Cowen pledges to support farmers


Minister for Finance Brian Cowen yesterday pledged continuing Government support for, and confidence in, the agriculture sector when he opened the National Livestock Show at Charleville, Tullamore.

He said that he "did not wear a beard and was not Santa Claus" and while there would be problems there was now a greater degree of confidence in agriculture since the parameters had been set out for the road ahead.

"We can take some confidence in the ability of Government to negotiate for those involved in Irish agriculture at European or WTO [ World Trade Organisation] level. The ability of Ireland to represent the particular structure of Irish agriculture is strong," he said.

Mr Cowen said pessimists had been proven wrong, time and time again. The ability of Irish farmers to adapt and change to new conditions had been demonstrated many times and what was on display in Tullamore was evidence of a pursuit of excellence.

There was ample evidence that Irish agriculture had improved its quality and its excellence.

He said that there would be problems ahead but it behoved all to work together to ensure agriculture remained a strong part of the Irish economy and the major support structure for rural Ireland.

It was necessary to work together to generate a quality product in an environmentally sensitive way. This was not just for the primary producer but for other sectors in the industry as well.

He described as "reductionist" the view that farmers were merely protectors of the environment and this was a view he did not share.

"Farmers are here today providing the kind of quality stock that can compare with any agricultural country in the world. That is something we need to emphasise and keep foremost in our minds," he said.

He pledged to work with the farm organisations as he had done in the past and said his door would always be open to them.

One of those farm leaders, John Dillon, the president of the Irish Farmers Organisation, condemned the "excessive bureaucracy and over-regulation imposed by the Department of Agriculture and Food" which he said had closed down two-thirds of the small abattoirs in the State and removed essential competition from the meat and livestock trade in the home market.

Continuing his campaign against Brazilian beef imports, Mr Dillon said concrete steps had to be taken to win back the 30 per cent of the domestic beef market worth €70 million, which had been lost.

"The facts are the department has closed down over 500 small abattoirs since the early 1990s with only 276 now left in operation. At the same time beef imports have increased dramatically to 30,000 tonnes last year and now account for almost one-third of our domestic beef markets," he said.

"The reality is the independent small abattoirs have been forced out of business and replaced by unmarked white vans delivering volumes of product of non-Irish origin to hotels, restaurants and catering outlets all over the country."

Mr Dillon alleged that much of the imported meat was sold to unsuspecting consumers as Irish and he urged Bord Bia to step up its Féile Bia campaign in all catering outlets.