Margaret Donnelly: 'Varadkar facing a grilling by farmers over meat, Brexit and rural unrest'
Next Tuesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will address the Irish Farmers' Association's (IFA) AGM. It's pretty standard for the Taoiseach of the day to address the largest farming organisation, but given the last few weeks, it will be interesting to see the appetite farmers have for Leo this time around.
Just 12 months ago, he told the same group of farmers that agriculture is the heartbeat of rural Ireland, that farmers are the lifeblood of the recovered economy, that no one gets up earlier than a farmer, and on behalf of the Irish people he thanked them for the sacrifices they have made in recent years to help the Irish economy.
Everyone in Farm Centre next week will no doubt be thinking 'awkward moment' when Leo will no doubt have to address his much-maligned comments about cutting back on eating meat. There's no criticism of his attempts to reduce his carbon footprint, but how the 80,000 or so beef farmers on this island feel about his comments will hardly be allayed by his 'I had a lovely Hereford steak last night' row back on the situation.
But it calls into question his understanding of the crisis facing the agri-food sector. Some numbers Leo might want to mull over in advance of next week include the fact the UK remains the dominant destination for beef, with 50pc of exports going to the UK, and 75pc of beef imported into the UK in November was from Ireland.
When it comes to exports we're heavily reliant on the UK, our closest neighbour and best trading partner - making it the best export market from a climate change point of view, as it saves shipping meat halfway around the world. On top of that, our beef exports to the UK are worth €1.27bn; 50pc of cheese and 24pc of butter exports go to the UK and on top of those faceless numbers, there are 230,000 people employed in the agri-food sector.
Beef farmers around the country, though, are facing the bleakest outlook, wondering how low can beef prices go - industry commentators say they must be getting north of €4.20/kg to make a margin, they're currently receiving €3.85 if they're lucky. If the predicted doomsday scenario of Brexit plays out, Irish beef exporters simply have no market in the UK any more as WTO tariffs look set to price us out of our main market.
Perhaps Leo is thinking he can pay off thousands of beef farmers to exit the industry? Or perhaps he has a great plan to incentivise farmers to play a more active role in helping reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and save the country (again) from the millions of euro in fines we're facing as a nation for not meeting our climate targets? After all, he did remind farmers this time last year that while Ireland is one of the world's most efficient food producers, agriculture contributes one-third of the country's overall greenhouse gas emissions.
Either way, the farmers of Ireland, and in particular the beef sector, will be waiting with bated breath to hear what the Taoiseach has to say.