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Monday 25 March 2019

Darragh McCullough: Why that tedious Bord Bia paperwork could be Brexit insurance policy for beef farmers

Darragh McCullough eats, sleeps and lives farming. Photo: David Conachy
Darragh McCullough eats, sleeps and lives farming. Photo: David Conachy
Paul And Gary O'Donovan Team Up With Bord Bia To Launch Bord Bia Quality Assured Eggs, UCD Rowing Club, Islandbridge, Dublin 26/10/2016 Pic: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Is Bord Bia now officially every farmer's favourite punchbag? Almost every farmer I meet has a tale of woe about audits and the expense and the lack of return.

For Irish farmers, the State body is in danger of becoming what the EU represented in Brexiteers' minds - the ultimate scapegoat.

Living in a fairly intensive horticultural area has probably skewed my experience. While livestock and tillage farmers are also 'quality assured' by Bord Bia, the audits for fresh produce growers have taken a serious jump in terms of paperwork and requirements over the last year.

I put myself through the whole process a few months ago, and must admit that the stack of paperwork to get through was a pretty daunting process.

You put aside a day to get through it, but feel thoroughly defeated by the end of the first day when you still only have 20pc of the 146-page risk assessment pack completed.

Each of the 200-plus questions are serious mouthfuls in their own right.

"Did the producer carry out a risk assessment of all fertilisers such that the risk to human health, to animal health as well as to the environment is minimised and is also compliant with the Nitrates Regulation" is just one of them.

Even the explainer pack that comes with it is nearly 100 pages long.

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Some of the stuff is plain silly. The requirement for "evidence detailing the chemical content (including heavy metals) for all inorganic fertilisers used on the crops grown" produced a ridiculous document from my local merchant that had obviously been cooked up for exactly this kind of exercise many times before.

If you buy 10:10:20 surely it's adequate to state that it contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium at the relevant percentages?

Despite the effort required, there was a voice in the back of my head that readily accepted the painstaking documentation of every element applied to every crop.

When more and more of the public are convinced that commercial farmers are harming the environment in the normal course of their business, the onus is on the producer to be able to prove that they have nothing to hide.

Don't get me wrong - this is clearly an additional expense being borne by the producer.

Saving grace

But rather than cursing the darkness, I'm of the opinion that this is just another cost that has to be factored into the business if we want to stay in the game.

In an ironic way, it is all this paperwork that may ultimately be the saving grace for farmers exposed to the full brunt of global competition through political machinations of Brexit.

I can't see British housewives suddenly deciding that they don't really care what standards their beef is being produced to after March 29.

Granted, the anonymous world of food service where all kinds of everything can be fired into a kebab or curry will welcome cheaper alternatives with open arms.

But when the modern consumer spends less of their income on the food they put in their mouths than their monthly Sky subscription, I can't see them getting worked up over the fact that the meat they trust most suddenly costs a few pounds more. The only way for Irish farmers to keep clear water between themselves and the Brazilian feedlots is by jumping through ever higher hoops to prove that they actually have a lower carbon footprint, higher welfare standards and lower antibiotic use.

Or we could just rely on the research being commissioned by Bord Bia to figure out how to brand beef from the suckler herd.

Beef farmers have long bemoaned the fact that Bord Bia was returning nothing for the additional bureaucracy imposed on farmers.

But achieving the holy grail of creating a premium around suckler beef is going to be no easy task. First of all, how many people unconnected with farming have any idea what a suckler actually is?

That hurdle immediately torpedoes two of the three slogans being trialled -'sustainable suckler beef' and 'wholesome suckler beef'.

Taste test

The remaining slogan 'Better bred - superior taste' throws up some interesting questions, too.

From what I remember, Teagasc taste tests showed that beef from the dairy herd was just as succulent and flavoursome as beef from the suckler herd.

I wonder if consumers might be more concerned about whether the emissions from the beef are better or worse than beef from another system?

Again, I would wager that the emissions diluted by milk output might make the beef from the dairy herd a more sustainable option.

It's probably because of all these grey areas that Bord Bia have long-fingered trying something like this for so long. Maybe the auld stack of paperwork that the modern audit generates is actually the easiest way after all to protect the premiums that Irish beef needs to hold on to now more than ever?

Darragh McCullough farms in Meath and presents RTÉ's Ear to the Ground television programme

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