Never before have such major challenges as Brexit, the CAP Budget, Mercosur and climate change converged in a single year, said Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) president, Joe Healy, addressing the 63rd IFA AGM today (Tuesday, January 16).
"This year will be a defining year for Irish agriculture," he said.
Ireland took a leap of faith 45 years ago and became part of the European Economic Community (EEC). But it was a leap that has been positive for farming and for Ireland, said Mr Healy.
“The next 12 months will be a test of the European Union’s (EU) commitment to our sector. We expect Europe to stand by farmers and acknowledge the support that Irish farmers have shown towards the European Union.”
Mr Healy acknowledged the work done by the Irish Government in the lead up to, and during, last December’s talks. It sets a foundation stone for the next phase, which will be very important for the sector, he said.
He told the AGM that post-Brexit, we cannot have a scenario where the UK Government can do as they please regardng agricultural trade with third countries. “If the UK wants continued access to the EU market, the EU must insist that the UK will not be free to open their markets to low standard or low value products from outside the EU.”
Mr Healy said: “For the Irish agri food sector, the focus needs to be on the relationship between the EU and the entirety of the UK. North and south regulatory alignment will help to solve one problem of the hard border in Ireland. East and west regulatoryalignment has the potential to deliver a lot more – to avoid major disruption for Irish food exporters to our largest market, Britain.”
Mr Healy said there must be a strong CAP budget after 2020 and it must have two elements: direct payments supporting active farmers, and a well-funded Rural Development Programme. The IFA president warned against a situation where EU farmers have their incomes cut because of Brexit.
Mr Healy said the CAP is important for Europe, but it’s vital for Ireland, and rural Ireland, in particular: “Without a strong CAP, Irish beef, sheep and tillage farmers, in particular, will go out of business. We cannot let this happen. We must also remember that the CAP has delivered hugely for EU consumers. It has also delivered significant environmental and social benefits for the entire community. Now is the moment for this Government and our Taoiseach to show their mettle by standing up for the CAP.”
At the recent Foodwise 2025 conference in Croke Park, EU Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan, issued what he termed a ‘wake up call’ to the Irish agricultural sector on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate change targets.
Mr Healy said Irish farmers have been, and continue to be, wide awake on these issues. Nine out of every 10 measures under the CAP have specific environmental or sustainability elements. “Ireland is the most carbon-efficient producer of dairy products in Europe and the fifth most carbon-efficient producer of beef in Europe. Since 1990, our agricultural output has grown by 40 per cent while our GHG emissions have fallen by 3.5 per cent.”
Smart farming is also delivering real returns, he said, and those who have taken part in the programme have cut emissions by 10 per cent while improving their profitability by an average of €8,700.
He said farmers are playing their part and we will continue to do so. “However, any ask of us has to be logical. It has to be practical. And it must be in tandem with our role as food producers and as the businesses which generate much-needed economic activity in rural areas.”
Mr Healy said it’s incredibly frustrating for farmers is to hear so much emphasis on climate issues by key European politicians, while at the same time they are proposing to give Mercosur countries, including Brazil, more access to the European market.
“Producing a kilo of beef in Brazil leaves four times the carbon footprint of a kilo of beef produced in Ireland. Therefore, cutting our beef output to allow Brazil increase theirs, is reckless and makes no sense. It’s a message we will continue to make to Trade Commissioner Malmstrom and the EU Commission.”
Commenting on retired Professor Alan Matthews' recent suggestion to the Citizens’ Assembly that we should impose a carbon tax on farming to drive farmers away from livestock and towards planting forestry, Mr Healy said: “The problem with this proposal is that it takes no account of the economic and social impact of such a policy direction. Sustainability is the buzz word of our generation. However, there are three elements to it – environmental, economic and social. All three have to be central to decisions about food production.”
Mr Healy said it’s clear that farmers are not getting a fair share of the retail price. “The figures don’t lie: the retailer takes 51 per cent of the final price, the processor gets 28 per cent, but the farmer only gets 21 per cent.
“Retailers are the modern-day dictators abusing their power to accumulate vast profits. The more-established retailers have been joined recently by Iceland who seem hell bent on putting every Irish fresh food producer out of business with reckless and unsustainable discounting on fresh food.
“It’s all about accumulating profits at the expense of farmers and primary producers, and ultimately consumers. The recent CAP consultation process showed that 97 per cent of EU consumers are in favour of the farmer getting a better share of the retail price. Commissioner Hogan has done good work in this area. But we need to see more.”