Brussels has 'sold us a pup' on quality standards and imports
Published 21/09/2016 | 02:30
Europe has sold us a pup on agriculture and the tillage farmer is first in line to take the pain. Brussels' cheap food policy and a plethora of quality assurance schemes has convinced consumers that any food that comes in a nicely packaged labelled container.
We now have the ludicrous situation where a motorist will not buy diesel from an unknown supplier but will purchase a sandwich which contains bread, meats and vegetables of unknown origin.
What EU official asks if the contents are fully traceable and did the animal that produced the beef have a tag?
Some of our more discerning consumers have opted to become vegetarians or vegans for whom there is a whole range of pre-prepared meals and meat substitutes that contain a list of ingredients as long as your arm without any country of origin or quality standard specified.
We largely rely on confirmation by the country of origin that foodstuffs meet their standards; not ours. Imports are therefore contributing to cheap food but are they being produced to European standards?
Europe is highly reliant on the importation of feedstuffs, particularly for vegetable proteins. Most of the imported feedstuffs (maize, cotton, soybean, oilseed rape, sugar beet) are from varieties produced by biotechnology techniques to give resistance to pests, tolerance to herbicides, drought resistance, alteration of reproductive tissue and improvement of quality or nutritional value.
Currently, there is only one maize variety that has been genetically modified (GMO) and authorised for cultivation in Europe (Spain), but there are 60 GMOs authorised for importation. Yet our grain has to compete with the GMOs for inclusion in animal feedstuffs.
It is now uneconomic for both European and Irish farmers to compete on price alone. Other European farmers have and are diversifying away from feed grains to higher value markets - distilling, malt, bread, energy production.
Those options are very limited to the Irish farmer. For survival we must look to and get paid for the higher standard grain we are producing.
To do that we need greater support from the EU and the Irish Government, from the grain merchant/compounder, the quality assurance schemes; the pesticide and machinery manufactures, from your fellow farmers from yourselves and from the European consumer. We need greater action from Europe to reduce to need for the importation of feedstuffs and develop European production of vegetable protein.
As long as that requirement is met by imports the incentive for innovation is stifled.
Currently, Irish beef farmers are preparing "Carbon Navigators" and while a reduction in concentrate feeding is highlighted as reducing carbon emissions there is no reference to the fact that the carbon footprint of locally-produced feedstuffs is considerably lower than that of product imported from outside of the EU.
Has Europe also forgotten one of its founding principals - security of food supply? Is food importation sustainable?
Currently, our grain merchants appear to be attempting to maintain historic margins in selling grain on to other merchants - €10/t of that would give grain growers a substantial lift.
We also need merchants to provide a facility to forward buy fertiliser at current prices with payment next harvest. We need the Grain Quality Assurance Scheme to lift the ban on Biosolids and for Origin Green to put a maximum inclusion rate on imported feedstuffs and restrictions on produce that is not permitted for cultivation in Europe.
Pesticide prices must be reduced and ideally linked to grain prices.
The justification for high-specification machinery needs to be reviewed and greater emphasis placed on contractor services. While I have previously referred to the potential for machinery rings, with no response, I still believe that they have a lot to offer.
The cost and availability of machinery parts will become a greater issue in the event of reduced new machinery replacement.
Grain growers need the support of animal feeders and for them to insist on inclusion of Irish grain in Irish Rations - IFA campaign. Loss of grain area would make more land available for grass but reduce straw availability and leave them totally dependent on feedstuffs from outside of Europe.
Grain growers must look to reducing machinery costs and to do away with expensive conacre.
Finally, the European consumer needs to become more quality conscious and to question the wisdom of allowing the consumption of food and feedstuffs, which our regulators do not consider suitable for production on European farmland.
We will be much better off taking a chance with the diesel and checking out the quality of the sandwich.
PJ Phelan is a tillage advisor based in Tipperary and is a member of the ACA and ITCA.