Kim Bielenberg: 'What's their beef? The anger and fear behind the farmers' protest that paralysed Dublin'
This week's protest on Dublin streets by farmers wasn't just about beef prices, but the threat to a whole way of life, writes Kim Bielenberg
Two worlds collided on the streets of Dublin this week. Well-to-do Christmas shoppers on St Stephen's Green sauntered past advertisements for pearl earrings and were welcomed by the top-hatted doorman at the front of Shelbourne Hotel as they arrived for coffee at 11am.
But right on the doorstep of the capital's best address, the urban beneficiaries of Dublin's economic recovery encountered the simmering resentment and anger of rural Ireland. Farmers appeared on Tuesday on the street outside the Shelbourne in a spectacular show of force. Up to 100 farmers and supporters slept in their tractors and parked on the road around the green, in a bid to put pressure on Agriculture Minister Michael Creed to listen to their concerns.
The blockade of tractors caused chaos in the capital's centre with a number of roads closed and diversions in place. Perhaps these farmers learned from the climate change protesters from Extinction Rebellion that the way to attract attention and to be heard by the metropolitan elite is to occupy the centre of the city, while gardaí stand by.
It was a disparate group of people from the countryside who gathered with a range of views, not just about the falling price of beef, but about an entire way of life that is perceived to be under threat. And every so often, a rancorous argument would break out among them.
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Many were small farmers working on marginal land and rearing beef cattle. Without vast tracts of lush green pasture, they do not have the option of switching to growing crops or the more lucrative milking of cows as beef prices collapse. Their livelihoods have been decimated, but many of these farmers are not inclined to give it up.
Other protesters who joined the blockade had issues with carbon tax, immigration - and even sex education was mentioned by one non-farmer who arrived with a caravan on the back of trailer that would not have looked out of place in Father Ted.
He told me that there was a land grab happening across rural Ireland, "set up by the Freemasons, the Vatican and the City of London". But that was just one view.
It is a mark of the anger felt in rural Ireland that at the age of 84, Vincent Black, a smallholder from Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan was prepared to venture down to Dublin and sleep in a tractor.
His friend John Brady was with him on the demo, and both fear that their livelihoods rearing beef cattle from suckler cows are being wiped out.
Black, a returned emigrant who worked for decades building tunnels in Britain, told me he came down to Dublin with €100 on Tuesday, but his money quickly vanished by Wednesday morning after "a couple of Coors Lights in the Shelbourne and a bit of food".
Like most of the protesters blockading the streets of the capital, Black feels that the Government is out of touch with rural Ireland.
"The way I read it now, there is only one place that matters to these people - and that is Dublin," says the protesting octogenarian.
The anger over beef prices has simmered for months, and the long protests outside beef plants in the summer were lifted as plans for a beef task force were announced.
But for the men and women in the field, nothing has really been resolved and the threat to the livelihoods of the farmers remains.
Farmers themselves disagree about what approach to take, but the focus among more militant activists is now on hitting the capital where it hurts, bringing it to a standstill - some will even contemplate cutting off the food and drink supply chain.
Jolene Smith, a spokesperson for the protesters, warned that if certain conditions were not met "we will be back here and there will be no food or drink in this capital city for Christmas".
There may be howls of protests, task forces meeting and toing and froing between protesters, beef barons, and the Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed in an attempt to solve the beef crisis.
But even if some of the outstanding issues are resolved in the coming days, the way of life of a crucial part of the rural economy will remain under threat for the foreseeable future.
Beef farmers are being buffeted and knocked over by a series of events and trends that are often beyond their control, determined beyond the shores of this country by international markets and global trends.
Michael Wallace, Professor of Agriculture and Food Economics at UCD, says: "There is a confluence of challenging factors affecting beef prices and the incomes of beef farmers."
The notion of the "perfect storm" may be a cliché, but it certainly applies in the case of this beleaguered sector. The effect of Brexit on prices, flat sales and changing diets, the pressures of climate change, South American imports, last year's drought, the rise of dairy and increased production have all played a role in threatening the livelihoods of men and women who parked their tractors in Dublin this week.
Professor Wallace said matters really came to a head last year when earnings of beef farmers collapsed.
According to Prof Wallace, the average income of a beef farmer fell from €12,500 to €8,500.
Two years ago, a cattle farmer would typically earn €3.71 per kilo of beef, but the price has fallen to €3.43, while the cost of rearing the cattle has increased.
Prof Wallace said the instability surrounding Brexit caused the immediate shock to beef prices. The fall in Sterling meant Irish farmers were getting less for exports in our most important market, the United Kingdom.
While Brexit may have short-term effects, farmers also have to contend with long-term trends, and the future does not look bright unless Irish exporters can switch their focus to markets where demand is likely to rise.
Although global demand for beef is predicted to increase in the coming years, consumption in the EU is expected to fall over the coming decade.
According to the European Union Agricultural Outlook, beef consumption in the EU is expected to gradually decline from 11kg per capita in 2018 to 10.4kg in 2030.
Either for environmental or health reasons, a growing number of consumers are following former president Mary Robinson in embracing the "plant-based lifestyle" with enthusiasm.
They could be vegans, vegetarians - or, or as the new buzz term has it, 'flexitarians' (meaning they eat moderate amounts of meat).
The Dietary Lifestyle study by Bord Bia showed that one in three Irish consumers claim to have cut down their consumption of red meat.
The numbers shunning meat completely are still relatively low. Just 4pc of the population are vegan, and 5pc vegetarian, while 10.6pc are flexitarian.
It only takes a small reduction in consumption to hit the farmers where it hurts in a business where margins are low.
"Consumers are receiving messages about climate change and there are changes in lifestyle," says Prof Wallace. "Meat consumption has been flat in our main markets.
"In France, meat consumption has been falling at a rate of about 2pc per year."
What makes matters worse for the farmers is that production of beef is actually increasing, despite flat or falling demand in some of our main markets.
The huge expansion of the dairy herd in recent years has contributed to the increase in production in the number of calves that are used for beef.
"When you have an excess supply, it hammers prices and this ultimately comes back to producers," says Professor Wallace.
This month, there has been some hope that the market is poised for recovery because of rising demand in China due to an outbreak of swine fever.
"Asia has been a priority market for Ireland, but it takes time to grow that market for Irish exporters," Wallace says.
China offers a ray of hope for beef farmers in the future, but rising demand this month is small in the grand scheme of things, when compared to other issues dragging down prices
At the heart of the malaise of farmers is the fact that they feel that they are not getting a proper slice of the beef profits for their labour. They feel that too much goes to the meat processors and powerful supermarket chains.
Super-wealthy meat processors
The meat processors are among the ranks of the super-wealthy. According to the Sunday Independent rich list for 2019, the biggest player, Larry Goodman, and his family have accumulated a fortune estimated at €850m - up nearly 4pc since 2018.
The processors, for their part, argue that the prices paid to farmers are "reflective of the market", which is affected by the uncertainties over Brexit. They claim that processing beef is a low-margin, high-turnover business.
Adding fuel to the anger of farmers is the fact that their counterparts in the UK are receiving around 50 cent per kilo more for their beef.
While much of the attention is focused on the Irish meat processors, Prof Wallace believes retailers also have a role in selling beef at a sustainable price.
Protesting Irish cattle farmers would feel no comfort if they were monitoring prices of beef on sale in British supermarkets this week.
"Around 50pc of Irish beef exports go to the UK, and a very large share of that is minced beef," says Prof Wallace.
"I was just checking prices on the Tesco UK website and regular Irish mince was for sale for £2.98 [€3.49] per kilo.
"This is an example of the competitive pressures Irish producers are under. It would be hard to claim that this offers a sustainable margin to a farmer."
The rising carbon tax is an issue for many of the farmers who joined this week's protest. Because they are totally reliant on cars, they say they are hit disproportionately by the recent hikes to the tax, which add over €1 to a 60-litre petrol fill, €1.17 for a diesel tank fill, and €15 to a tank of heating oil.
Environmentalists argue that the agriculture sector needs to switch to less intensive farming methods, and that the carbon tax is a vital part of the drive to reduce emissions.
The matter is seen as urgent, because farming currently contributes 33pc of our emissions.
But many farmers are annoyed at being cast as the whipping boys of the green lobby. They scoff at suggestions that wolves should be restored to the countryside and that greenhouse gas emissions in rural areas could be reduced by car pooling.
"This has been a relentless year of blaming beef for everything including climate change," says Eddie Punch, general secretary of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers' Association (ICSA). "The anti-livestock farming narrative has had an impact on morale, and cattle farmers do not like being told to go away and plant sitka spruce trees."
Beef farmers have been through crisis periods before when prices collapsed, according to Prof Wallace.
"Beef farming has shown itself to be incredibly resilient. Farmers have weathered these events in the past and they have been able to bounce back.
"However, there may be a tipping point when losses cannot be sustained - there has to be some kind of income to make a return."
In one sense, farming is a commodity business just like any other. Outside observers might ask why farmers bother continuing with beef if they cannot make money from rearing cattle.
But the impetus driving many of these farmers to continue their unprofitable occupation may lie in a deep-seated sense of inherited family obligation rather than the ordinary laws of economics.
"The desire to continue with a farm that has been in a family for generations is a powerful motivator," says Prof Wallace. "Farmers may have a fear of being the one to fail and as a result, they stay in the industry when the economics suggests otherwise."
At the beef protest outside the Shelbourne Hotel, Vincent Black said the ultimate plan was to get small farmers off the land and to plant trees everywhere to replace the pasture.
As they face an uncertain future, Black and his friend John Brady joke about their homeplace, a town immortalised in the Percy French song, 'Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff'.
"Paddy Reilly never came back. He left before the recession and didn't return. He's a wise man," says Brady.
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