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Why Are Beef Farmers So Angry?

Dr Oliver Moore looks at the issues facing Ireland's beef farmers.

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In his latest column, Dr Oliver Moore looks at the complicated issues facing Ireland's beef farmers ahead of today's protest at Leinster House in Dublin. 

In recent months, beef farmers in Ireland have been both organized and angry. Over the summer, blockades were held at 20 meat processing factories (i.e. slaughterhouses) which ground the industry to a halt. This blockade was led by a new organization called the Beef Plan Movement, which grew from a Whatsapp group in county Meath into a 20,000 strong, quite militant, farmer movement.

It’s not just in Ireland that tractor protests are happening. In the Netherlands, there have been a series of them, called #BoerenProtest, mostly against stronger nitrogen pollution legislation. In Germany too, there have been similar protests in Hamburg.

READ MORE: Why Have So Many Living Things Vanished?

Farmer protests in Berlin, Germany in October 2019
Farmer protests in Berlin, Germany in October 2019

A Complicated Issue

While environmental legislation is an issue elsewhere, in Ireland it’s a little more complicated. Negotiating power up the chain, and softening some rules (to do with the age of the animal, and the number of times an animal can move from farm to farm) are two concerns for the Beef Plan Movement.

The main concern is, perhaps unsurprisingly, price. Beef has been getting around 3.70-80 a kilo, but the cost of production is over €5. This means that without a subsidy payment, the sector wouldn’t be viable. It’s also the biggest sector in agriculture: with over 50,000 farmers stocking cattle, along with another 14,0000 with sheep, livestock dominates the numbers. (There are about 7000 cereal farmers, and about 16,000 dairy farmers).

Livestock has always seen the lowest incomes. While 2018 was a poor year for dairy farmers, they still earned €60,000 on average: by contrast, neither cattle nor sheep farming typically made above €20,000.

The End of Dairy Quotas

This gap has really being exacerbated by one recent change in farming – the ending of dairy quota. For three decades, there was an EU-imposed limit on milk and dairy products. This came about because of overproduction: there wasn’t a market so long term storage (called intervention) was the solution. So, to avoid these milk lakes and butter mountains, farmers were penalised if they overproduced milk.

 This all ended in 2015, over 30 years after it was introduced.  Dairy farmers could now increase production. Not only that, 7000 derogations (permissions to break the rules limiting nitrogen pollution) have been granted, so production is really ramped up now.  The number of dairy cows is increasing and will do so for some years. And this has lots of impacts.

Every second dairy calf born is male. These dairy bull calves then ‘leak’ into the beef sector, where the calf price collapses. These calves are not designed for beef, but end up in the beef system, and, incredibly, there was no plan to deal with this.

Prices for dairy bull calves dropped to cents (yes, cents) at one stage recently, while next spring, there will be another huge issue with way too many dairy bull calves and no real market for these.

Brexit uncertainty impacts beef the hardest as it’s still very dependent on UK markets.  

Potential Solutions

The solutions, such as they are, are sometimes controversial. Live export of 200,000 unweaned calves , including to the veal trade in the Netherlands and elsewhere is one; live export of cattle ever further distances is another. For the latter, Ireland has pushed the boundaries of what’s allowed under EU legislation, which has led to sustained criticism from animal welfare organisations. Countries like Libya don’t even have a stable government yet, so animal welfare is not necessarily a priority. One of the ships bringing live animals to Libya allegedly took 11 days to dock.

Other options include Bord Bia reaching new beef markets in China, while it is also considering developing PGI status for grass fed suckler beef. There is also some talk of establishing an Irish grass fed outdoor veal category for calves, which would be higher welfare than the indoor Dutch variety.

The beef plan movement won some rights to negotiate price as a producer group, and some other concessions regarding power in the system recently.

Dairy farmers established coops decades ago and are still benefiting from this, owning processing in some cases, and paying themselves, through coops, good prices. Moving into a more organised set up is likely to improve beef farmer’s negotiating power.

Indeed, dairy could yet again get an advantage over beef, thanks to the controversial Mercosur trade deal between the EU and four South American countries. EU spirits (including Baileys and other drinks made with Irish cream) will have a new market opened up, while in the EU, South American beef will come in, completing with Irish beef.

The elephant in the living room, or, steer in the field, is climate change - which a lot of people are annoyed about.  And that’s what we’ll look at in the next column.

Irish farmers head to Dublin this week to protest.

Dutch farmer protests:

Author: Oliver Moore

Oliver Moore is editor-in-chief at ARC2020, the Agriculture and Rural Convention. ARC2020 is a European NGO dedicated to people- and planet-friendly people and policies and practices. With a background in rural sociology, he lectures in UCC’s Centre for Cooperative Studies, writes a weekly column for the Irish Examiner farming, and works with the Cultivate NGO in Cloughjordan’s ecovillage, where he also lives. There, he is a Director of the community-owned farm. He is a member of the Irish Food Writers Guild.