False dichotomy has been established between beef farming and environmentalism

Creating a sustainable and just transition in beef farming requires political leadership

The Government and various representative bodies have finally agreed on an emissions ceiling of 25 per cent for the agriculture sector. Now the challenge is to implement it. And there are hundreds of ways to skin a cat. Or calf in this case.

There are about 80,000 specialist beef farms in Ireland – concentrated in the north and west – accounting for more than half of all farms. They will be among the hardest hit. Ireland exports 90 per cent of its beef and in 2018 exported 579,000 tonnes valued at €2.5 billion, accounting for more than 30 per cent of food and drink exports, according to Bord Bia. Four large beef-processing factories – ABP, Slaney Meats, Kepak Group and Dawn Meats – have driven the success of this industry and have profited handsomely from it.

Yet somehow, the farms themselves are not economically viable. The average size of a beef farm is relatively small at 34 hectares (84 acres) with an average income of €11,537 annually in 2019. In contrast, the average industrial wage was €40,283 and the minimum annual wage was €20,129.

Some 55 per cent of cattle farmers earn less than €10,000 annually and only 3 per cent earn more than €50,000. In other words, there are many small family-run farms and a few large corporate farms.

Beef prices set by processing plants have been in decline, dropping 12.5 per cent from 2018 to 2019, sparking the formation of Beef Plan Movement, which quickly attracted an estimated 20,000 members, suggesting that the farmers felt that the existing umbrella bodies did not adequately represent them. The distrust that farmers have of beef processing runs deep.

Even if beef farming were only an industry, it seems to be a badly run, financially unsustainable industry. Public subsidies are effectively keeping the farms going, while the processors reap the rewards. This is a pattern that also plays out globally: farmers in the global south go to bed hungry and food manufacturers in the northern hemisphere take home all the profits. So what can we do about it?

The climate crisis is an opportunity to shake up this inequitable and inefficient system, so that farmers actually play a viable role in farming

Policymakers and many of the larger representative or umbrella bodies frame beef farming exclusively as an industry focusing only on economic factors. The farmers themselves, and the communities in which they live and work, see farming as a business, but also as a way of life, a family and community tradition, an identity, a culture, history and so much more. The problem with a narrow economic perspective is that it silences much of the complexity and richness that could make or break a successful transition to a sustainable future.

In 2020, we conducted qualitative research at Trinity College Dublin on beef farming in Ireland and how it could make a transition to a sustainable future. After months of desk research, it was clear that small farmers’ voices were not well represented in existing reports and studies, yet they made up the majority of farms and would be deeply affected by any policy change that would be made.

We found in our interviews with smaller actors a clear desire for farmers to be an active and positive part of a transition to sustainable farming. As one farmer said, “There is a willingness to change because you are done for if you don’t.” We also found extreme pressure, frustration, distrust and anger. And we found some clues for how to move forward.

The climate crisis is an opportunity to shake up this inequitable and inefficient system, so that farmers actually play a viable role in farming. That should not be too much to ask. But it does require political leadership to facilitate engagement with a wider group of stakeholders, and an understanding of just transition.

Just transition means that the actors who are most affected by the transition are involved in discussions on what should happen, how this should happen, and what kinds of supports and compensation might be appropriate. Equally, the actors who have benefited most from unsustainable systems have the strongest obligations to address the transition to sustainability.

There are three steps in a just transition: recognition, participation and redistribution. First, recognise all the actors involved, as well as the power of those actors. Take extra steps to uncover the voices that are not heard, those with less power. Then a process is designed and facilitated that gives voice to the less powerful actors who are at the centre of the policy change. Including a wider range of voices avoids one narrow perspective dominating increasing the chances that the outcome is innovative, accepted and acceptable, and thus implemented. Finally, redistribution can be discussed, that is, who pays, and who and what is compensated for.

Applying this to the current context, Government needs to facilitate engagement with a wider range of voices, especially small beef farms, adopt participatory approaches to the policy formation process, and ensure that they push beyond traditional bodies to reach the voices and perspectives of communities more broadly. For example, 12 per cent of Irish farmers are women, and far more women than that work on farms without any formal recognition for their work.

A false dichotomy has been established between beef farming and environmentalism. Our research shows that the division is more based on power. Policymakers and farming organisations with power focusing almost exclusively on economics, leaving out the smaller less-powerful actors, most of the farmers themselves, who will be deeply affected by any changes, and have much of the knowledge and ability to offer realistic and tractable solutions to the climate crisis that we all face.

Sheila Cannon is assistant professor in social entrepreneurship at TCD, Susan P Murphy is lecturer in development practice at TCD and Lyndsay Walsh is climate policy adviser at Oxfam