Ireland is applying the same determination to getting the right deal on the EU budget for 2021 to 2027 as it is on Brexit, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.
Addressing a conference in Dublin where a strategy for the agrifood industry up to 2030 was being discussed, Mr Varadkar said the Government was “very busy building alliances” to protect the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and to ensure it continues to be well funded.
As a consequence, he said the State was prepared to contribute more to the EU budget, but this was not unconditional as successful programmes such as CAP, the Horizon research strategy and Erasmus education programme would have to be retained. Mr Varadkar said the CAP had given Ireland food security and the people of Europe relatively inexpensive quality food.
He accepted the CAP had to be much greener as voters, taxpayers and consumers were demanding that emissions associated with farming be reduced. These groups also wanted to see the adoption of renewable energy and efforts to promote biodiversity with financial supports “to make it worthwhile to do so”.
The Taoiseach said Ireland had to reduce its agricultural emissions but the fact it was an island producing food for others had to be taken into account. He said it was easier to address transport and energy emissions but that food production was different and this would have to be taken into account in post-2030 emissions targets.
He said a plan to plant 400 million trees in Ireland over the next 20 years was doable if every landowner, including the State and public sector, did their bit.
Mr Varadkar said the Mercosur trade deal between the EU and a union of South American countries would be bad for the Irish beef sector but beneficial for the dairy and drinks sectors.
He said Ireland would stand firm on food safety and traceability standards on products coming into the EU after the deal. If it was in contravention of the Paris climate agreement or failed to protect the Amazon rainforest, he said Ireland and other states would vote against it at European Council level.
The Mercosur process could coincide with talks on a new free trade agreement with the UK, so Ireland would have to box clever and should not be arguing for one over the other as the State could “potentially win the battle on Mercosur and lose the war when it comes to the UK market”.
The Taoiseach praised the resilience, desire for excellence and innovation of the agrifood sector. The activity in it, the multinational sector and tourism during the recession “saved Ireland from a permanent depression”.
He acknowledged difficulties in recent years, especially for the beef sector, but believed the recent agreement reached to end farmer blockades of meat plants was a good one, and that the Beef Taskforce should be allowed do its work. The first meeting of the taskforce was halted when farmers would not allow those representing processors into the Department of Agriculture.
Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed said the new agrifood strategy would have a central aim of protecting primary producers and family farms.
“Each successive strategy has attached greater importance to environmental sustainability,” he said, adding that this was “complementary to economic development”.
He said the dairy sector was globally competitive and forging ahead, but that changes in consumer trends did pose challenges.
Mr Creed said iIt was possible to meet climate change targets without impacting on the national herd size provided there was buy-in.
“One way or another we are going to meet the targets. Agriculture is part of the solution.”