to do is show its goodwill and confirm that there will be no erosion of the base price. There are two concrete areas where the Government can show its willingness to help the sector. The first is offal. I understand that Ireland is the only EU member state that has a distance limit for offal. That can be changed by the Minister of State and his colleagues. By doing so they would open up competition and remove the dominance of one player. The second area, which has been mentioned already, is export of live cattle. Much more needs to be done to ensure adequate facilities to keep this competitive option open.
The time for action is now. We have had inaction from the Government for far too long.
Utter despair has forced individual farmers to resume protests at factories. Beef and suckler farmers are at their wits' end. They are experiencing a severe income crisis and struggling to maintain their livelihoods, educate their children and keep their heads above water coming off the back of a tough time last year between the fodder crisis and a drought. Outside the factory gates the farmers are losing their livelihoods, are entrenched and cannot break even for every animal reared and sold. Stepping inside the factory gates, 6,000 workers have been temporarily laid off and many of them have no access to social welfare payments as they are employed on permits from outside the EU. Over the past seven weeks, a large number of them have exhausted any savings or back-up they may have had as a result of the uncertainty of work since the pickets began on a day-to-day basis. More job losses will follow if the pickets are not lifted. The situation inside the gates is job losses and despair for workers, who want to work but cannot get the animals through the gates. Livelihoods are lost outside the factory gates and jobs are lost inside, and it goes on and on every day. There was hope last weekend, with long hours spent taking and each side giving a little, but if one talks to any farmer, it is on the base price that they want and need movement.
The crisis is damaging our beef industry. It has gone on for far too long. Markets will be lost. Already meat is scarce in shops and restaurants are adjusting menus to exclude beef. Every single available mechanism to facilitate negotiations with meat processors, retailers and farming organisations must be put in place again in order to resolve the outstanding issues. In view of the threat of Brexit and the uncertainty ahead, a solution to the crisis must be found.
Yesterday, the Taoiseach said in the Dáil that farmers in Ireland are being offered the average European prices for beef. That is true. Unfortunately, our problem did not start yesterday but a number of years ago. Farmers in Europe were being paid 40 or 50 cent more than Irish farmers. I can fully understand the difficulties and the feelings of the farming community at the moment. It is very easy to look back but we have to look forward. The time has hopefully come for somebody to negotiate for the people at the gates. There are people facing financial ruin. We are 44 days away from Brexit. If we have a no-deal Brexit, beef going to England, where most of our beef goes, will face a tariff of 50%. What will that do to cattle prices in this country? Today we are talking about €3.40. We could be talking about €2.40 in a month. That is the sad reality.
At present, we should be killing approximately 35,000 cattle per week. For the last two or three weeks, that kill has not happened at all. If we have another two weeks of that, we will have more than 100,000 cattle that have to be slaughtered. That will depress the market. If is absolutely imperative, however the Minister does it, that this blockade is stopped straight away. I believe that farmers should be paid a premium for the cow to help the rural family to stay alive. I believe that we should have a rural environment protection, REP, scheme. Get rid of those Mickey Mouse schemes of putting up bird boxes and such, wasting people's time where people have to pay half what they get to get a payment. Issue a good REP scheme, even if it has to be attached to climate change measures. The REP scheme was very beneficial to farmers and kept them on the land. That money went straight into farmers' pockets and not to somebody else. That is what is needed for the future.
Many statements have been made about the price of beef and who is getting what. It is very simple. Going into a meat plant, we know what the animal is costing the factory. We know what the factory is charging and we know what the supermarkets are charging too. There should be a full assessment on a carcase to see who exactly is getting what because at the moment nobody knows. I have experience of this as a butcher. It can be done. I spoke to a sheep agent yesterday. He has more than 1,000 sheep ready to go to a factory. It is another delay for another two or three weeks. It will depress the price and there is no question of that. In the end, the farmers will suffer more. I believe that the Government should declare this a national crisis because that is what we are facing at the moment and that is what the farming community is facing. Whatever has to be done should be done.
I move amendment No. 2:
To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann:” and substitute the following:
— that the beef sector has experienced a sustained period of depressed prices and farmers are experiencing very challenging conditions, and prices are now 9 per cent below the same period last year, and have been consistently depressed since autumn 2018, for a variety of reasons, including sterling weakness and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, with the United Kingdom accounting for 50 per cent of Irish beef exports;
— that the overwhelming consensus among farm representatives and other stakeholders is that the current impasse in the sector needs to be resolved to permit farmers with finished stock to have them processed, to protect blue chip markets, especially in advance of Brexit, and to avoid any long-term damage to the sector;
— that with that in mind, an agreement was reached between the processing sector and seven farming organisations/representatives in recent days to resolve the current difficulties;
— that this agreement includes a range of immediate benefits for farmers in terms of bonus payments and also includes a commitment to develop a beef market price index model and a review of the Quality Pricing System (QPS) grid;
— the importance of upholding this agreement in the broader interests of the beef sector as a whole, from the perspective of suppliers, processors and those employed by the processing sector;
— that up to 10,000 jobs in the processing sector are threatened by the continuation of the dispute and the livelihoods of 80,000 farm families are at stake; and
— while the Government cannot legally intervene on setting beef prices in the sector, every effort is being made to bring about a resolution to the current situation and to fully support the future development of the beef sector;
further notes that:
— the Government has negotiated a €100 million Beef Exceptional Aid Measure (BEAM), co-funded by the European Union (EU) and the Exchequer, in recognition of market difficulties in the beef sector;
— the BEAM deadline is currently open for applications and has been extended for another week for new applications, to be facilitated at the Ploughing Championships this week;
— this funding is in addition to a new €20 million Beef Environmental Efficiency Pilot, launched in January 2019;
— the first ever legal framework for setting up producer organisations was introduced by Government and extensively promoted, and this has led to the approval of the first beef Producer Organisation last week, which will provide farmers with a legal basis for negotiating a better deal in the marketplace; and
— the Government has actively advocated to safeguard the Irish beef sector in the context of the Mercosur Agreement and will continue to do so as the Agreement is further deliberated at an EU level; and
— a Beef Market Taskforce is being established to develop a sustainable pathway for the future of the beef sector and to provide a platform for engagement with retailers and other key stakeholders in the sector;
— this Taskforce will provide for a robust implementation structure for the commitments entered into in the Beef Sector Agreement of 15th September;
— an independent examination on price composition on the supply chain in the sector is being undertaken;
— an analysis of competition issues is being drawn up;
— there continues to be active engagement on the development of Protected Geographical Indication for Irish beef and on promotional activity for Irish beef in key target markets;
— a public consultation process on the transposition of the Unfair Trading Practices Directive and the establishment of a regulator for the sector will shortly commence; and
— Area of Natural Constraint scheme payments are being commenced this week and all other payments are being made without delay in order to support farmers in difficult economic circumstances.”
I thank Deputy McConalogue and others, and those who have yet to contribute. I share the serious concerns about the ongoing difficulties facing the beef sector and I certainly understand the frustration which has driven some farmers to engage in prolonged picketing. Last weekend, the Minister, Deputy Creed, facilitated lengthy negotiations involving all the stakeholders to try to find a resolution to the current dispute. These were just the most recent talks in a series of formal discussions between beef stakeholders which have been facilitated by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, both in Backweston and Agriculture House. These commenced with a meeting on 12 August and continued through last weekend. The Minister, Deputy Creed, and I have had ongoing bilateral discussions and meetings with organisations, representatives and individual farmers.
The common thread in discussions is that all parties agree that it is critical to find a means of getting the sector fully operational again to protect the livelihoods involved, including both the farmers and factory workers whose jobs are at risk and all players in the sector. The talks last weekend culminated in an agreement between the meat industry and seven farm organisations and representatives, all of whom undertook to support the agreement on the ground and recommend that those protesting should step back their protests in response to this negotiated agreement. The agreement is a two-strand approach aimed at providing immediate financial benefits directly to beef farmers as well as addressing longer term structural issues which are in many ways the core of the problem. A means to implement and measure progress on these measures was also set out and agreed.
In summary, as part of the deal, there is an increase of 66% to the current in-spec bonus for steers and heifers from 12 to 20 cent per kilogram and introduction of a new 8 cent bonus for steers and heifers aged between 30 and 36 months which meet all non-age related existing in-spec criteria which up to now have not received any bonus. There will be an introduction of a new in-spec bonus of 12 cent per kilogram for steers and heifers under 30 months in the categories of O- and fat score 4+ which currently do not qualify. The in-spec 70 day residency requirement will be reduced to 60 days on the last farm. These measures offer an immediate financial benefit to beef farmers. They both increase the level of bonus being paid and significantly increase the number of animals that are eligible for a bonus. The cumulative effect is that more than 70% of all steers and heifers slaughtered will now be eligible for a bonus payment on top of the base price.
The establishment of a beef market task force is part of the agreement, to provide leadership to develop a sustainable pathway for the future of the beef sector in economic, environmental and social sustainability. The Minister, Deputy Creed, will appoint an independent chair to lead the task force. Its membership will comprise the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, relevant State agencies and nominees from farm organisations and the meat industry. This task force will provide for a robust implementation structure for commitments entered into in the arena with timelines and stakeholder engagement. Further, it will offer a suitable platform for strategic engagement with key stakeholders, including retailers and the regulatory authorities. Other key immediate actions include the development by Bord Bia of a beef market price index model and a scientific review of the quality payment grid by Teagasc.
The second strand of the agreement sets out the strategic measures which seek to address structural imbalances in the sector. These measures will provide clear information and greater transparency to the sector with a view to ensuring the sustainability of this sector in the future. A number of actions in the area of market transparency, beef promotion and strengthening the position of the farmer in the food chain were agreed upon.
The agreed measures set a course towards greater clarity for all stakeholders involved in the beef supply chain, primarily farmers, and the agreement includes commitments on an independent review of market and customer requirements, specifically relating to the four in-spec bonus criteria currently in operation in the beef sector. Another measure is an independent examination of the price composition of the total value of the animal, including the fifth quarter along the supply chain. The results will inform future actions as necessary. The beef industry will co-operate in providing the data. There will be initiatives on improving information on carcase classification.
I know that many of the criteria for the in-spec bonus have been much discussed over the long days and nights of the discussions. It is imperative that we have the hard facts about third country and consumer requirements to inform discussions. The independent review will provide clarity about these requirements. A country exporting the majority of its products is dependent on a range of market requirements. There are also commitments to more detailed price reporting, more reporting on carcase classifications and the transposition of the EU directive on unfair trading practices.
Full details are available on the website so, conscious of the time, I will not go into them in full. I am convinced that this contains the best balance between immediate financial benefits for beef farmers and a series of more long-term strategic actions that are absolutely necessary. Other initiatives, such as BEAM, have been mentioned. For the benefit of Deputy Cahill, I can clarify that the only finishers excluded are those from factories' dealer herd numbers.
The 5% reduction is similar to the actions and requirements taken in the market supply chain reduction a couple of years ago, when the dairy support scheme was provided. I am aware that this motion is a couple of weeks old. I understand that the take-up has been around 80%. It was slow but I encourage all those who are eligible to apply. Assistance is being provided at the ploughing championships and in the Department, which informs people how to qualify and how to apply, and this has been well subscribed to.
The announcement earlier this year by the European Commissioner, Phil Hogan, of an exceptional aid measure was very welcome. We had made the case for some time at Council of Ministers' meetings, and in direct consultation with the Commission, for an exceptional aid package from the European Commission for beef farmers. The available aid was specifically targeted at the farmers who were most impacted by market disturbances. It is a substantial package of €100 million, with conditionality as per the requirement of the EU. It is timebound for a relatively short period but there are more ways than one of meeting the conditions.
Live exports were up by 30% in 2017-18 and this trend has continued to date. Last night, Deputy Penrose outlined some of the realities of what has happened at Cherbourg this year. I would contend that this is not the responsibility of the Department and I would take issue with anyone who would challenge me about that.
A point was made about producer organisations. We need producer organisations to work. We need to step back to enable them to work because they are the one entity around the country that can give farmers a more equal position at the negotiating table as they can negotiate prices. The dialogue we have had so far has achieved a lot. I urge people to stand back and assess what has been achieved as things have changed and will never go back to where they were. Now is the time to make the most of this but the meat industry has to take a step back from legal threats and the protestors have to take a step back from the factory gates. I speak passionately about this as a beef farmer. I want to see the industry survive. It has a crucial role to play in the rural economy in many ways and it is worth preserving.
I acknowledge the commitment and bravery of all the independent beef farmers, and the movement which is currently protesting, as well as those who stand with them to highlight the conditions they are compelled to live under because of the lack of a decent price for their cattle. I have been on the pickets with these farmers in Rathkeale and Bandon and I am certain that they have been left with no choice. I am quite certain that they are doing this in desperation, in order to get an adequate, liveable income from their products. They felt they had no other choice but to protest and that this was their last opportunity to save their livelihoods. I do not believe that one farmer who is currently picketing the factories wants to be there.
The ground for farmers in rural Ireland is in a particularly bad position, particularly west of the Shannon, and beef farmers can no longer support their families on the income they receive. Families are facing the prospect of losing their home; they face a fight to pay their mortgage and they have debts and loans from last year's fodder crisis which they cannot pay. They are unable to pay co-operatives from which they have purchased manure and feed for their cattle.
How has it come to this? It has not just happened in the last couple of months but has been building on the ground for a number of years. For decades now, we have allowed the Irish beef sector to be run in a cartel-like manner, with its power being left unchecked for so long. This cartel-like group can decide, whenever it wishes, to manipulate the price of beef and to use its power for its own selfish reasons. If we go below the optimal kill of 30,000 per week, this group has at its disposal feedlots to enable it to feed cattle into the market to manipulate the price and ensure it is kept at the minimum required for its selfish needs. One of them, ABP, made a profit of €170 million in 2018 and has assets worth €3.45 billion. The bulk of its profits were booked in Luxembourg and were largely untaxed. That has been allowed to happen and we have to ask ourselves how the cartels have been allowed to come together to get to where they are now. By the manipulation of the market for their own selfish needs they have managed to eliminate any small or independent operators around the country. We are left with a small number of factories with great power, which includes political power as we have seen in the past, with access to political organisations for their own benefit. We cannot say the market decides this on its own; the groups to which I refer determine the market by fixing prices. I have said time and again in this House that they have access to the database so that they know exactly how many cattle are coming on stream on a weekly and monthly basis and nobody has challenged me on it. Is it legal if a major cartel has feedlots under its control with people feeding cattle into the factories at the optimal time on its behalf? Is it legal for these big companies to take cattle from feedlots and put them into the factory process in order to manipulate the price? I do not think that is legal and it is certainly morally wrong.
Sinn Féin will be supporting the Fianna Fáil motion tomorrow, which we believe is a fair attempt to outline the threats beef farmers face and to articulate the demands that are necessary to resolve the situation. We have submitted three amendments to the motion and I hope Fianna Fáil considers accepting them. The first seeks to establish a beef market observatory which would require processors to publish daily price reports. This is in operation in the United States of America. It is not a silver bullet and certainly does not meet all farmers' demands but it will go some way to ending the manipulation of prices by processors. It would also go some way towards ending the high level of mistrust between farmers and factories, which is the key reason talks continue to stall. Only once greater transparency has been delivered will we be able to see the huge gap between what the consumer pays and what the farmers gets. We will then be able to see who is being ripped off. I hope other parties support this amendment as it will give transparency as well as confidence to farmers and processors.
Our third amendment calls for the study to be carried out and alludes to how the farming family model can be preserved in the face of the increased prevalence of feedlots. I am sure we all know too well the role feedlots have played in the beef sector. I hope we can all agree this is the right time to investigate the matter. We also called for the farmers' charter of rights to be adequately upheld. All these measures are in the interest of all of us, including the consumer and producer. I do not see why the processors or big retail units should have any difficulty outlining what the processors get from the retailers and what the retailers pay the processors. This would result in transparency right across the board. That would be of great benefit in restoring confidence in the sector.
I cannot disagree with the independent farmers and their supporters outside the factories. I fully support them. I support them because they are carrying out an act of last resort to try to protect their livelihood. I fully support them because I come from their type of background and live in rural Ireland. My neighbours are among the protesters. Protestors feel, with great reason, that they have been badly neglected by large farming organisations, which they believe have never acted in their interest. The major farming organisations are currently trying to find a resolution because there is a total disconnect between them and their members. This is because the latter have been betrayed and let down. That is the reality. The big farming organisations have looked after the big farmers and have done nothing for the small beef farmers across rural Ireland. I support the motion of Fianna Fáil and hope it will take our amendments on board.
We had statements yesterday evening on this. Clearly, the anger at the picket lines at the factory gates has not abated. Many have spoken about the issue, at the core of which is the price. The base price is what they are talking about. While I accept the notion that the producer organisations comprise a route to deal with this, it will be difficult for every farmer to have that route. It is untested and untried. The producer organisations have been in existence in the country for many years. During all these years, the entire emphasis has been on cutting input costs, with a view to coming together to buy diesel, fertiliser and grain more cheaply, not to increase the price for their end product. That has been the experience. I hope that this experience will change under the new model.
As Deputy Ferris said, the general view of many of the farmers is that the farm organisations have let them down, that they have not been active enough on this, and that they have allowed this problem to grow for the past 20 years or more. Many years ago, when there were small abattoirs and factories around the country, farmers were in a much stronger position. There has been consolidation into the hands of a small few. It appears, and there is great evidence to suggest, that the small few work together to manipulate the price to their own advantage and to the disadvantage of the primary producer, the farmer.
The motion is dealing with many of these issues. I commend Deputy McConalogue and Fianna Fáil on bringing forward this motion. It is really about getting to grips with the problem and highlighting the true need to resolve it. The resolution will come with the recognition that the system is broken. The current model does not work. It only works for the small handful in control of the situation. They have engaged in manipulation over many years to bring it to this. If we recognise that the system does not work and is broken, and while this has probably been more recognised than resolved in negotiations, we now have to reach a position in which we can ask what the new system will be like. What new procedures can be put in place for the Irish farm family? Many such families around where I live have 15 or 20 suckler cows. They need to see a future. They depend on the farmer who will fatten the calves and sell them to the factory in order to get a decent price. If this does not happen, they will also go out of business. There is a knock-on effect. I do not need to tell that to the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle; he is aware of it.
One cannot sort this out unless one accounts for the price and how it is given. At present, we are told it is based on the open market. The flaw of the open market is that it is very often manipulated. A principle of free market economics is that, all things equal and everything fair, the system works very well. Unfortunately, all things are not equal and things are very seldom fair. They are certainly not fair in this situation because it is being manipulated. We are told we are getting the average price like the rest of Europe. Given the quality of the product Irish farmers produce, they do not deserve that price; they deserve at least 20% above it because they are producing a premium product. Irish farmers are producing a gold-standard product and getting a bog-standard price. The price is the key. Some will of course say we are over-producing beef and that there are too many cattle. There may be some legitimacy to this argument, and it needs to be examined, but it does nothing for the farmer who has 20 or 30 bullocks to sell and who cannot make a living. Telling him he is going to make less in the future is not an answer. If we are to say it is about producing less, the price will have to go up even more. That is the challenge we have set ourselves.
I accept the Minister was at the talks and worked very hard on the days he was present but at the end of it all he should not be the ringmaster trying to sort this out. The Minister has to play a role and step in. The Government has to be seen to be exercising the firm hand of regulation to ensure fair play. In this case, the Government has to be standing clearly on the side of the farmer. If one is to stand on the side of the farmer, one has to stand up for finding a way to deliver a proper price. If this is to happen, the Government needs to find an appropriate mechanism. Everyone will say it is illegal and that it cannot be done but we have heard that before about many things. A bit of inventiveness got around it. If a bit of inventiveness were applied in this case, we could get around the problem also. A means would be found to get a proper price for the farmer, ensuring that as we move into the future, the small family farm and beef sector can survive. The processors are needed by the farming community. We all need each other in this. This ought to be recognised.
Brexit is coming at us like a steam train. We do not know what will happen because we export such a large proportion of our beef to Britain. We do not know what the position will be in two months so it is crucial that this issue be sorted not in the coming weeks but the in coming days. This is why I suggest that the Government needs to go back in and work out a solution. Farmers have said that if they can get a base price, of up to €3.80 per kilogramme, they are prepared to come off the picket. If that happened now, we could see some progress. We need to see the Government stepping in and working on behalf of the farmer. The farmer is the one with his back to the wall in this situation. The big processors are very powerful and have very deep pockets. They can withstand this; the farmers cannot.
I know many farmers around the country who have cattle ready to go but who cannot get them into the factory. They are very worried. They do not want to be seen to be going against those at the factory gate. They truly stand with them but, at the same time, they have cattle ready to go. Some of the cattle are over 30 months. The farmers have to keep feeding them and they are losing money doing so. Right now, the Government needs to employ a firm hand with the processors and deliver the base price for the farmers.
The Labour Party will support the Fianna Fáil motion. I thank Fianna Fáil for introducing it. We acknowledge the frustration of farmers and workers in meat processing plants. We are particularly concerned about the 6,000 workers laid off to date. Many are on employer-specific work permits so they do not have access to social welfare payments. They have no time to lose in getting the factories back to full operation.
Livestock farmers are facing an unprecedented crisis. The crisis will not end any time soon. Global trade is becoming more protectionist.
That means difficulties for Ireland as an island nation. Brexit, if it happens without a deal, will lead to tariffs and non-EU competition in the British beef market. We will be significantly exposed because more than 50% of our beef is sold in that lucrative market. The EU beef market is already highly competitive. Market prices are low, so Deputies should not try to deceive people by telling them that they will see a massive increase in the market price. The position is the same for market prices across Europe. Let us be clear. I have been studying this in recent months. Prices could be driven lower if the Mercosur agreement allows extra beef into the Single Market. If one tries to sell into a market that produces 102% of what it needs, and which is therefore beyond self-sufficiency, one is in trouble. It is a buyer's market.
Climate change and health concerns are leading some consumers to change their preferences. This is a long-term issue for the wider agricultural industry as well as for the meat industry. Possible changes to the CAP represent another risk for farmers. The UK's contribution of €12 billion will be lost when it falls out of the EU. Chancellor Merkel stated yesterday that she wants the 1.1% of VAT receipts that makes up part of countries' contributions - which is subject to their GDP - to be held at 1%. That will further reduce CAP payments. Although Ireland has committed to an increased contribution, the Dutch and the Belgians are showing significant reluctance. There are many things ahead. We will hopefully get this situation resolved. RTÉ news reports indicate that some promising initiatives are coming forward. Things are beginning to happen. I hope they will continue to happen and that matters will be resolved.
I agree that we have to get the base price but to allow people to think it will be up €4 by tomorrow evening is misleading. It is a solution for now, but there are long-term fundamental structural problems in this area. We will stick a plaster on it; we will mend and fill the old boiler. We will get that done today, but in a few weeks the boiler will be splattering water all over the place. There will be several leaks. That is the equivalent of what will happen in this situation.
Let us be very clear, policy decisions made over the years led to the current impasse. Large companies and conglomerates were allowed to gobble up small competitors uninhibited and to remove any semblance of competition, thereby elevating themselves into a dominant market position from which they could unilaterally dictate prices. They were not just satisfied with owning the pitch, they decided to take over the dressing room by introducing the concept of feedlots, which can be used to manipulate the market to their total advantage.
To add insult to injury, as a result of total political cowardice, they are getting CAP payments. I was one of the few to stand in the barn gap, as they say. Those very corporations are some of the biggest recipients of CAP payments. This adds insult to injury. The sooner somebody has the political balls to cap those payments, the better. CAP payments are going to be very important in the future and they have to be allocated to where they were designed to be allocated, rather than giving a bit to everyone in the audience. No farm organisation can do the allocation. It is about time they realised that they cannot represent the multimillionaire farmer and the poor farmer down the west with 25 or 30 acres. It does not work like that. One reaps what one sows and this is what we are reaping now. Let us cap the payments and cut out this nonsense. It is scandalous. I recall some people who do not employ one person on the land getting large payments. When my grandfather was around, some of those same farms were employing three or four people. Let us be clear about a few things. Let us be honest with one another in here. I am inclined to be honest and this is very important.
I have to mention the BEAM. I spoke a great deal about those measures last evening. I am worried about farmers who have established herd numbers in their own right over recent years. They have been building their stock slowly over time and have not reached their potential stocking rates. They need this BEAM compensation. They are only getting their farm businesses up and running. If they choose to avail of this compensation, however, they have to commit concomitantly to reduce their stock by 5%. That is a nonsense. They are only getting off the ground and the Minister is asking them to reduce their stock by 5%. These people are under 35 and have all kinds of agricultural qualifications. The Minister should go back to the genius who devised the schemes. He or she may never have been out on the ground. The Minister should get him or her to look for a special case or some measure that could be implemented to review the 5% reduction in these cases. It is based on the reference period from July 2018 to June 2019. Their farms are already overstocked. These individuals are only slowly building up so the impact on them is much greater. Will the Minister listen to me please? I am trying to get through to people who have no interest in listening. This has to be examined.
Last evening I referred to the average cattle-rearing farmer earning approximately €8,301. Two thirds of beef farmers earned less than €10,000 last year. The problem with the latter is that the average EU subsidy payment is approximately €13,000. If they were clever, most beef farmers would be better off collecting their subsidy and then mowing their grass and selling it as hay or silage. Some 40 years ago, I worked as an adviser or a consultant and that is what I would have told them to do. They would then make a decent income. They would at least get something out of it. At the moment, the subsidy is just going towards paying the bills and the farmers have absolutely nothing left. They would have more money if they did this, so they would be far better off. I know one has to have a certain number of grazing stock, but rather than seeking to have greater and greater numbers, farmers would be better off trying to deal with things in this way. That is the way it is going because farmers are getting a notorious fleecing. They are producing a product and are not getting compensated for it. This problem is not unique to Ireland. Beef farmers across Europe are either losing money or making only tiny margins.
I again have to exhort people. There are beef markets out there that were very hard-won. Deputy Cahill criticised Bord Bia but I take a different view. That is the essence of democracy; we hold different views. Ms Tara McCarthy stated earlier today that hard-won markets will be lost if this situation persists and that it will be very hard to win them back. Let sense prevail. Beside where I live, where a lot of beef fattening takes place, there are fields full of cattle ready to go. They have now gone over the 30 months and all that nonsense. I was here at the time of the BSE problem. Many of these measures, such as the four-movement rule and the 70-days residency requirement, were brought in at that time, 2001-2002. It is time to alleviate the situation and to move on from some of those measures. I know we have to keep up standards but it could be another contribution towards progress in this regard. I am particularly worried that farmers at home will not be able to move any cattle and that the cattle will build up. Deputy Scanlon was right that only 10,000 or 11,000 cattle were killed last week. There may be none at all this week, or very few. The problem is that there will be a queue of 150,000 or 160,000 animals built up and farmers will get nothing at all for them. The whole thing will become circular and we will be back to where we started, with no resolution. That is the big issue.
The Minister knows how people are feeling. Government cannot resolve this issue on its own. If Deputy McConalogue was sitting in the Minister's seat, I would be saying the same thing. This cannot be solved by the Government alone; everybody has a say. The European Commission will also have to step in to help with the subsidy fund about which the Minister is talking.
I will start by paying tribute to the independent beef farmers and the Beef Plan Movement for their magnificent campaign over recent weeks and over the course of the summer. They have highlighted the absolutely intolerable and unacceptable levels of income which they are expected to endure despite producing a beef product of extremely high quality. I am shocked by these income levels. Until I met representatives of the Beef Plan Movement before the summer, I did not know that anybody working to produce such a product could be expected to survive on such a level of income. It is absolutely shocking. Average incomes are €12,000 and many are on €10,000 or €8,000 a year. It is a scandal.
From what I can see having heard from them, their scepticism and mistrust regarding the good faith of the beef barons, processors and retailers and some of the governmental agencies and bodies that are supposed to be trying to address this issue are perfectly understandable.
I am not saying that any of the Fianna Fáil Deputies present is saying it, but there is a narrative floating around to the effect that all this would be sorted if farmers just pulled back from the gate. From what I understand, they do not want to be there. They have been forced to the gate, and they are staying there because they do not trust the processors, retailers and various agencies of Government to ensure their interests.
The key is the base price, which has decreased. One of the farmers I spoke to just before entering the Chamber told me of losses of between €200 to €250 per animal over the past couple of years. Contrary to what has been suggested in some of the discourse, retail beef prices have actually increased in some parts of Europe during the period in question. Farmers are asking a simple question - if what they are getting is going down while retail beef prices are increasing, where is the money going? They conclude that it is going into the hands of the beef processors, who control the price and the market, and the retailers, all of whom are making large profits. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to see that. Goodman's various companies have seen €175 million in profits. Frankly, I am amazed. One of the first issues that I ever got involved in was protesting around the issues that led to the beef tribunal - export credit insurance, rotten beef to Iraq and so on. It is amazing that some of those involved are still around, controlling the beef sector, making massive profits and, as we recently discovered, routing quite an amount of those profits through Luxembourg, a tax haven. In effect, they are a cartel controlling the industry and the prices while beef farmers are on an abysmal income. Look at the large retailers in this country. We do not even know how much profit Tesco makes, as it does not declare its Irish profits, but it is making lots of money. Aldi, McDonald's and so on are making a great deal of money. The answer to the question about where the money is going is that it is going to them.
One of the questions I was requested to ask concerned the exceptional aid scheme. Will the Minister of State assure us that it is not benefitting these companies? Is it going to the farmers who are struggling? They want to know because they are suspicious. Just like CAP, it is shocking that these companies, which are making that level of profit and funnelling profits through tax havens and so on, are getting CAP payments when the small producer is struggling to survive. There is a suspicion among beef farmers that this entire situation has been engineered and the companies want to shut down many of the small beef producers and move things elsewhere. Hence the kerfuffle about the talk of Bord Bia giving quality assurance to plants in the North and, apparently, the rest of the UK for slaughtering Irish cattle, since doing so might work better for the beef processors if there is a no-deal Brexit because tariffs on live cattle exports are much less than on the manufactured product. If cattle are sent over the Border to be slaughtered in the North, lower tariffs will be applied and Irish products will be sold into Britain, where 50% of our market lies.
Is this all being engineered by our friends in the cartel to drive the small producer out of business completely? Historically, the trajectory of farming, rural economies and so on has been one of centralisation, the creation of monopolies and the destruction of the small producer. We used to call this "enclosures". That is what happens. Will serious action be taken to protect the small producer? Will supports, subsidies, exceptional aid schemes and so on be directed so as to ensure incomes, fairness and transparency around prices, where the money is going, who is making the profit and so on? The meat industry cartel people do not want to own up to that, but the facts seem to speak for themselves.
As others have alluded to, beef farmers just want to be told by the producer organisations or the processors that there will be a minimum price of €3.80 per kilo. There would be nothing illegal if the processors said it. They set the price anyway - let us be honest. If the processors said that they would give farmers a minimum of €3.80 per kilo, this situation could be resolved. Look at the profits that Larry Goodman is making. He can afford it. In terms of the narrative around this situation, that is where the Government's pressure should be directed. These farmers do not want to be out on the picket line, but they do not trust the big players, the people who control the market or the agencies. I understand that there was a kerfuffle at the ploughing championships because people felt that Bord Bia giving quality assurance to plants in the North and so on was part of a stitch-up of producers in response to the protests of recent weeks.
I stand with the farmers. The onus is on the large processors and retailers that are making lots of money and on the Government to ensure that farmers get a fair price and fair incomes for the work they do and the incredible and important role they play in holding rural Ireland together and maintaining the Irish rural economy. Let us show them some respect.
I wish to discuss amendment No. 3 in my name. The fact is that farmers have no control over the price for beef that they get from the market. That is the fundamental issue that led to the beef price crisis during the summer. It must change if we are to have movement and are to address the pickets outside meat plants across the country.
As I stated last night, we need movement on the base price that is paid for cattle. A realistic offer must be made by individual plants. A producer organisation has been established through the Beef Plan Movement. It must now be used as a vehicle for engaging with individual meat plants across the country and agreeing a base price. Even if a base price is agreed, though, farmers are concerned about what there is to prevent movement in that price next week, next month or next year. A minimum base price must be established and then tied into the variation in the European average price for beef. As the House knows, the European Commission publishes a list of the average price paid across Europe for beef and a carcase every week. As with tracker mortgages, there should be a tracker base price for beef. Farmers could then work to get a higher price through bonuses and meeting various criteria. Unless a baseline is put in place, however, we will not have movement on the issues.
In tandem with that, we need to examine some of the fundamental problems in the beef sector. We must establish a distinct brand for certified grass-fed, extensively reared Irish suckler beef. There is an application with the European Commission for EU protected geographical indication status for that very product.
The Government must redouble its efforts to establish that status and, in tandem, establish an individual brand similar to Kerrygold to market that product across Europe and the rest of the world. The big difficulty is that Irish suckler beef is competing with manufacturing beef from the dairy herd. There is domestic price competition in that regard, aside from being able to sell Irish suckler beef as a unique product on international markets. Instead, Irish suckler beef is being used to sell manufacturing beef into international markets. That must change immediately.
Last May, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission recommended to the Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine that a dedicated sectoral regulator be established to deal with the unfair trading practices directive coming from Europe and to improve the welfare of farmers. We need to establish an independent regulator for this sector forthwith to protect small Irish family farms. There can be no dithering in this regard.
As I stated in the House last night, there are issues regarding threats issued by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. However, there are tools available to the Government though the commission to look at the beef sector in this country and who is controlling the levers of the sector. Under section 10(4) of the Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, may ask the commission to carry out an analysis of the beef market and make recommendations in that regard. That needs to be done immediately.
We will be back here dealing with this issue in the coming years and we will state that the fundamental mistake made in 2019 was the failure to establish a State owned and controlled block chain supply chain for the beef sector. This is new technology which is being employed across the pharmaceutical sector. Someone in Ireland will establish that block chain. If it is not State owned and controlled, it will be used to further abuse the existing significant market share and compound the problem facing Irish farmers. There is a responsibility on the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to bring all of the players together to establish a publicly owned and controlled national beef supply block chain which will increase the value of beef and, more importantly, increase the return available to Irish farmers.
The steps I have outlined will not improve the price of beef tomorrow morning or next week; only movement on the base price will do that. However, if these measures are not taken now, we will regret it. If the measures had been taken in the past, we would not be in the situation we are in today. It is fundamentally important that we address the current crisis and ensure there is a base price and a future for Irish suckler beef.
It is disingenuous to state that we should be reducing the Irish suckler beef herd. I acknowledge that there is an issue in respect of cattle numbers in this country but, as all Members know, those numbers are going askew in the dairy sector, not the suckler beef sector. We need to protect the latter sector. Unless we do, green fields across the country will turn into yellow fields of ragwort and furze. Farmers will, hand over fist, abandon land west of the River Shannon which is not suitable for tillage or dairy production but is providing a sustainable livelihood for many elements of the economy. Unless we are prepared to put gates on the bridges over the River Shannon, we must acknowledge the fundamental importance of the suckler herd and the suckler beef industry. We need to roll up our sleeves and support it for tomorrow, next week and the years to come.
The fundamental priority must be to re-engage with all of the major stakeholders such that we can bring this crisis to a conclusion. It is clear that unless a mechanism can be found which permits the raising of the base price for beef, this issue will be prolonged with devastating consequences. To date, the consequences have been worsening. There is too much on the line and too many jobs, families' income and lives at stake for rural Ireland to allow this issue to drag on. Now that the Beef Plan Movement has been approved as a producer organisation, there is no reason a commitment could not be given.
There must be an immediate end to the threats of legal action by Meat Industry Ireland, MII, which have begun to re-emerge. Another day has been wasted. There were developments on Sunday evening. Today is Wednesday and the Government is out the gap again. It is making no move to re-engage with independent farmers and various other groups to try to get a base price somewhere along the line. Given that the Beef Plan Movement has been approved as a producer organisation, one can no longer say that the base price cannot be discussed.
I support the motion tabled by Fianna Fáil. The Government is dragging its feet. It stayed away from the table for too long. Now that it has been to the table, it should engage and try to get the people who have lost their jobs and been displaced by the reckless meat industry back into work and production to ensure that no further damage is done to the products on shop shelves here or our exports.
This is a crisis. Where are the Fine Gael backbenchers for the debate of this motion? They are not here. They must not be interested. It does not bother them. By hell, it will bother them at election time because they will get it in the neck. Fine Gael is supposed to be looking after the big farmers, but is not looking after any farmers. It has lost its way and has a Dublin-centric Cabinet which does not care about rural Ireland. The Taoiseach stated that he would eat less beef because it is carcinogenic and because of climate change. What else could we expect from the Government while he is its leader? It was a disgraceful thing for him to say and it shows the inertia at Cabinet level in regard to doing anything about this crisis or for the farmers on the picket line. There is no semblance of movement by the Government. The Ministers need to get off their you-know-whats, talk to the people and get this crisis sorted out because it is drifting on and on. We might as well have no Government as the likes of this one.
There is deep concern in spite of the hard-fought agreement reached over many weeks of discussion. The Government dropped the ball on this issue. The Minster, Deputy Creed, was brought to the table kicking and screaming. When farmers were protesting in Bandon, a couple of miles from his door, was he there to stand with them or listen to their concerns? I was there, as were Deputies Danny Healy-Rae and Michael Collins on an almost nightly basis. Why did some politicians see fit to listen to the concerns of farmers while others, some of them very senior politicians, did not? Being a Minister does not mean one does not have to listen to the people whom one is supposed to represent. When one becomes a Minister, one should not forget the people who put one there. I am sure there are many farmers who voted for the Minister, Deputy Creed. The least they expected was for him to listen to them when they needed him. It is awful that a person in Government would not listen to them. That was wrong.
It is wrong that the base price could not be discussed during the talks. That should not have been tolerated. Mechanisms must be put in place so that farmers know that if they produce beef, they will cover their costs and have a modest profit margin.
For God's sake, they do not want much.
I neglected to thank Deputy McConalogue, his colleagues and the other Deputies for bringing this important motion before the House. It is vital that we stand behind them and support it. Shame on Fine Gael and those Members who support that party if they object to it and do not support it belatedly, having been brought kicking and screaming to the table again, because that is what has happened. Fair dues to the people who protested at the factory gates for so long and gave so much of their time and energy and who, in many cases, are still protesting.
The main issue in this crisis is that farmers are not getting a price that comes near to covering their production costs. They are making substantial losses. That is recognised by all, including the meat factories. Meat processors are making a substantial profit. They have been allowed to gain a monopoly, which allows them to control and dictate prices without any reference to the producer. They can manipulate the price by using their feedlots. There is a need to have a recalibration of the financial imbalance that exists in the market. That recalibration needs to bring a sustainable price to the producer and both sides should be allowed to make a reasonable profit.
The existing model is not sustainable. There is fair trade in many parts of the world. There is fair trade in coffee and in the production of fruit in countries that are much poorer than ours yet we do not have a fair trade policy in respect of beef production. Last night, I spoke about meat producers operating a financial blockade at their factory gates. That is an invisible blockade. It is just as damaging as the visible blockade by the farmers protesting outside the gates but that financial blockade is just as damaging to the meat industry as the farmers' blockade at the gates.
The price for cattle needs to match the cost of production. Bonus payments will not solve the problem. They are variable. They can be changed at a whim. Many farmers do not qualify for them. They do not ensure the cost of meat production and many of the criteria used are meaningless. Blaming the weakest link in this chain, which is the farmer, for this crisis is wrong.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this motion in light of the ongoing crisis in the beef sector. As it is the week of the National Ploughing Championships, issues in our agriculture sector are all people are talking about.
I raised the many issues that family farms are currently facing as a result of poor treatment and the delayed intervention in the crisis on the part our Government. Other members of the Rural Independent Group and I called for the Dáil to be reconvened in early August when the farmers first started staging protests outside the gates of meat processing factories. The Government did not listen and we are still in the same mess. In fact, we are in a worse situation, particularly in view of the job losses at factories across the country.
The farmers' message is simple. All they want is a fair price for their hard work and their produce. These are decent, hard-working people, many of whom have never been on a picket line in their lives. They do not want to be on the picket line but they believe they have no other choice. Many of them are going out of existence, and they know it.
I call on the Government to act urgently and reconvene talks with all farming groups in order that we can resolve the outstanding issues around a fair base price, the 30-month age restrictions, the four-movement rule and the 70-day residency requirement with meat processors, retailers and farming organisations. Earlier, I asked the Taoiseach to personally intervene in this dispute. I put a question to him and he failed to answer it. He passed the mantle to the Minister of State in terms of having to answer the question. Why will the Taoiseach not intervene? Why has he not spoken out strongly in favour of the ordinary men and women who have gone out day and night to fight for their survival? It is not good enough. When it comes to this issue, our Taoiseach has stood idly by. I do not know if he clearly understands the crisis in the beef sector. I ask him again this evening to come out and fight for the ordinary man and woman who is fighting for their survival.
I am happy to support this motion. I support also any aspect of it that calls on the Government to ensure that all 2019 CAP payments issue swiftly. Those payments are needed urgently by these farmers to allow them pay their bills.
In the brief few minutes I have, to follow the debate we had last night and the debate we are all having because this is critical for the entire country, urban and rural, I argued last night that we need a national land use plan. The Minister came back and stated that he cannot tell farmers what to do. I do not want to tell farmers what to do. We need farmers who are innovative and good business people. Farmers know best how to manage the land. They know their farms better than anyone else. Far be it from me to tell them exactly what to do, but we need to pay them properly to deliver services we want. We have this opportunity coming up in the CAP reform to pay farmers properly for the key front-line task they have in managing climate, restoring nature, providing high-quality food and protecting water quality. We should pay them properly for doing that.
We need to opt for a truly origin green approach in everything we do. We need to get an origin green premium and pay farmers properly for the services they provide. We do not need to do what they did in New Zealand, which was to have industrial dairy everywhere, trash the land and pollute the waters. New Zealand is now retreating from that strategy, one which, I believe, Fine Gael is leading us towards.
We should learn from what has gone on up North where they have gone down the way of bringing the cattle back into lots. However, low cost, high debt, high capital, not quality and not origin green is not the way we should go. We should opt for high animal welfare, which is what we are close to doing. We have good farmers who manage our cattle. We have traceability and proper measures in that regard. We do not do it by relying on selling cattle who go off on a ship to Libya every time we have a market problem. We do the exact opposite. We make our product something special that meets the highest environmental and welfare standards and gets the higher price.
When I suggested to the Minister last night that organic farming was more profitable he slightly pooh-poohed it and stated that it accounted for only 1% or 2%. I cited Austria, for example, where the figure is 40%. I ask the Minister of State to answer a question. If I am selling organic beef on the market, what is my base price? Is it €4.30 or €4.20 per kilogram? What is wrong with that as a base price? What is wrong with lower input costs and smaller breeds that will mean the farmer will not be up at 5 a.m. pulling a continental bull calf out of a cow with which one can have all sorts of difficulties. There are smaller cattle that might fit on our land without churning it up every time it rains.
This green approach makes sense. It is the best secured model for Irish farming. It belongs to every party in this House. It does not belong to anyone but if we are going out on a brand of Origin Green, let us be really green about how we do it. I am interested to hear what Deputy Healy-Rae and Deputy Fitzmaurice have to say so I will yield to them.
I thank Deputy Eamon Ryan for sharing time. I want to clarify that there are systems in place whereby farmers have gone the natural way and they can raise their cattle to 36 months. Currently, in the commercial sector, it is 30 months. There is a lot to be said for bringing cattle up on grass in the normal way they have always been reared.
I was present for the debate last night. On yesterday's edition of "Today with Sean O'Rourke", Cormac Healy of MII stated clearly that €3.60 is the base price. I asked if he would come out and clarify if that was the position because a price of €3.45 is being quoted in parts of the country. However, as per usual, the MII did not come out and clarify the position. The Minister needs to find out what base price is being given because depending on the part of the country one is in, there is a variance in the price.
The Minister gave the go-ahead in respect of the POs. He hailed it as a great step forward but, unfortunately, the factories are stonewalling. The Minister needs to put pressure on the processors and tell them that they have to engage.
An agreement was reached last weekend. I stated on Sunday - I say it again now - that there are many good parts to that agreement. The current situation needs to be resolved. Farmers are very unclear on the base price. That is what is causing the problem. There are cattle and sheep waiting to be slaughtered.
We have to be mindful that there is a backlog and that these animals have to be killed shortly. To put it very simply, are we going to keep going down the road where we raise cattle under protected geographical indication, PGI, status, in feed lots, where they never see daylight and look out through a barrier or are we going to raise them, as we were brought up to do in natural farming, where they had grass for most of their lives? Are we codding people in other countries by putting this green Bord Bia symbol on cattle that for six, nine or ten months are looking out through barriers?
We have the finest product in Europe, if not in the world, and we have the stock to prove it. We have the grass to grow it and we are still not giving the farmers the premium price. If we want to tackle this whole problem, we must put a maximum stocking limit. I would always suggest two units per hectare to give everybody a fair chance. We cannot continue giving derogations to feed lots and to industrialised dairy outfits, letting them export the slurry out of their farms under the nitrates. This arose during the year where it was suggested that by spreading a little bit of lime, it would be all right. If we continue to do that, it is like voting for the same people where we will continue to get the same result.
There was warning today from Teagasc about dairy calves next year. There is a problem brewing. If we tackle this head-on, do these things and farm naturally, there will be a price for our product.
I thank Deputy Eamon Ryan for sharing time and Fianna Fáil for bringing this motion forward, which I am supporting. The Ministers did not listen to us in the spring when we were highlighting the plight of the farmers and I do not know if they really care. I am very disappointed with the Tánaiste, who was only 20 minutes away from the gates in Bandon but he never arrived to listen to the farmers. The same applies to the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, each of whom were no more than 20 minutes away from the gates in Bandon. We, and the people there, are very disappointed with that.
Farmers rang me last night. There is no mention of €3.60. The figure of €3.40 is the going rate. What farmers really need and want is €4 but they would accept and could live with €3.80. A fortnight ago, they were offered €3.20. I could get the man who told me that on the phone this minute. That is not fair or right.
Why can the factories not accept a little less profit? It was in the newspaper that one processing plant made €190 million last year in profits. Why could it not accept half of that and give something to the farmers to allow them to continue working the land they love and on which generations before them prided themselves and on which they survived? Why could it not take a bit less? One individual is worth €480 million. The west of Ireland and every farmer there could not make up €480 million even if they all joined together with whatever small bank accounts they have. The whole thing is wrong and unfair and is the height of blackguarding.
Something better than this deal will have to be put in place to sort this out. I realise people owe money. They want to give money to their children who are going to college but they have bills to pay and need to get money somewhere. The situation is desperate.
The Ministers and their Government have let the farmers in the west of Ireland down, including in the county of Kerry.
I am sharing with four colleagues. I have met many farmers on the picket lines and at meat processing factories around south east over the summer. Farmers are fighting for the livelihoods as the beef industry is being brought to its knees. These farms are producing the best grass-fed product in the world but the processors and supermarkets are being allowed to skim off the lion's share of the profits. Our farmers have been consistently been obliged to put up with a situation where they have been the price-takers while others along the way can see their own margins and ensure massive profits. The fact that there is no clarity as to what margins farmers get for the work they carry out in producing beef illustrates the lack of transparency in the sector.
The so-called protesters are honest hard-working people who would much rather be at home with their families, on their land and with their stock. However, they have come to the realisation that unless drastic action is taken, their homes, land, families and stock are in serious jeopardy. We have been banging the drum on this side of the House respect of the beef crisis for years.
In March last, my colleagues and I brought forward a motion that included much of what has been agreed in talks over the weekend. However our motion, like many others before and after it, fell on deaf ears in this House. As a colleague stated yesterday, this is a reactive and not a proactive Government where the head stays buried in the sand until it is embarrassed or forced into action by an "RTÉ Investigates" programme or the mobilisation of people taking drastic action. This is the reason farmers are being forced from their land to take such drastic action at factory gates because the Government simply does not listen. If we lost 6,000 jobs in a Dublin-based industry, it would be solved overnight and Ministers would be falling over themselves to get a resolution but because it is rural Ireland, they do not think the same way.
I, as did all of us, asked the Minister to ensure that the task force that has been established will follow through and that the base price issue will be addressed and that other issues, including the 30-month rule, the four-month movement and lairage, will all be addressed conclusively and properly, so that the farming families in Carlow and Kilkenny and beyond will have a future in this country. I could say a lot more but I do not have the time.
I fully welcome and support our motion which asks for specific measures to ensure our Wicklow farm families survive this unprecedented crisis in their ability to keep their heads above water. I visited the protest at Slaney Meats in Bunclody recently and discussed with Wicklow beef farmers the completely unfair trading position that the current meat industry places on the work they do.
Let us be clear about where we are today. There has always been farm protests about various failings in the agribusiness. The demonstrations that have taken place over the past four weeks, however, are unique in the history of modern Irish agriculture and reflect the total failure of the meat industry in Ireland to provide a fair price for one of our most valuable and quality products: top quality Irish beef. I was taken aback to hear from seasoned and very hard-working farmers that they are on the brink of collapse, both physically and mentally, from the strain that they are under.
Let us also be clear that these farm families are trying to cope with the 24/7 challenges of farming, where many have a second job, along with many other difficulties faced by people in rural Ireland such as transport, insurance costs and an increase in bureaucracy and red tape.
These four weeks have been very difficult for the staff of the meat factories and the farmers on the pickets acknowledge that. For these farmers to turn up, day after day, night after night, for at least four hour stints on pickets, while trying to cope with all these other issues in their lives, is having a serious impact on the physical and mental health of many Wicklow farmers.
Rural Wicklow is completely in support of our farming sector. It is not only an irreplaceable economic pillar of Wicklow but the very fabric of rural living is dependent on our farm families.
It is in this context that the deal at the weekend must be the start of a new beginning for Wicklow farmers, not a cynical deal to suit politician agendas or to get farmers off national media headlines at factory gates.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to speak on this motion. Respect and trust has been lost among the farming community, particularly in the beef sector, over the past number of months and years. In the past number of weeks, that loss of respect and trust has been borne out by the protests that are taking place. Agreement was reached at the weekend and all the farm organisations agreed to go back to the picket line but we can see how difficult it is for them to help stand down this protest. They are finding it an incredibly hard sell. There is a caveat in all this which is the beef producers organisation. That can be the conduit for delivery but it is being stonewalled by the factories. They are not returning its calls, they are not engaging with it and are not giving it the opportunity to help stand down this protest.
It can be done if the factories engage with the organisation. That is the space in which the price can be negotiated and delivered. In discussing matters this evening, however, it does not appear that we have reached that point. We need the Minister’s assistance. He must intervene and somebody needs to talk to the factories. I do not refer to the price in this regard. That should be decided upon by the factories and the representative organisation. It needs to happen.
Last night, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine commended the beef producing organisation on coming forward and setting this up. It is innovative and progressive. Let us support those involved and assist them by engaging.
I thank Deputies McConalogue and Cahill for bringing forward this motion. This is a wage negotiation for farmers. Can the Minister of State imagine if workers involved in negotiations with their employers could not discuss their remuneration and a deal was done that did not address the wage issue? That highlights the frustration felt by farmers. Successive Deputies have spoken about the inconsistencies in base pricing throughout the country. That matter must be resolved. It goes to the heart of the lack of confidence and transparency. One of the most important elements of the deal agreed at the weekend involves the setting up of a task force to address the beef industry. The Minister needs to get that established immediately and to appoint somebody of credibility, whose stature is respected on all sides, to be the lead person in dealing with that task force and setting its work. That could engender the confidence that is needed. Transparency in respect of the base price extends to so many parts of the industry, not only to processing but also to the rendering and other areas.
Other issues also arise. When I was at the National Ploughing Championships yesterday, I was struck by the very up-to-date marketing in which the National Dairy Council is involved whereby it engages on Instagram and other social media platforms. If we consider the range of dairy products that have become available in recent years and how they have evolved to suit demand, we would note that beef products have not evolved to suit demand. In terms of beef marketing, we tell ourselves we have the best product in the world and we keep shouting about that but we must market it in a manner that is relevant to the 21st century. If we do that, we will increase the base line.
The Tánaiste was in this Department. He knows of the lack of trust that exists. How can this deal be sold at the factory gates when people who are trying to sell the deal have been threatened with legal action for being at those gates selling the deal? That is what has happened today, four days after the deal was done. That is wrong. It will not create the atmosphere we need to get this deal through. MII has to be called out and asked to allow a little space for this deal to grow and for people to reflect and see what it involves. That will build a type of confidence. The Minister cannot any longer continue to stick his head in the sand and hope this will go away. We are here now because he has had six months warning about this issue. Deputy McConalogue has been raising it for a very long time but the Minister ignored it. We cannot do that any longer. We must move quickly and in a way that builds confidence and shines a light on the practices in the industry.
Sometimes the term "crisis" can be bandied around but that is not the position in this instance. The beef sector in Ireland, one of the largest and best in Europe and in the world, is not only in crisis and under threat but in danger of disappearing if positive action is not taken soon. The downward spiral in beef prices, despite being very well flagged to the Government - which ignored it, unfortunately - has resulted in protests by farmers, factories being closed, workers being laid off, other business interests, such as hauliers, being affected, etc.
There was general relief last Wednesday when it was felt that a deal which could be implemented had been reached but that relief soon turned to despair. This was compounded earlier today when it was reported on the radio that there is a very strong possibility beef will soon disappear from restaurant menus and that international contracts could be lost. If that happens, there will be no coming back.
I come from a farming background. I have stood with the farmers in Kildare and listened to their stories, anger, frustration, despair, mistrust and sadness about being placed in such a situation. Only this morning, I spoke to a farmer who was in tears not only because of his inability to pay his upcoming bills and to deal with the meat processors but also as a result of a level of intimidation that is happening at the protests at some of the factory gates. That is wrong and it must be called out. There needs to be a rebalancing in the beef supply in order to ensure fair play and transparency for farmers. Those are the three most important terms we can use in this context. That is what this is about, namely, the primary producer, fair play and transparency.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate and I thank Fianna Fáil for bringing forward the motion.
The Government will continue to be deeply committed to supporting and developing Ireland's beef sector. I am keenly aware that the past few months have been very challenging for beef farmers and their families following a difficult year for farm incomes in 2018 due to very bad weather conditions. There was a prolonged and exceptional period of depressed prices lasting from autumn 2018 to spring 2019, with the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the outcome of Brexit among other factors contributing to this market disturbance.
Over the weekend, significant efforts were made to reach a resolution to the current dispute after lengthy and very tough negotiations. Leaders of all of the main farming organisations and representatives of farmers who were still protesting agreed to recommend an agreement to their members and those at factory gates. The agreement is a compromise. Nobody got everything they wanted. As Members opposite will be aware, it was not legally possible to discuss base price but the agreement contains a number of commitments relating to new and increased bonus payments that will have an immediate impact for farmers and, more importantly, a detailed package that also includes a number of commitments around transparency and fairness in the supply chain which in time will deliver greater certainty and clarity for farmers, which is what is needed. In truth, we need to restructure the beef sector in a way that is farmer friendly, supports family farms for the future and empowers farmers to be able to negotiate with a lot more power and weight with the factories to which they are selling.
As the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine stated, we are at a critical tipping point in this dispute, and I do not say that lightly, as somebody who is passionate about the agrifood sector and about farming. A significant number of employees have been temporarily laid off and more are on the protective notice. Farmers with finished stock have no outlet for their produce and the continued premium position of Irish beef on supermarket shelves both at home and abroad is under threat if this dispute continues. I said today to many farmers to whom I spoke at the National Ploughing Championships that I believe we are very close to a point where we may do damage that is irreversible to this sector if we are not careful. I urge all the farmers continuing to protest and to mount blockades to consider the agreement that was negotiated on their behalf in detail. It will not deliver everything they want overnight but it is a basis for a way forward and it puts farmers in a stronger position in the supply chain.
I was at the National Ploughing Championships for a number of hours today and even though it was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and it was probably the best organised ploughing match that I have ever been at in terms of getting in and getting out, there was tension in the air. There was anger among many farmers. There was a sense that there was a real absence of trust between farmers and factories. That tension clearly is what we are seeing at the gates of many factories still. People are desperate. They are producing cattle, and have been doing so now for many months, for a price that is below the cost of production and we know that is not sustainable. Given the other challenges that are also on the horizon for the beef sector, particularly around Brexit, for which I have a specific responsibility in the context of protecting the agrifood sector and farming during these negotiations, we need to be really careful we do not do significant damage here that makes the other challenges we may face in six weeks' time even more difficult to face. I would ask farmers to think about that. That is not saying we do not feel their anger, pain and utter frustration in many cases.
We do. The farm leaders who have negotiated on their behalf understand that too but they are willing to recommend this deal because it is a basis for a way forward. It is not an end in itself. It is a means to deliver a better beef sector that can, as I stated earlier, empower farmers to be able to demand not only better prices by negotiating collectively through producer organisations, but also better conditions around the timing of delivery, etc., as opposed to simply being price takers at a time when factories want their product. The whole point of producer organisations is to try to equalise that relationship in terms of how and when supply happens, at what cost and under what conditions. That is essentially what we need to try to create in this sector.
The Government is trying to provide three key pillars for beef and the beef sector in the future to ensure that family farming remains a key feature, and in many ways the heartbeat, of rural Ireland into the future. The first is there needs to be decent financial support coming from Government and from the EU. This is a deal, essentially, between food consumers and food producers, where taxpayers need to pay farmers to ensure that the standards of environmental protection and food safety, and animal husbandry considerations, etc., are part of the food chain. I have always argued that the CAP is a great deal for taxpayers and consumers given the quality of the food that they get in return for it. The second area is about producer organisations, which I am a big believer in, and the third is to ensure that we continue to diversify and develop new markets internationally.
Looking at financial supports, I do not have time to talk about all the different schemes that are in place now but they are significant. They range from the beef data and genomics programmes to a €4 billion rural development programme, direct payments under CAP and GLAS, areas of natural constraints, ANCs, etc. When there are specific challenges to the sector, as we have seen from the impact of Brexit even though it has not yet happened, that has driven prices down. We have seen an exceptional aid measure come forward from the European Commission - a fund, of course, that was matched by the Irish taxpayer also.
As we negotiate a future CAP, we need to ensure that we protect the budget as best we can. The proposed 5% cut in the budget is something that we, along with many other EU countries, are anxious and determined to try to reverse to ensure that we still have a CAP package for the next period of CAP of approximately €12 billion to support rural economies, farmers and farm families as we have done in the past.
Producer organisations are something that, when I was Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, we were talking about and trying to generate. We had a beef forum then too where we looked at all the issues that were discussed and debated, and in some cases agreed in terms of new thinking, on Sunday last. At that time, we were talking about the need to empower farmers as a collective. There is not much point in having 70,000 beef farmers, and another 30,000 who have some beef as part of their farm operations, if they are all individual price-takers selling animals, one by one, into the factories when the factories want them, when there is not an oversupply, etc. Farmers have the power in their hands if they organise in a way that creates a collective strength. One cannot have one producer organisation - that would be anti-competitive - but one can certainly have five or six where there are large numbers of farmers with a professional management team managing the sale of their produce, negotiating directly with factories around conditions and price. That can empower the producer in a way that we have never seen previously. That is something that we have to make work, in particular, with farming organisations, but also individual farmers. We know that works. If one looks at the impact on the dairy side of co-operatives in how they work, lobby and guarantee certain price floors, etc., for their members, we can do the same with producer organisations in beef, and the facilities are there to do that, and the next round of the Common Agricultural Policy can financially support that too in terms of the cost of setting them up. I would encourage enthusiasm, but also making it a priority for Government to deliver on the potential of producer organisations, and we already have one fully recognised.
The other point I would make is in terms of market development. I compliment the Minister, Deputy Creed, and, indeed, the Minister of State, Deputy Andrew Doyle, on this. Since April 2017, we have seen beef access into China. We have seen beef, as well as pork, access into the Ukraine. We have seen beef and sheepmeat, and poultry, access into Qatar and Kuwait and we have seen significant steps forward in terms of Japan, Israel, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and South Africa. The work continues but we face an immediate crisis.
The question is, can we collectively solve it in the interests of farmers and their future so that we can look ahead to the next challenge on the horizon that we face linked to Brexit? Believe me, it is a big challenge. In my view, together we can overcome that too, but we need to get over the immediate challenges we face today that seriously threaten the viability of this sector.
I know that. The Ceann Comhairle may cut me off when he has to.
We have heard the debate and the discussion. We have heard that, despite what Fianna Fáil brought before this House in the spring, no action was taken. I fear we are on the verge of losing major markets. We are on the verge of several farm families' health being seriously damaged. We are on the verge of people, with considerable borrowings taken out for lorries to draw meat, collapsing. We are on the verge of a significant crisis in this area.
We need to get the producer group in there with the producers. It will have power. The producers need to give a little bit. I plead here this evening to the producer group, and to those on the gates, to stand back. There is a narrow window of opportunity. We can get over the line but it will take understanding. It will take sincerity. It will take a big step by both sides to be men and women up to doing the right thing. That is my plea this evening. There is a lot to be discussed and there is a lot at stake.
The beef crisis that we have seen in this country in recent weeks is unprecedented. Farming is in an extremely difficult place. The price of beef is unsustainable. Farmers are operating at below cost. One can buy a steak in supermarkets for €3. There is something wrong there. It is a cheap food policy and farmers are suffering as a result. With Brexit coming down the tracks and the Mercosur deal that the Government signed our country up to, farmers will be under increasing pressure for years to come.
We need to look at the policy at an EU level as well. If we want sustainable food produced within the European Union to feed EU citizens that is of good quality under good regulations, we need to pay for it. We cannot pursue a cheap-food policy and look to import beef from other countries that we do not need and can produce here. That is a job for this country to fight for at an EU level.
As for the thousands of farmers we have seen protesting in recent weeks at factory gates, we have never seen the likes of it. There are farmers at those gates who felt they had nothing to lose. They were at a point where they were not making money. Their farms were not viable and they felt they had no option but to take to the picket line.
We heard reports from the Central Bank that if Brexit goes badly - that is a distinct possibility now - one third of farms in this country could go under. Many of those farms are sustaining rural communities right across the country. Many are in my constituency of County Mayo. If we want to sustain rural Ireland and our way of life and if we want money in local economies and farm families protected, the Government needs to act now.
Much has been talked about in the past two days. The Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, sat through the whole lot of it. The Minister, Deputy Creed, was here all day yesterday.
Everybody is aware of the issues. What we want now is a final solution. We are 90% of the way there. A lot of good work has been done. In order to finalise it and get the industry open again, what is needed, as has been alluded to by Deputies Eugene Murphy and Rabbitte, is a phone call from Meat Industry Ireland to the producer organisations set up by the Beef Plan Movement. This would show good faith that they are willing to negotiate and talk about price, which is what it is all about. If that happens, I believe all pickets will be lifted and the industry will get back to some sort of normality. The Tánaiste pointed out the very important issues coming down the road. We need this issue out of the way before Brexit negotiations and Mercosur kick into action. The Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, is a practical man and I know he entered into this in good faith. I am asking him and the Minister, Deputy Creed, to use their good offices to impress on Meat Industry Ireland that one phone call is all that is needed, for one single person to make a call in good faith to the producer organisation that is set up, to solve the issue for now and get the industry back moving again. I plead with the Minister and Minister of State to use their offices to make this happen.
The motion today is similar in content to previous ones introduced by Fianna Fáil. I thank Deputies McConalogue and Cahill. The issue is being introduced again now, when the beef industry is in total turmoil. It should not have come to this. Government intervention was late coming. I acknowledge the recent work undertaken by the Minister, Deputy Creed, assisted by the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle. Late intervention has led to the demand for a more specific detailed document. That is why we still have beef producers at the factory gates. Without even referring to price, we see how the credibility of Bord Bia has been undermined and that is a real worry in itself. Deputy Penrose has often referred to the issue of supply and demand and whether the markets exist, yet Phil Hogan allows the Mercosur deal, which gives access to European markets for Brazilian beef, and gets rewarded with a promotion. Also, there is no mention of the effect of climate change in South America, while Government-sponsored agencies are advocating a reduced suckler cow beef regime in this island. It is the Government that is causing a divide in the farming community. We have a Tánaiste in the House who, not so long ago, as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, was telling the tillage farmers to get out of that business and go milking cows.
To get farmers to change their practices creates fierce capital costs. We do not want a scene with no beef producers because we want to make sure there are dealers still around the mart rings to buy the cows from the farmers. If we lose them, this country is in big trouble. It is not so many years ago that some well-known beef processors were in financial difficulties and the word was that a cheque from Anglo-Irish Beef Processors, AIBP, would definitely bounce. Beef processors have come a long way since, and maybe the competition authority should have been more proactive in ensuring that a cartel situation was not in the making. One has to ask if there is a cartel there. I see hauliers today taking loads of livestock - beef, cattle - from Cork all the way to Donegal for a better price. The haulage costs are covered. However, the big processors in the south of Ireland do not seem to be able to buy these cattle. I ask the Minister of State to go back to Meat Industry Ireland to see if something can be done to get protestors off the picket lines. Many livelihoods are at stake. I must mention the factory workers who also provide an invaluable contribution to local economies.
I thank everyone who contributed to the debate. I thank Sinn Féin and Deputy Naughten for their amendments, which we will be accepting. As everyone has outlined, the debates today and yesterday take place at a time of grave uncertainty for our beef sector and great difficulty for the farming community. What we have seen over the last weeks needs to lead to a total change in the relationships within the beef supply chain. There is a need to ensure that farmers become respected, that they actually get full information and are a key partner in how beef is priced and in respect of the margin they get in it, that they are no longer trampled upon as has been their feeling and experience for many years now. There is a clear understanding that the agreement from the weekend offers a basis to move forward. However, in terms of the prices factories are offering to farmers, we also need to see the factories ensuring that the base price is the best possible price that can be offered, given the market circumstances and the background. They need to understand that farmers must be given fair play.
We also need to see the Government do its part and start listening to the farming community. That certainly has not been the case up until now. Many debates and motions have been put forward by ourselves and other parties to which the Government has not responded. In tonight's motion, we also call for more action from the Government on live exports and a commitment on gaining additional funds from Europe to help support the losses farmers have experienced in recent months. The Tánaiste is here tonight. He is in Europe very regularly and, while there has not been any commitment from him tonight in this regard, I emphasise that we need to hear him say he will go to the European Commission and seek to deliver further funding. The beef exceptional aid measure, BEAM, fund that was in place covers a reference period of September to May. Prices have been worse since then. The Government needs to make a contribution to support the income of farmers for the losses they have already experienced in the past few months. We have not heard that tonight. Overall, the lesson has to be that everyone must work together. Farmers, who are the foundation of our food industry, must be respected for being just that. They must not be treated as cannon fodder or expected to carry a loss while everybody else and the national Exchequer benefit from the hard work they carry out.