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Fintan O'Toole: Too many claims about Irish beef are pure bull

If the Irish beef industry is to fight off competition from Brazil, it has to be more credible in its claims to the moral high ground

Last Saturday, just as word was coming through of a deal to allow large amounts of South American beef into the EU, RTÉ was showing its Reeling in the Years archive programme for 1966.

A large chunk of it was given over to footage of that year's huge protests by farmers, triggered by falling prices for milk and beef. The young princeling of Fianna Fáil, Charles Haughey, was under pressure as minister for agriculture. Farm leaders sat for 21 days and nights outside his departmental offices demanding a meeting.

Later that winter, about 100 farmers spent time in jail when they refused to pay fines for obstruction. The protests didn’t do much for milk and beef prices but they did establish the farming lobby as a political force that no Irish government could afford to ignore.

The farm lobby may not be what it once was, but no Irish government has ever lost the fear of its wrath

Late the night before, this old black-and-white footage was dragged again from the vaults. The reason was that the EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström had signed a deal with the Mercosur group of countries (Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil) that will, if ratified, eventually allow 99,000 tonnes of cheap South American beef into the European market annually.

The Taoiseach and the Minister for Agriculture were quick to echo criticisms from the farming organisations and the beef processors that this would drive down prices for Irish beef. (The Irish Farmers Association claims a possible annual loss of between €500 and €750 million.)

The farm lobby may not be what it once was, but no Irish government has ever lost the fear of its wrath. The danger, though, is that in telling farmers what they want to hear, governments tend to avoid telling them what they need to know.

There are, admittedly, good reasons to be concerned. Brazil and Argentina between them have 283 million cattle. In Brazil in particular, the environmental price of cheap beef is astronomical, all the more so under its appalling new president Jair Bolsonaro. He has declared open season for the theft of rain forest land from its indigenous inhabitants and the clearing of vast areas to make way for yet more cattle ranches.

There are huge questions about whether the EU’s proposed trade deal will do anything to stop this planetary-scale catastrophe – it may well accelerate it. But the problem for Irish farmers and the Government is that outrage at the Mercosur deal is not going to be very persuasive unless they face the fact that Irish beef production has its own deep-seated problems, including its environmental sustainability.

Conflict

Beef cattle may be our sacred cows, but it is not for nothing that our great classical epic, the Táin, is a conflict over bulls. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Irish nationalism’s favourite target, after the British, was “ranchers”.

The shift from tillage to beef production was seen as a blight on the countryside – cattle were replacing people. (Between 1841 and 1981, the human population of the 26 counties declined from 6.5 million to 3.4 million while the cattle population rose from 1.8 million to 6.9 million.) The cattle boat to England, with people on the top deck and livestock down below, dramatised the link between the growth of the national herd and the decline of the nation.

The scale of the Irish beef operation is impressive

And in some respects, the beef industry has never quite settled down as a comfortable presence in Ireland. In the first half of the 1990s, domestic politics were riven by its scandals, which contributed to the fall of two governments and did a great deal to end the political careers of both Haughey and his successor Albert Reynolds.

Yet, the structure of the industry barely changed as a result: it is still dominated by Larry Goodman’s Anglo Irish Beef Processors (now called ABP Food Group) even though the company was found by a long-running tribunal of inquiry to have engaged in systematic tax evasion and large-scale abuse of both EU intervention schemes and of export credit insurance.

There is no suggestion that these practices have continued (as Colm Keena revealed in The Irish Times this week, lawful tax avoidance has replaced unlawful tax evasion) but the preservation of the same dominance through all the upheavals is a remarkable testament to the industry’s conservatism.

The scale of the Irish beef operation is impressive. It sustains 13,000 jobs. McDonald’s alone buys 40,000 tonnes of Irish beef every year, which puts the 99,000 of Latin American beef at issue now into perspective.

But this bulk commodity export system is also highly problematic. Irish farming is far too dependent on beef – 57 per cent of all farms are specialist beef producers and over 90,000 farms have beef cattle on them.

There is an excess of cattle, leading to a continuation and indeed a growth of live cattle exports, the most primitive form of agricultural trade. Some 143,000 live calves were exported in the first four months of 2019, compared with 107,813 in the same period in 2018 (a 33 per cent increase). This growth in the beef herd is an unplanned by-product of the lifting of EU quotas on milk production – more dairy cows means more male calves that were not bred for beef but are no good for anything else.

‘Vulnerable’

Most of this beef farming is not commercially viable. If we exclude the direct farm subsidies paid from the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP), the bottom 60 per cent of all Irish beef farms lose money – for the bottom 20 per cent, the loss is 179 per hectare per year.

Even with subsidies, 39 per cent of all Irish cattle farms are classified as “vulnerable”, meaning that they not viable in themselves and the farmer has to have another job. (Forty per cent of cattle farmers work off-farm, making them effectively part-timers.)

Beef consumption is very likely to fall in Europe

And much of this is not socially sustainable either. An astonishing 23 per cent of cattle farm operators live alone. The image of the lonely old bachelor farmer that haunts so much of 20th-century Irish literature – Patrick Kavanagh’s Patrick Maguire being the embodiment of the condition – still has some reality.

And hanging over all of this is not the threat of South American beef but the much larger question of environmental sustainability. Beef consumption is very likely to fall in Europe as consumers switch away from meat for health and ethical reasons – all those generic McDonald’s Irish beef burgers are not going to appeal to a vegan and vegetarian food culture.

If Irish beef is to survive as a viable industry, it will do so by being able to credibly brand itself as a “natural” grass-fed product, which it is, and as environmentally sustainable, which it is not.

Even for EU subsidies, being green will be a necessity: the new CAP will link 40 per cent of funding to climate-friendly practices. But if Irish beef producers really want to distinguish themselves in the marketplace from Brazilian imports, they will have to be able to show that their green credentials are serious.

How's that going? The average Irish cattle farm emitted 141.2 tonnes of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases in 2017. Emissions of greenhouse gases from Irish cattle were 18.7 million tonnes in 2005, 20.2 million tonnes in 2017 and Teagasc projections for 2030 suggest a figure of 21 million tonnes.

Unless that trend is radically reversed, claims of the moral high ground for Irish beef will be treated as so much bull.

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