Michael Creed: ''Veganuary', Brexit and climate change - why our beef farmers are a resilient breed'
It has been a difficult new year for beef farmers. Poor market conditions have been compounded by continued Brexit uncertainty.
If the injury of continued income loss wasn't bad enough, the insult of a perceived increase in hostility towards the sector - in the guise of 'Veganuary', the 'Lancet' report and an avalanche of negative comment regarding the climate change credentials of the industry - has led to anger and unrest among farmers.
The prospect of a disorderly Brexit poses the most immediate and devastating threat to the Irish beef sector. My department estimates that additional tariffs for the Irish agri-food sector as a whole, on exports to the UK, would add €1.7bn in costs. This could reduce or potentially wipe out Irish exports of beef, dairy and pig meat to the UK market.
Beef exports to the UK in 2016 accounted for 50pc of total beef exports (valued at €1.1bn) - the estimated tariff rate equivalent (based on weighted averages) is 70pc, approximately €781m. Teagasc modelling suggests a reduction of over 20pc in Irish beef prices, resulting in beef farm incomes reducing by up to 40pc. This would challenge the viability of many beef farms and have an impact on production, processing and employment.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has been preparing for Brexit long before the June 2016 referendum or my appointment as minister the previous month.
But no amount of planning can prepare an industry for the potential loss of half its market, built up over decades.
We have had some considerable successes on targeting new markets. Being the first EU country to achieve access to the Chinese beef market is a significant one. But this will be a medium to long-term gain and will not compensate for the impact of a disorderly Brexit overnight.
If the worst comes to the worst, we will need EU help. Exceptional aid under the Common Market Organisation regulation will be required. EU Commissioner Phil Hogan understands this and we are in continued contact, as are our officials.