In Ireland an increasing number of beef farmers, traditionally not organised into producer groups or coops, have started to get organised. Through the emergence of a beef plan, which puts them at odds with the established farming organisations, a new mood and fledgling movement is emerging.
Despite the central role agriculture is seen as playing in the Irish economy beef farming remains a largely marginal economic activity beset by multiple crises, with a predominantly self employed part time precarious work force. Average farm incomes in Ireland are over 31,000 euros but average beef farm incomes are less than half this at 12,600 euros.
The shocking income disparity between beef and other farm enterprises, particularly dairy farming is not a new development in Irish agriculture. However the crisis has came to a head in recent months as beef farmers organised protest meetings at livestock marts around Ireland. The focus at these meetings has been the issue of a small number of factories controlling the livestock trade and as a result the low prices paid to farmers. Other sentiments such as frustration at what some farmers see as the unfair focus on animal agriculture in discussions around climate change and more broadly the pervasive feeling of political abandonment among Irish beef farmers has also been expressed at meetings.
Prices, a common concern for every farmer, undoubtedly provide the core impetus for the current protests, but the discussion has opened a broader debate on various challenges facing the Irish beef industry as it addresses the issues caused by a small number of processors controlling the industry. The need for Irish agriculture to adapt to climate change without disproportionately affecting small beef farms dependent on low incomes will become all the more pressing as robust policy to tackle climate change becomes increasingly necessary.
Beef Processors vs Beef Plan
The Irish beef industry is largely controlled by 3 large processors, APB, Keepack, and Dawn meats who are responsible for the majority beef production in Ireland. While Ireland has a clean green outdoor grazing image, it is also the case that there are increasing numbers of beef feedlots emerging. Producers such as Larry Goodman(owner of APB) also owns large feedlot style farms which supply their factories and that they receive large CAP payments for.
What sets the Beef Plan meetings apart for other price protests (a common feature of Irish agriculture) is that aside from simply protesting unfair prices the beef plan movement has proposed establishing farmer owned co ops to market and process Irish beef. Historically, the diary sector in Ireland established co-ops, and still benefits to this day from this development – dairy incomes are by a considerable distance the highest of an Irish agri sector.
The Beef Plans proposal calls for 2 million euro to be raised through the sale of shares at a proposed price of 5000 euro to, in the words of Beef Plan leader Eamonn Corley, give beef farmers an ‘alternative to begging factories to take our cattle’
This marks a radical solution to the usual response from farmer’s groups to price volatility – political lobbying and limited protests outside processors. What is also telling is that the beef plan movement since its beginning in September 2018 has emerged outside of the existing Irish farmers organisations such as the Irish Farmers Association.
Indeed some of the sentiments expressed at Beef Plan meetings go far beyond what the IFA is comfortable in supporting. Whereas the IFA is a broad based body representing all sectors but dominated by large farmer interests, particularly in the dairy sector, the beef plan is obviously focused on the beef sector, particularly the interests of small beef farmers who are most affected by the crisis in beef farming.
The over representation of part time farmers and smaller holdings in the beef sector has meant a sometimes tetchy relationship between the IFA’s and beef farmers. the IFA has been supportive of the approach of successive Irish governments who have pursued an agricultural policy based on increasing exports and expanding the size of farm holdings since Ireland joined the EU. Here the IFA is echoing the established wisdom of successive Irish governments who have pursued an agricultural policy based on increasing exports and expanding the size of farm holdings since Ireland joined the EU. In the 1970s the majority of Irish farms were less than 20 hectares, the average farm size is now over 32 hectares, at the same time Ireland has lost almost 140,000 farms. (For more historical figures from Irish farming, see here).
A Different Model for GHG Emissions
The Beef Plan’s focus on improving prices to give farmers control is also an effort to make smaller farms more viable, and giving farmers more control of the supply chain initially through producer groups and ultimately through farmer-owned cooperatives. The plan’s focus on promoting small farmers also includes a rejection of the high input beef production model common in modern European agriculture. Instead a spokesperson for the movement stated their goal is to ensure farmers are paid for “a premium product with the focus on grass fed suckler beef with a low carbon footprint”
Agriculture remains one of Ireland’s major polluters, accounting for a third of all Irish greenhouse gas emissions. In focusing on defending small, less intensive pasture based farmers the beef plan presents a possible opportunity to change Irish agriculture for the good of both farmers and the climate. While the beef plan isn’t specifically concerned with the environmental impact of Irish farming, by defending lower input beef farming the movement the movement is effectively opposing the official policy which has been pushed by the Irish Department of Agriculture, and has contributed significantly to Ireland’s failure to reduce emissions.
The Beef Plan movement has recently began meeting with representatives of the Irish government and is continuing to organise across the country. The movement has potential to radically change the face of Irish agriculture if it is successful in achieving its more ambitious aims. Importantly it also opens up space for a discussion on the future of Irish meat production which is not focused on continuously increasing exports – a discussion which is long overdue and if it is to be successful will need to include farmers at all stages and from all sectors.
For more from Brendan Conchuir see his blog.
More on Farming and Food in Ireland
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Letter from a Farm | Starting the Soil Health Journey in Ireland