Thursday, 26 September 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement matter, which deals with the appointment by the Minister of new agricultural attachés in the Irish embassy network, and I welcome the Minister. It has been a difficult time for agriculture and for the Minister, given the current Brexit situation. More than 50% of Irish beef is exported to the UK. Irrespective of the outcome of Brexit and its impact, we will have to develop new markets for beef, as well as for other meat and the wider agricultural sector. Reductions in the volume of beef exports are inevitable as a result of Brexit. While it is great to have a market in the United Kingdom, there is an over-reliance on it. Any reduction in the size of the market and the sale of beef will affect the farm gate, that is, family farm income and the people involved directly or indirectly in the beef sector, as all Senators will agree.
Rural communities and farmers in recent times have felt threatened and vulnerable as a result of the beef crisis, which was demonstrated when they picketed. We hope the action is now permanently suspended and I thank all the people who were involved. I welcome the establishment of a producers' organisation, which is important, and I acknowledge the role of the Minister, his officials and his Department. It has not been an easy time for anyone working in agriculture. It is important for everyone involved in the industry to move on, but to do so on the basis that we recognise there must be a fair distribution, and value for the family farm and the primary producers of beef.
It is important that wherever beef is sold, whether in Beijing or Ireland, the product of Irish beef has a great reputation. We have traceability, as the Minister knows. The integrity of Bord Bia is critical to the overall strategy for marketing beef internationally. The number of people who contacted me during the dispute about the repackaging of beef in England was disturbing. We must never compromise the Bord Bia brand. The breaking of seals, or repackaging or rebranding, poses questions. I do not suggest that it is the only issue but people want to maintain the integrity of the Bord Bia brand. We know about the traceability of Irish beef, the integrity of the brand of Bord Bia, and that the animals are primarily grass fed, which is critical. I welcome any initiative that brings together the North and South. The island of Ireland can work pragmatically together to promote agriculture and, primarily, the beef sector because it is so important. As we move forward in our political maturity, we need to wake up to the fact we have a unique selling point on the island of Ireland in marketing Irish produce and beef.
That brings me to my question for the Minister. What is his vision for the attachés and their role? I am aware he intends to reappoint people but that he will also expand the presence of such attachés in places as far away as Mexico.That is all positive news, but it is really important that we remain focused. We need to develop new markets for agricultural products so that ultimately we can improve the income of family farms. When responding, the Minister might set out who is going to be appointed and the countries in which they will be based and also his strategy for the expansion and development of new markets for Irish agriculture, particularly beef.
The pursuit and development of new markets for Irish agrifood exports continues to be an ongoing and central component of the strategic development of our agrifood sector. This is evidenced by its placement at the centre of Food Wise 2025, the industry’s strategy for development over the coming decade. The need to diversify our markets and to reduce our reliance on traditional destinations has been an ongoing objective of my
Food Wise 2025 outlines the potential for growth in agrifood exports to new and emerging markets, particularly Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Gulf region. Our efforts will be focused here for the foreseeable future. This is not in any way to diminish our commitment to existing traditional and long established markets. Accordingly, my Department is currently implementing ambitious plans to expand its presence globally by appointing agricultural attachés to new key market locations. These are informed primarily by Bord Bia's market prioritisation research and the appointments are taking place against the backdrop of the wider expansion of Ireland's global footprint, which is planned under the Government's Global Ireland 2025 initiative. The latter represents the most ambitious renewal and expansion of Ireland's international presence ever undertaken in terms of diplomacy, culture, business, overseas aid, tourism and trade.
In 2019, three new attaché posts have been added to the Irish embassy network in Berlin, Tokyo and Mexico City. This brings to 11 the number of locations in which agriculture attachés are stationed. In addition to these new posts, we are in the process of recruiting local hires in various locations where local knowledge and specialist expertise can support our market access and trade development initiatives. Trade promotion and negotiations, together with market access development, will make up the bulk of the activities in these new roles. Their activities will be carried out in close co-operation with Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland, operating in accordance with the well-established team Ireland template.
The development of key relationships at political and official levels, as appropriate, will also be an important part of their remit. My experience over the past number of years on trade missions to emerging markets has been that such contacts are crucial to Ireland's efforts to gain new market access and to widen and broaden our existing levels of trade, both in value and volume terms. These new appointments will complement and build on the outstanding work being done by our attachés in Brussels, London, Paris, Rome, Geneva, Washington, Beijing and Abu Dhabi. The remit across these locations varies, with the balance between trade and policy work being struck in accordance with the priorities in each location. These appointments will be augmented by further expansion over the next few years as we refine and develop our market diversification strategy and make a further contribution to Global Ireland 2025. Plans are being advanced to appoint a new attaché to the embassy in Seoul and other locations are at an early stage of consideration.
I thank the Minister for his reply and I welcome his commentary regarding the diversification of the market, which is really important. In light of the ongoing debate in respect of Brexit and our over-concentration on the UK market, with, as already stated, over 50% of our beef being exported to that jurisdiction, we have to diversify. This point was echoed by the Minister. He also outlined his strategy in that regard. I particularly welcome that it is proposed to appoint an attaché with agriculture responsibility to our embassy in Seoul, Korea. That is good news. It is important that the Minister's officials get that news into the public domain. In all the debate and confusion, we sometimes we lose sight of the strategic message which the Minister elaborated today in terms of the plans to diversify and seek new markets beyond Europe. That, too, is really positive news. I thank the Minister for coming to the House and giving us that news. We need to get that message into publications and on websites, such as The Farmers' Journal, AgriLand.ie, etc., in order that people will know that new markets are being pursued. I do not doubt that this is happening but sometimes the message gets lost among the farming community. Nonetheless, I welcome the news and I thank the Minister for attending.
I will give the Senator an interesting statistic, which I think neatly summaries the distance we have travelled. In 2010, the value of Irish agrifood exports outside of the European Union was €1.8 billion. In 2018, this value was closer to €3.5 billion such that in a relatively short time there has been substantial progress made in terms of gaining a foothold in these emerging markets. In regard to Food Wise 2025 and the regions referred to earlier, the Asian market in particular was identified as one where there is a growing middle-class population with increasing levels of disposable income and westernised dietary habits. This presents opportunities for us.
In the context of the success we are having and the impetus that is necessary in this area in light of the UK's decision to leave the European Union, I am conscious of the concerns of the primary producers in terms of where they gain in all of this. The challenge is to ensure we sustain the edifice that has become the export value and volume of Irish agrifood in 180 different countries worldwide. It is critical that we maintain the supply base. We can only do that by ensuring that those involved in primary production are getting a just shake-out. That is challenging. We have had issues in recent days and weeks regarding the challenges in the beef sector. I would like to think that was a watershed moment. Business as usual will not cut it in that context. We need to remain conscious of that as we set about creating a new framework for a partnership approach that is very different to what we have had up to now.