June 2019 will go down as a horrendous month for Irish beef producers. Factory quotes on the floor, finished animals losing money, Brexit in the headlines and to top it all off the EU reached an agreement with the Mercosur block to import 99,000t of beef into an already over-supplied market. As news of the deal broke on Friday evening, dark clouds of fear and disappointment drifted over rural Ireland. Irish beef farmers’ worst fears had come true, with many questioning if the EU has sacrificed the family farm model to sell cars to Brazil.
Food scares and consumer trust
If we look at food scares and scandals over the past 25 years in the EU, we can see the damage they have caused to consumer sentiment towards beef. BSE, horsemeat scandals and others all left lasting imprints on consumer trust. Trust is something that if lost, is very hard to win back.
Opening up the floodgates to Brazil, where we know corruption and illegalities are rife when it comes to beef production, could have serious consequences. The more complicated our supply chains become, the more room there is for error. Horsemeat taught us that.
There are some substances authorised in cattle which cannot be used in food-producing animals in the EU and which preclude certification requirements being met at present
The last EU veterinary report on Brazilian beef imports was far from complimentary, with particular reference to medicine records and use of substances banned for use in the EU.
The report said: “There are some substances authorised in cattle which cannot be used in food-producing animals in the EU and which preclude certification requirements being met at present. The current veterinary medicine prescription system and limited requirements for maintenance of medicinal treatment records do not add much in the way of additional guarantees that veterinary medicinal products are used in line with label indications.”
EU-approved factory inspection protocols were also called into question by the report. In March 2017, an investigation by Brazilian police called Operation Weak Flesh exposed rotten meat being mixed with fresh meat for export by some of Brazil’s largest meat processors. Is this what our European consumers want?
All Irish farmers want is a level playing field. The EU beef production system is among the most heavily regulated in the world. Nitrates regulations, cross-compliance, traceability, disease testing, animal welfare, environmental regulations and quality assurance all put a huge financial burden on farmers.
The EU operates a 28-day tagging after birth rule while in Brazil this is 90 days before slaughter
They must comply or face heavy penalties and they comply in the hope that the market puts a value on our production standards and in turn pays a fair price. Allowing this beef in from lower production standards isn’t a level playing field and this is why many farmers are frustrated about the deal being completed.
The EU operates a 28-day tagging after birth rule while in Brazil this is 90 days before slaughter, with evidence that tags are removed on a widespread basis and proper inspection controls are not in place. Irish farmers have invested heavily to protect the environment and conform to EU production standards and this is how the EU repays them. You can understand their frustration.
Political corruption is considered to be widespread in Brazil, with many of the South American countries ranking very poorly on the international corruption index. I visited Argentina in 2016 and while on the way to visit a farm we passed a large compound which was one of the largest jails in Buenos Aires. I asked what it was and I was told that is where the last government lives and he wasn’t joking. Many of the previous government had been jailed on corruption charges. We have been told that production standards will have to be similar to EU standards. With corruption and fraud playing such an inherent role in society in these countries, I can’t see how this will be policed.
Climate change hypocrisy
We have heard a lot of talk about climate change and our duty as European citizens to do our bit and help reduce harmful emissions. Some commentators have even said our suckler cow is the problem and we need to reduce our numbers to meet climate change targets.
At the moment there is 1ha/minute being cleared in the Amazon rainforest to make way for cattle. Satellite images show a sharp increase in clearance of trees over the first half of 2019 since Jair Bolsonaro became president of Brazil. Back home an Irish farmer could face a 100% Basic Payment Scheme penalty if a hedgerow or habitat was deliberately removed. Bolsoaro has been christened the “Trump of the Tropics” and was elected on a populist agenda backed by agricultural business and small farmers.
The Amazon is Brazilian, the heritage of Brazil and should be dealt with for the benefit of Brazil
He has banned his environment ministers from talking to the media and last month his top security adviser General Augusto Heleno Pereira told a Brazilian news station that it was “nonsense” that the Amazon was part of the world’s heritage. “The Amazon is Brazilian, the heritage of Brazil and should be dealt with for the benefit of Brazil.” Again it’s a case of double standards, Irish beef, among the most carbon-efficient produced in the world, will have to compete with product raised on clear-felled rainforest, leaving four times the carbon footprint of Irish beef. With a green wave rolling across Europe, one wonders how these “climate-concerned” politicians could ratify this agreement
The future of the Irish beef sector and the Irish suckler cow is now in major doubt. If EU policy is to pursue international trade deals for cheap food, we can’t compete. This, coupled with declining supports, is strangling our sector. Only last month we saw Prof Michael Wallace from UCD tell a packed house at the Irish Farmers Journal Beef Summit in Balinasloe that 55,000 jobs were at risk if our suckler herd vanished.
Our Government must pursue every possible avenue to block this deal
Is rural Ireland worth saving? The time for talking is over, it’s now time for action. Our Government must pursue every possible avenue to block this deal. Building alliances among other EU states is our only hope and, to be fair, our politicians have a strong record on this in Europe. The term “Game Over, Insert coins to continue” is the message that comes up on those holiday slot machine rides. It struck a chord with me Friday evening.
Will it be game over for Irish beef farmers or will our minister insert the coins or the know-how to continue? The suckler sector needs some leadership and a clear direction to go forward. We need to see a plan for the sector so farmers can continue to invest while knowing the Government has their back.