Michael Kelly: 'Farmers deserve a fair deal - and so does rural Ireland'

Giving it welly: Farmers protest outside Leinster House, Dublin, recently. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Giving it welly: Farmers protest outside Leinster House, Dublin, recently. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

On a train journey through the midlands I was surrounded by fields of grazing cattle on either side. Having grown up in rural Ireland, it was a comfortingly familiar sight. As we made our way, a debate was raging on the radio about the price of beef and the farmers' protests at processing plants.

Just days earlier, there was talk of culling 40,000 cows in the North in the event of a 'no-deal' Brexit.

This week brought fresh attention to cattle with news that students at Goldsmiths University in London have voted to ban the sale of beef on campus to tackle climate change.

The move was part of the manifesto that swept university students' union president Joe Leam to victory this year. Interviewed on BBC Radio Four's 'Today' programme, Mr Leam positively basked in the 'wokeness' of his fellow undergraduates. He was rather more dismissive about presenter Nick Robinson's tongue-in-cheek suggestion students cough up a few more quid in tuition fees to retrofit buildings to make the campus carbon-neutral.

Perhaps mercifully, the presenter didn't enquire about the union's policy on the carbon footprint of students who take a gap year to wash elephants in Phuket.

All in all, it's a worrying time to be a cow - that's if cows could worry, of course.

What is no joke is the very real crisis facing farming, particularly in the beef sector. The Beef Plan movement - which has been picketing meat factories - is the manifestation of unease that has been growing in rural families about the viability of the farming way of life.

The farmers' direct action owes much of its success to social media, with protests organised via WhatsApp. The movement has effectively bypassed the traditional lobbying of the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) in favour of direct action.

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Irish beef is among the best in the world and accounts for more than one-third of all our agricultural output and more than 20pc of total food and drink exports. The agri-food sector provides direct and indirect employment to more than 300,000 people in Ireland.

But farming is more than simply an industry. It is a way of life and farmers are the backbone of rural Ireland as well as custodians of the countryside. The excellent reputation Irish farming has for quality produce comes at a price and the simple reality is beef farmers are not getting a just reward for their labour.

According to the Beef Plan Movement, if a shopper spends €10 on beef at their local supermarket, the store takes €5.10, the factory takes €2.90, while the farmer is left with just €2. Farmers deserve a fairer slice of the income in recognition of both the cost of production and their right to make a profit to sustain their families.

While the cost of beef - like everything else - is set by the laws of supply and demand, farming deserves to be protected from the worst vicissitudes of the free market if we are serious about making rural Ireland a viable place to live, work and raise a family.

The tensions are high and while there have been talks, there is little evidence the farmers have lost their appetite for picketing. Much like the water protests, their grievances run deeper than the price of beef and have as much to do with a feeling of being politically unrepresented and taken advantage of by big industry.

The climate change movement also has farmers firmly in its sights. The apostle of all things green, Greta Thunberg - who set sail in an eco-yacht in a blaze of glory this week for an eco-summit in New York - has told of how she guilted her parents into giving up dairy and meat. "I made them feel so guilty, I kept telling them that they were stealing our future, and they cannot stand up for human rights while living that lifestyle," the 16-year-old activist told a recent rally.

Despite Irish farming being among the most carbon-efficient in the world, there are frequent and loud calls to reduce the national cattle herd in order to meet 2030 carbon reduction targets.

Activists are less vocal about the financial security of farm families in the event of dramatically cutting the suckler and beef herd. There is also the fact a reduction here would see production moving to countries with less sustainable systems and a consequent rise in carbon emissions globally.

Too often, the farmers are the low-hanging fruit. It's as if a move away from the land - from rural dwelling to a concentration in towns and cities - has made many people forget where fresh produce comes from. We take for granted that our milk shelves and meat counters will be well-stocked and keenly priced with high-quality products without a thought as to how it gets there.

At worst, agriculture is glibly dismissed as little more than a problem to be solved in the context of carbon reduction targets. And while the farmers get it in the neck, no-one raises an eyelid about plans for a new runway at Dublin Airport and the increase in emissions it would cause.

When the sod was turned earlier this year, the press release boasted of an estimated €2bn in economic activity over 20 years due to the expansion, yet the beef sector is worth an estimated €2.6bn annually.

When Aer Lingus or Ryanair announce new routes for winter sun or city breaks, the news is greeted with a mix of excitement and anticipation by most people. Farmers deserve the same break.

Irish Independent

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