Covid 19 has created an unprecedented challenge as countries struggle to tackle the crisis. In Ireland as well as putting immense pressure on our already stretched health service the crisis has caused an unprecedented shock to our agriculture system, with the loss of large buyers such as the fast food chain McDonalds, the temporary closure of marts, a ten year low in factory prices and fears that dairy farmers may be required to dump milk as has already happened in other countries.
Meanwhile the decision by ABP to import 400 tonnes of polish beef while cutting prices paid to Irish farmers to a 10 year low has created increased stress for farmers already suffering as a result of the crisis. Farmers like all essential workers deserve recognition for their role in getting the country through the crisis. Unfortunately just like workers in Moy Park and APB who had to walk out in order for their employers to put sufficient Covid19 protocols in place, farmers are not being respected by meat processors.
Short term supports to ensure guaranteed income for farmers are needed, from the EU or the Irish government. This shouldn’t even be a debate, that it is shows that the government is happy to sacrifice the welfare of farmers for the good of the economic interests of a small group of businesses, meat processors in this instance, and the financial sector. This is a necessary solution in the immediate term to ensure that farmers and their families do not suffer financially. In the long term the nature of the supply chain that Irish farmers feed into needs to be examined. As ISCA chairman Edmund Graham has said the supply chain is controlled by people who have made themselves billions and now show contempt for ordinary Irish farmers.
Last year was one of intense protest by Irish farmers over prices and the control of a small number of factory owners of the market, despite the widespread protests there was little support from politicians and less impact on the factories. For farmers and indeed anyone who is interested in a sustainable future for Irish food production the lesson here is clear, the power of the factories is such that a much broader campaign is need with aims beyond merely targitting price change.
The crisis has already shown the fragility of global supply chains in relation to shortages of PPE and other medical equipment, a more drawn out crisis may yet reveal weaknesses in supply chains which take Irish beef to European and world markets. The immediate tieing up of the Irish fishing fleet has shown just how vulnerable export focused food production can be.
Unfortunately Irish agriculture is structured on an export basis, with meat and dairy produced primarily for export to the UK and EU markets. While at the same time Ireland imports the majority of its fruit and vegetables largely from Spain, Italy, and The Netherlands, three countries which collectively produce just under 40% of Europe’s vegetables, and which are threathed with labour shortages as a result of the measures to tackle the crisis. This model of agriculture development is in keeping with the conventional wisdom that has pushed expansion and increased production as the primary priorities of agriculture.
While this model has delivered massive profits for processors it has not drastically improved the lives of farmers who now find themselves working harder to produce more with a lower margin of profit, and with a heavy reliance on EU grant money to remain viable. The question must then be asked if this model of production isn’t benefiting farmers, and isn’t guaranteeing food security then why is it continued to be presented as the only option.
The Covid 19 crisis has shone a light on this contradiction in the economic model of agriculture which we must ensure that an alternative which delivers for farmers and guarantees food security is on the agenda of all farmers organisations going forward. Many commentators have stated there can be no going back to normal, that we need to recognise the importance of essential workers and ensure their terms and conditions of employment reflect their importance, while also ensuring we prioritise providing decent public services that meet peoples needs. This is also true for agriculture we cannot allow a export driven system which serves the interests of processors to be the defining feature of Irish agriculture.