There is continued pressure for cheaper food in the European Union, according to vice president of the European Parliament Mairead McGuinness MEP.

Farmers at the Irish Grassland Association (IGA) sheep conference on 23 May heard from McGuinness that the main focus is on further environmental delivery, with food production a given by many.

The Louth native was responding to a question as to whether there was an appreciation that food production itself was a public good. McGuinness said the enormous choice available to consumers left many with the expectation that food would always be there.

When payments were decoupled from production, McGuinness said there was a presumption that the market worked fairly. However, those markets were not rewarding the primary producer and farmers were left as price takers.

Climate change

There was a need for more joined-up thinking in the EU on agriculture and food, she said. Given the tougher food quality and safety standards, she questioned whether it made sense to extend trade with some countries.

“Why limit output in Europe to replace it with products that will do more damage from elsewhere?”

In a wide-ranging address, McGuinness expressed disappointment at how the debate on climate change and agriculture had emerged in Ireland, saying it was unfair to blame just one sector.

“Rather than say one group is the problem, why not sit down and talk collectively about how we can make a difference? We haven’t had a joined-up conversation on how we are going to make a change.”

Land use

McGuinness called for Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed to implement a land use policy as different sectors of farming had been working in isolation. She said such a policy could draw all sectors together to create a more sustainable future.

Policymakers needed to find a way to stop farmers “running faster to stand still”, McGuinness said, or the treadmill would wear them out.