Farm Ireland

Sunday 24 March 2019

Opinion: Beef policy cannot be dictated by a Citizens' Assembly mission impossible

Prof Alan Matthews

John Heney

The weather is showing little sign of improvement, but like most farmers I am busy with spring preparations.

Along with the usual everyday tasks, items such as fencing and water supplies must now be checked and repaired.

More importantly grass growth must be continually monitored in anticipation of letting out cattle.

The bottom line is that each year we are obliged to farm in an increasingly efficient manner if we hope to survive.

But no matter how well we manage our enterprises, many of the forces which decide our future, particularly with beef, lie well beyond our farm gates.

Some of these forces are local, some national, some are dictated by Brussels and others have global origins.

In the past these forces took the form of Foot and Mouth and BSE along with a myriad of other problems, and once again there are dark clouds gathering on the horizon.

We are currently faced with the imminent danger of a 'sell out' of beef farming by the EU in their ongoing negotiations with the Mercosur Group.

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The dangers posed by Brexit cannot be overstated given our reliance on the UK market for such a large proportion of our beef exports.

With all this uncertainty hanging over the beef sector, imagine my dismay when I read the headlines after the Citizens' Assembly meeting last November.

'Tax farmers for producing greenhouse gas emissions - Citizens' Assembly'; 'Tax on agricultural emissions and more spending on public transport urged'; "Emissions tax for farmers backed by Citizens'' Assembly' and so on.

I believe the Citizens' Assembly is a very welcomed experiment in participatory democracy, a process where ordinary Citizens' have their say.

However as my curiosity was aroused by the dramatic newspaper headlines, I decided to take a closer look at our Citizens' Assembly and its workings.

With the help of video recordings of the Assembly's proceedings as well as copies of presentations which are available on the Assembly's website I began my investigations into the thinking behind these strange headlines.

My initial reaction was a feeling of concern in relation to the content of some of the papers presented to the Assembly.

But this was nothing compared to my shock and disbelief on learning that the 99 members had been allocated less than 20 hours spread over two weekends to listen to 21 lengthy presentations and then reach conclusions on the highly technical issue of 'How the State Can Make Ireland a Leader in Tackling Climate Change'.

For example in a three and three quarter hours afternoon session allocated to address the issues of 'Agriculture, food and land use', the Assembly members were tasked with listening to and analysing five detailed presentations from five separate contributors including notable agri economics professor Alan Matthews of Trinity College, and Professor Gary Lanigan of Teagasc.

Any person who has ever sat through a college lecture will know that asking people to undertake such a mammoth task in such a short time is nonsensical and impossible.

My concerns at the limitations resulting from the brief time allowed were quickly realised in the question and answer session which followed the five presentations.

While a few Assembly members posed really excellent questions based on the reality of farming in Ireland today, many of the remaining questions displayed limited understanding of the issues covered in the presentations.

Take for instance the Government's high profile Food Wise 2025 report with its targets of an 85pc increase in exports to €19 billion; a 70pc increase in value added to €13 billion and a 60pc increase in primary production to €10 billion.

This report was referred to by Professor Lanigan in his presentation and later raised by one Assembly member.

However, I detected little or no interest by any other members in a meaningful discussion on the obvious consequences of these targets on Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions.


In these regrettably hurried discussions where decisions are rushed into, it wasn't surprising that it was Professor Matthews' repeated mantra that "signals" - in the form of punitive taxes - must be sent to farmers, which won the day.

To me these proposed "signals" or punishments contain worrying echoes of methods adopted by some circus animal trainers of old which are now thankfully banned

It is unfortunate that the haste of the debate and decisions taken by the Citizens' Assembly on these vital issues for agriculture has led to such scepticism in the farming community about the value of the entire Citizens' Assembly process.

John Heney farms in Kilfeacle, Co Tipperary email:

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