'The beef farmer is getting walloped' - Laois man who fronted McDonald's campaign on switching to dairy
Cattle farmers are sizzling with rage as beef prices tumble in the era of climate change and plant-based diets. Can they survive the onslaught? Kim Bielenberg reports
Liam Delaney was the ideal man to be at the forefront of a high-profile TV advertising campaign for McDonald's burgers.
He was a young family farmer who produced beef from the "clean, green" pastures of Laois. On the TV commercial, Liam helped to present a wholesome picture of the Big Mac as "100pc Irish and 100pc local".
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His father and his grandfather before him raised cattle on the land - part of a beef-rearing tradition that stretches back generations. It means much more to men like Liam than euros, cents and EU subsidies. It is a way of life, now under threat.
McDonald's continues to make huge profits from selling Irish-sourced beef, and one in five of the burgers sold in the EU comes from this country.
The supermarket chains that now dominate the beef market are also highly profitable.
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, has accumulated a fortune estimated at €850m - up nearly 4pc since 2018, although this may also reflect non-meat related business interests.
But it's no bull market for beef farmers - and they are sizzling with rage. They feel that they are not getting a proper slice of the beef profits for their labour.
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.
In recent weeks, before they joined talks with meat processors, militant farmers from the Beef Plan Movement - a group originating on WhatsApp that has been dubbed the 'Continuity IFA' by agricultural wags - picketed meat plants in the hope of a better deal.
With the price of beef cattle having dropped from over €4 per kilo to around €3.50 in a short space of time, farmers rearing cattle say they are losing €150 to €200 per animal and that this is not sustainable.
The short-term collapse in prices is just one setback suffered by a sector that feels under relentless siege.
Farmers feel that they are suffering from a bombardment of negative publicity about beef.
Pressure is mounting on the beef sector to slash the numbers in the herd in order to tackle climate change. Barely a week goes by without a report linking meat with a health scare or environmental catastrophe.
This week, Goldsmiths university in London announced that it would be banning all beef products on its campus in an effort to fight climate change. Professor Frances Corner, warden of Goldsmiths, said: "The growing global call for organisations to take seriously their responsibilities for halting climate change is impossible to ignore."
More worryingly for Irish farmers, who rely heavily on exports, German politicians have been chewing over the idea of raising taxes on meat from 7pc to a whopping 19pc in a bid to improve animal welfare and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
When you add the potential economic slaughter of Brexit, which threatens to decimate exports to Britain, and the prospect of growing beef imports from South America to the EU, it is hardly a surprise that Irish beef farmers are pessimistic.
Earlier this year, Liam Delaney, the man who fronted the McDonald's campaign, decided that the figures simply did not add up when it came to producing beef.
After generations rearing beef, the Delaneys decided that there was no future in the sector, and decided to concentrate on dairy cows instead.
Pondering his decision this week, Liam told Review: "A lot of people are making money out of beef, but the primary producer is losing money. The beef farmer is getting walloped.
"As regards making an income, it's just not viable and that is sad," he said. "I have four kids aged from 2 to 12, and I want to put them through college. So, I hope to be able to make an income from dairying."
The Laois farmer says the factors that helped him to make up his mind include Brexit, the growth in beef imports from South America, and changes to EU subsidies, which mean that farmers are no longer paid for how much they produce. According to the agricultural consultant Mike Brady, the average beef farmer lost just under €5,000 last year when you strip out EU subsidies. Their plight was not helped by the drought of last year. The average loss between 2011 and 2018 was €3,300.
"You have to step back and ask why farmers continue to rear beef when they are making little or no money from it," says Brady.
"Farmers are creatures of tradition, and they are not good at change."
The agricultural consultant likens beef farming to following your favourite sporting team, whether it be Kilkenny in hurling, Leinster in rugby, or Manchester United in football.
"Manchester United might have had a couple of years of hell, but that does not mean the family stops supporting the team."
So, families continue rearing cattle - even though they are losing money. According to Brady, at the sharp end, farming is a business like any other, with farmers steeping themselves in accounts, subsidies and taxes and moving into the most profitable areas of activity.
Output in the more profitable dairy sector has increased by 40pc in the last five years, with many farmers switching from beef or expanding their dairy herds.
In other ways, farming is not like any other business. There are still a large number of farmers who prefer to stick to family tradition, and they will continue rearing beef for as long as possible.
"There are full-time beef farmers who are not making any money, and others who rely on other income off the farm," says Brady. The consultant says there are many farmers who may be teachers, doctors and nurses, and regard rearing a few cattle as a "tax-efficient subsidised hobby".
There are mixed views of the sector in the agricultural community. One full-time beef farmer said she was tired of being patronised as a "hobby farmer", when beef is such a vital part of our rural economy.
"We are being demonised and made to look stupid," she said.
Another more sceptical farmer described the efforts to shore up an unprofitable industry as futile - and described the practice of weekend beef farming as a "loss-making alternative to golf".
It is hard to gauge precisely who gets what slice of the profits in the beef trade. As part of its campaign, the Beef Plan Movement has claimed that if the consumer spends €10 on beef, the retailer gets €5.10, the factory gets €2.90 and the farmer gets just €2. But sources in the industry have disputed these figures.
Eddie Punch, secretary general of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers' Association (ICSA)called for more transparency over what money is being made along the food chain when it comes to beef.
With prices dropping, Punch acknowledges that to many outside observers it must seem incomprehensible why beef farmers continue their work.
"Many have been farming the land for generations. The tradition of their dead ancestors weighs heavily on their shoulders," he says.
"They want to look after the land and the animals and it gives them a sense of pride. People who breed cattle are passionate about it."
According to Punch, there is a whole social life in the countryside built around going to the mart, and discussing the price of animals and how well they are doing, and who got the silage in first.
Agricultural commentators may try to persuade them to turn their fields over to forestry, but they just don't get the same buzz from gazing at coniferous trees.
The ardent cattle breeders prettifying their beasts for the Tullamore Show last weekend would scoff at the idea that they will give up their occupation any time soon - and suddenly branch out into Sitka spruce trees.
But the pressures weighing on beef farmers are now so heavy that it is hard to see how rearing cattle can be economically viable for such a large number of farmers.
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 report, beef consumption in the EU is expected to fall, gradually declining from 11kg per capita in 2018 to 10.4kg per capita in 2030.
Mary Robinson may have commanded popular respect when she was President of Ireland, but she is unlikely to be flavour of the month among Irish beef farmers because of her work as a climate change activist.
She has given up meat because of its effect on the planet, and this is part of a trend that seems popular among millennials.
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 is vegan, and 5pc vegetarian, while 10.6pc are classified as "flexitarian" (meaning they eat moderate amounts of meat).
The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is part of this trend. At the start of this year, as plant enthusiasts gave up meat for "Veganuary", the Taoiseach said he was reducing his meat intake to help reduce his carbon footprint.
In cutting down his meat consumption, Varadkar was merely following advice from the European Commission. In its Climate Action tips for consumers, the commission advises: "If you eat meat, replace some of your red meat consumption with chicken, fish or pulses. Switching from beef to chicken can reduce your meal's carbon footprint by as much as 75pc."
'Issue has been hijacked'
To make matters worse for the beef sector, a report on climate change in the Lancet Medical Journal earlier this year called for a "reference diet" which would see the average consumption of beef limited to just 7g a day - the equivalent of only half a meatball.
ICSA's Eddie Punch says: "The climate change issue has been hijacked so that beef is seen as the only villain of the piece.
"Some of the negative commentary is really quite shocking."
Beef farmers have been targeted by the Government's Climate Change Advisory Council, which has called for a 30pc cut of the national cattle herd in order to cut emissions.
The chairman of the council, economist Prof John FitzGerald, has said the focus should be on cutting the numbers of beef cattle, rather than the dairy herd, because the beef sector is unprofitable. He argues that the more profitable dairy cows should be preserved.
Prof Fitzgerald said in a recent RTÉ interview: "For beef farmers, life is miserable and it's going to get worse. It is madness to incentivise people to do things that lose money."
But the issue of climate change and farming is complex. Some commentators have questioned whether that it makes sense to persuade relatively efficient Irish farmers to give up rearing beef while the EU opens up trade to competing Brazilian beef farmers, who might pose a threat to rainforests.
Also there are concerns that focusing on dairy rather than low intensity beef production could ultimately increase greenhouse gas emissions, because of greater use of fertiliser.
In the meantime, Irish beef farmers feel that they are being demonised over climate change.
As one unrepentant rancher remarked this week: "You hear people giving out about farmers and climate change, but at the same time they are going all around the world in a plane on their holidays. We are the easy target."
Prime cuts: The beef crisis in numbers
Ireland is the fifth largest beef exporter in the world and the largest exporter of beef in Europe
Population of cattle in the Republic of Ireland
Population of people in the Republic
Recommended cut to cattle herd by Climate Change Advisory Council
1 in 5
burgers sold in McDonald’s outlets in Europe is of Irish origin
tonnes of Irish beef produced per year
a day — equivalent to half a meatball — is the recommended average beef consumption, according to the Lancet Medical Journal
of the Irish population is vegan
average direct payment subsidy to beef farmers
average annual loss by beef farmer when subsidies are removed
The expected annual EU beef consumption in 2030, dropping from 11kg in 2018
drop in incomes last year for beef farmers
The percentage of Irish food and drink exports that comes from beef.
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