At the political helm of a collaborative effort


Trade issues, forestry and farm safety were among the items on the agenda when Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, spoke to Matt O’Keeffe last month.

Minister Creed began the conversation by acknowledging the loss of his father, Donal, former TD, MEP and Minister of State, who died late last year: “He was a great role model both in family and political terms. He was a great inspiration to me personally.” The Minister went on to outline the complex nature of Irish agriculture and the role he plays within the structure: “Individual farmers, food businesses, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), advisory services, Bord Bia and other associated organisations are all critical to our success. I see myself as being at the political helm of that collaborative effort. The reason the industry is so successful is because of a common purpose among all of the key players.”

It was put to the Minister that a ‘soft Brexit’ is becoming increasingly unlikely. “There is no upside from all of this for the agri-industry,” Minister Creed said. “I believe it will be bad for us, bad for the UK and bad for Europe. What was achieved in December is a foundation, taking fully into account vital Irish concerns.” The Cork-based Minister does not agree that there is an over-emphasis on north-south issues as distinct from the east-west, Ireland-UK relationship that is so important in economic terms: “North-south is important because of all of the history on this island. It is very important to avoid border restrictions. That doesn’t diminish the huge economic importance of trade between Ireland and the UK.”

An adequate budget
Minister Creed dismissed the assumption that Brexit will automatically mean a reduction in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget: “That is not necessarily the case. There is an increasing recognition that CAP is not just a farmers’ budget. It is delivering huge public benefits for society in terms of safe, traceable, nutritious, sustainably produced food. It delivers public goods in terms of the environment, safe water and biodiversity. These are all gains for the public. In our consultation meetings, there was a lot of support from the public for the CAP and for farmers being deserving of a good income for their efforts. There was a proviso that farmers should have more ambition in terms of safeguarding the environment and further increasing the sustainability of their produce. So, there is public support for adequately financing the CAP.”

Trade issues
The increased funding of Bord Bia is a clear acknowledgement of the importance of diversifying and improving our trade links across the globe, the Minister concurred: “It is even more important now, with Brexit looming. The results of those investments are obvious. We have had eight consecutive years of food trade growth. In the past 18 months, we have reduced our exposure to the UK market from 40 per cent to 35 per cent. The other reassuring aspect is that, in markets outside of the EU, we doubled our trade figures, moving from 3 to 6 per cent. A small base, but vindicating the strategy of market diversification. The UK will, hopefully, remain a very important market, but one on which we will be less dependent.” Minister Creed is increasingly confident of the prospects for significant beef exports to China: “Progress is being made, including factory inspections and satisfying the various licensing agencies. In terms of market access, it is the highest item on our agenda in the DAFM right now.”

Reacting to Hogan
“I understand what the Commissioner is saying in terms of dairy market discipline and managing markets. We have natural competitive advantages in terms of producing milk from grass. Of our increased production, the lowest proportion of any EU State has gone into intervention. We are not the cause of the problem. Ireland represents only 4 per cent of EU milk production and only 1 per cent of global production, so our role in any voluntary production controls must be seen in that context. Our industry is very market focused and we have opened up a range of new markets for our produce.” Asked whether dairy farmers should continue to increase their output in the time ahead, Minister Creed said: “That’s up to farmers themselves and their individual circumstances. And based on a responsibility to produce that milk in an environmentally sustainable manner.”

No co-funding
The Minister is firmly against CAP co-funding: “We will not be entertaining any co-funding of pillar one payments. That is a core function of the CAP. In terms of all the other ambitions we have, including pillar two, rural development and the various schemes that we run, the most important thing is that we get an adequate budget. That is the primary and most important goal.”
Neither was he in favour of being distracted by relatively minor issues such as capping payments: “There is a case to be made for further capping, but not at the expense of ensuring that all other aspects of farm support are functioning properly. The number of farms with a payment above €50,000 is a fraction of the overall farm payment system. There will be further discussion in Member States on the issue.”

Beefing up Mercosur
Minister Creed’s thoughts on Mercosur are clear: “We believe that it is inappropriate to offer greatly increased beef tonnages under a Mercosur trade deal, even more so in the context of Brexit, where we do not have a clear assurance of continuing access to the UK, which takes up to 250,000 tonnes of Irish beef every year. Beef is recognised as a ‘sensitive product’ by the European Commission, and that has to be reflected in any trade negotiation. This trade deal is driven by opportunities for EU access to South American markets for a range of non-food products.”

Forestry targets missed
The Minister acknowledged that Ireland has fallen short of its planting targets over the past two years.
“That is a disappointment, especially as we need increased afforestation as a carbon sequestration measure to help meet out climate change obligations. The big challenge is to bring communities along in terms of where trees are planted.” Minister Creed does not agree that there are competing policies in terms of encouraging forestry while financially supporting livestock production on marginal land: “The decision on that is for individual farmers in terms of what is best for their farms and incomes. Forestry is an attractive proposition with tax-free premia for 15 years and extra income from thinnings while awaiting final saw log sales. We do not want blanket afforestation in parts of the country and the best blend is a mix of enterprises. There are very few farms that could not accommodate some forestry.”

A stain on our industry
Farm safety continues to be a concern. Minister Creed described farm accidents as “the great stain on our industry”. “No other workplace environment would tolerate the long hours being worked by many of our farmers at this time of year. Adopting more time-efficient practices could help reduce the risks of accidents. There is only so much the State can do in terms of reducing the risks of accidents. There is also an onus of responsibility on individual farmers to operate their farms in the most safe manner possible.”

Tags: Department of Agriculture, forestry Farm Safety Brexit Michael Creed