Around this time last year, the streets surrounding Leinster House and Merrion Square were brought to a complete standstill by furious beef farmers. This followed years of having their produce and their work undervalued. They were fed up to the back teeth. They demanded change.
Beef prices were on the floor. Morale was at all time low and trust in the capacity or even the willingness of the then government to address these and other related problems was vanishingly small.
Have things changed since then? Yes and no; with the emphasis on the no.
Yes, the prices that are now being paid to farmers for their beef has marginally improved and yes, demand for Irish beef is incredibly strong. Supermarkets are driving much of this, which in turn has created a much needed and welcome increase in price.
But this recent, and temporary rise is not being distributed equally and it follows almost a decade of farmers being underpaid for a product that it takes years of work to bring to the factory gate or the mart. It has also done nothing to shift or disturb the profound power imbalance that exists between farmers on the one hand and the supermarkets and factories on the other.
At the protests last year I listened to many farmers who were deeply concerned at the threat to the family farm, the imposition of carbon taxes, the flooding of the beef market with cheap beef following the EU’s Mercosur trade deal and the ongoing lack of transparency around how prices for beef are calculated in the first place by both the factories and supermarkets.
All of these problems remain in place and most of them are only getting worse despite attempts to provide window dressing around subjecting the cartel like structure of the factories to scrutiny.
We know that the Green Party, have proceeded to impose an utterly regressive carbon tax. A tax that will likely see many of the price gains in beef wiped out.
We also know that the Minister for Agriculture has commissioned the private consultancy firm Grant Thornton to draw up three ‘Transparency Reports’ on the Irish beef industry. But when one of these Reports was published in December of 2020 it generated fury and astonishment from one of the leading farmer representative organisations, the ICSA.
Indeed, the President of that organisation explicitly stated that the report did not provide any evidence of independent measurement of Irish consumer preferences in the beef market and that there was “no evidence” that consumers agreed with one of its central findings around the so called 30 month rule.
The Beef Plan Movement, which is “a movement and associated plan put together by farmers for farmers” also noted the Grant Thornton Report did absolutely nothing in terms of advancing its requirement for an ‘independent beef regulator with statutory powers’ to independently investigate the beef industry.
Incidentally, I recently found out through a series of Parliamentary Questions that Grant Thornton are being paid just under a hundred thousand euros for these Reports. Reports that no one seems happy with apart from the beef industry.
And what about the Mercosur trade agreement between the EU and the Mercosur bloc of South American countries?
It may be recalled that under the terms of this deal the Mercosur bloc could flood the Irish beef market with up a quota of up 99,000 tonnes of cheap beef. This deal represents an existential threat to the Irish beef farmer. True, it has suffered some setbacks, but it is still there on the EU agenda and so too therefore is the threat to our farmers.
Last but by no means least there are the challenges posed by the failure of government to robustly support the opening of new beef processing plants, including in places like Banagher County Offaly, in my own constituency.
The proposal for the Banagher multi-million euro plant could help tear open the market for competition, increase sale options for beef farmers, generate significant inward investment in the midlands and loosen the grip of the cartel. But no, instead it is being buried by poorly grounded objections that claim it is not government policy to support such plants, despite the proposal having received the support of Offaly County Council.
So, while the recent increase in beef prices are welcome, and long may they continue, we should not allow this to blind us to the many structural problems that remain for the Irish farmer. To do so would be the definition of adopting a penny wise but pound-foolish approach.
Carol Nolan is an Independent TD for the constituency of Laois Offaly. She is also a member of the Rural Independent Group in Dáil Eireann.