Farm Ireland

Friday 23 February 2018

Irish beef industry is under threat - but not from vegetarians or Mary Robinson

UN envoy for climate change Mary Robinson meets local farmers in Asmut village in Tigray, Ethiopia
UN envoy for climate change Mary Robinson meets local farmers in Asmut village in Tigray, Ethiopia

Richard Hackett

The recent controversy surrounding Mary Robinson's assertion that we should turn vegetarian, or even better, vegan, in order to save the planet was enlightening. Before I go on as to why, the assertion is pure nonsense of the Marie Antoinette 'let them eat cake' variety.

The vast majority of people need meat as part of a balanced diet and imposing a restriction on that is more than a bit simplistic. For example, animals have the ability to turn non-edible material such as grass or waste food into high quality protein food, surely a useful attribute when promoting a wider sustainable system?

The enlightening element of the controversy was more the reaction to the comment than the comment itself. The reactions from farming commentators were negative to the point of farce in some cases. The broad thrust of the negative reaction centred on the fact that Ireland was 900% self-sufficient in beef production and any change from this situation would have devastating consequences for rural Ireland.

My opinion is agriculture in Ireland and beef production in particular is under severe threat, but not from Mary Robinson or vegetarians, but from the huge infrastructural problems we have allowed develop. I also don't believe that rural Ireland is singly dependent on the survival of small, loss-making, unviable farms; rural Ireland has enough of its own attractions to survive and thrive in the longer term.

A look at many metrics of the industry is enlightening. The proportion of beef that is produced on part-time farm holdings is staggering. The average age of farmers is just as startling; average farm size, average herd size and average flock size are still at levels well below what is required for commercial sustainability; beef and sheep breeding metrics show practically no improvement in key performance indicators; levels of lime and phosphorus usage are a fraction of previous decades.

These are not hallmarks of a thriving agricultural sector, but evidence of a sector in trouble. These problems are known and there are schemes in place to address some of these problems, but it could be argued that these schemes are part of the problem. The agricultural industry has become addicted to payments and schemes, to its own detriment. It seems incapable of improvement without recourse to schemes and payments.

It would be far better to target the development of a more integrated viable agricultural industry than insist that the status quo is maintained. Producing cattle at a loss to compete with Brazilian and Australian feed lots to supply far away commodity markets and further enrich a few beef processors is not really a sustainable business plan. There is internal demand for grain for animal and human consumption, demand for energy for heating and electricity production, demand for fruit, vegetables, potatoes and artisan food products, demand for wood products. At an industry or an individual level, we have to take off the blinkers and look for options other than continually producing a product that is in surplus and expect others to sell it for us.

If you could get into the DeLorean time machine and jump forward 30 years, I think it's unlikely that when you get there you will find Ireland is still 900% self-sufficient in beef and the biggest exporter of beef in the Northern hemisphere. The sooner we realise this and chart a more sustainable route for the industry, the better.

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Richard Hackett is an agronomist based in north County Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA

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