Cap on bovine TB eradication payments floated by review

Access to Chinese markets for beef requires that live cattle for export must originate from farms which have not had any TB restrictions in the previous 12 months. Stock image
Access to Chinese markets for beef requires that live cattle for export must originate from farms which have not had any TB restrictions in the previous 12 months. Stock image

Seán MacCarthaigh

Compensation levels paid to farmers under the bovine TB eradication scheme should be examined and possibly capped, according to a new report on the long-running programme.

A spending review by the Department of Agriculture has warned that the eradication of bovine TB in Ireland could take up to another 70 years to achieve at significant extra cost if no changes are made to the current programme.

It concluded further effective policy measures were needed if the target of eradicating bovine TB by 2030 was to be met.

It has recommended a re-examination of the level of financial supports offered to farmers with infected herds, including the consideration of a cap on compensation levels.

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The review said an independent cost-benefit analysis should be conducted to examine if the current split of funding between public and private sources to tackle the problem was optimal.

The total cost of the eradication programme last year was €92m, of which €35.2m was paid by farmers in testing fees and levies.

The remainder consisted of €47m from the Exchequer, as well as €9.7m from the EU, whose annual contribution is set to decrease.

The report noted that the annual cost of the programme, which started in 1954, had increased by 10pc since 2015 despite the incidence of the disease not increasing in cattle herds.

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It cited the main factor in the rising cost of the scheme as financial supports for farmers, which reached almost €14.3m last year -up from €10.5m in 2017.

Approximately 15,000 to 17,000 infected animals are slaughtered each year.

The review said financial supports in Ireland were unique in providing compensation above the value of the animal through income supplements, a hardship scheme and restocking grants.

It said there was a danger of moral hazard or encouraging farmers to engage in risk-taking behaviour if financial supports were set too high.

More intensive farming practices associated with larger herds arising from the abolition of EU milk quotas also posed a greater risk of disease transmission.

While the role of farmers was critical, the review said there was a "knowledge gap" and lack of clear incentives on what would encourage herd owners to take additional actions to reduce the risk of TB.

It described the bovine TB eradication scheme as "the most significant farmed animal health programme in the State" which set an ambitious target of eradicating the disease by 2030.

It said the considerable cost of the programme for farmers and taxpayers provided a powerful incentive to achieve eradication of the problem as soon as possible.

However, it noted that while TB levels in the Republic were at a historic low of 3.5pc of herds, progress had stagnated in recent years.

"This lack of recent progress is of significant concern and has led to a re-examination of the policies needed to achieve eradication in a timely manner to the benefit of the farming sector," the report stated.

Recent trade deals have indicated that gaining access to non-EU markets in future agreements will contain more stringent requirements relating to animal health issues such as bovine TB, it noted.

Access to Chinese markets for beef requires that live cattle for export must originate from farms which have not had any TB restrictions in the previous 12 months.

The report said almost 4,000 restrictions introduced each year on Irish farms due to TB was "a source of significant mental and financial stress".

It broadly supported plans by the TB Stakeholder Forum established last year which has proposed extra targeted controls for herds identified as being at risk and providing clearer communication, as well as continuing efforts to reduce the risk of transmission of the disease from wildlife, particularly the badger vaccination programme.

It said further research was needed to verify claims from farming bodies that deer may also be a contributory factor in parts of the country.

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