Thursday, 9 May 2019

Questions (13)

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

13. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his views on the price beef farmers are receiving for their produce from factories; the details of recent discussions at the beef forum; the actions and deadlines agreed; the steps being taken to protect beef farmers from a hard Brexit and a Mercosur deal; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20060/19]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

What are the Minister's views on the price the beef farmers are receiving for their produce from factories?

I ask the Minister to provide details on the recent discussions at the beef forum, including any actions and deadlines agreed at that forum. I also ask him to update the House on steps that are being taken to protect beef farmers from a hard Brexit and a Mercosur deal.

As the Deputy will be aware, in accordance with competition law, neither I nor my Department has a role in determining market prices for any commodity and I cannot intervene in this particular process. The agrifood sector is of critical importance to the economy and its regional spread means it underpins the socio-economic development of rural areas in particular. Brexit has the potential to have a significant impact on the sector given its unique exposure to the UK market, which accounted for 38% or €5.2 billion worth of agrifood exports last year.

There are ongoing discussions with the European Commission regarding the difficulties Ireland would face in the event of a no-deal Brexit and the assistance that might be required for our agriculture, food and fishery sectors. Avoiding a no-deal Brexit continues to be the Government’s overriding policy priority. I have held a number of discussions with Commissioner Hogan regarding the potential impact of a disorderly Brexit on the sector. I have stressed the need for the Commission to be ready to deploy a range of measures to mitigate the potential impacts on agrifood and fisheries, including through traditional market supports and exceptional aid under the CAP's CMO regulation - Regulation (EU) No. 1308/2013- as well increased flexibility under state aid rules.

It is also important to acknowledge that the past few months have been difficult for beef farmers in particular, following a difficult year in 2018 due to weather conditions. There has been a prolonged and exceptional period of depressed prices since last autumn, with the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the outcome of Brexit, among other factors, contributing to this market disturbance. In light of the ongoing depressed market prices, I have said in discussions with Commissioner Hogan and my EU counterparts that I believe that the deployment of exceptional measures under the CMO regulation to provide targeted aid to farm families who have suffered a sustained reduction in returns from the market is required. I made an intervention to this effect at the April meeting of the Council of Agriculture Ministers and my officials have followed up with a detailed submission which is under consideration by Commission officials. In addition, I have consistently stressed at EU level the need to protect the EU beef sector in trade discussions with Mercosur.

Finally, I chaired the 12th meeting of the beef round table last October. A press release summarising the discussions and presentations made at that meeting is available on my Department's website. The round table dealt with issues such as the interdependence between the primary producers and processors and progressing the producer organisations.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I note that while he covered the engagement had with the Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Mr. Hogan, regarding the fallout from Brexit, he gave very little attention to the other part of the question relating to the beef forum and any actions, timelines or deadlines agreed at the most recent meeting of same. That is because the beef forum has become irrelevant and has not been doing the job it was set up to do. I understand and accept that the Minister does not have a direct role in setting prices but the price that farmers are getting for their produce is central in the context of Irish agriculture. The income of farmers is an important matter and should be a matter of concern to the Minister. Unfortunately the beef forum, which was set up by his predecessor, Deputy Coveney, in 2014 has become little more than a talking shop. Indeed, the President of the IFA, Mr. Joe Healy, said recently that under the Minister's chairmanship, the forum has become a "mudguard for inaction". The Minister must engage seriously with the beef forum to ensure price transparency in the sector. A commitment was made to introduce price transparency to the sector but there has been no action on that to date.

The functioning of the beef forum is contingent on all of the stakeholders participating in it but the latest meeting that we held saw the withdrawal of all of the farming organisations. If we are to meet the challenges facing the sector we must sit down together and work collaboratively on that endeavour. I cannot force people to attend meetings and while the forum cannot address issues related to price, it can address a host of other issues including markets, the next CAP and how we can best structure supports for the industry. I am open to that but there is little point in convening meetings of the forum if members do not want to attend. Obviously, in the intervening period I have met all the constituent members of the beef forum and I continue to engage with farming organisations and other stakeholders.

The reason that stakeholders have not attended recently meetings is that they have lost faith in the beef forum. They have also lost faith in the Minister and his party in the context of making national agriculture policy work for farmers. They have seen that the beef forum has been little more than a talking shop. One of the key commitments made by the Government, through the Minister's predecessor when he set up the beef forum, was that there would be more beef price transparency brought into the system. In particular, a commitment was made to introduce a wholesale price index, which would be published by Bord Bia and the Department but that has not materialised. The Minister and this Government have failed to deliver on the original aims of the beef forum. A core commitment associated with the establishment of the beef forum was the introduction of a wholesale price index. Where stands that and why has it not been delivered?

It is untrue that there have not been any achievements through the beef forum. One achievement is the application on beef prices which is now regularly used by farmers to find out the price being quoted on a daily basis by all of the beef processing plants. There is more work to be done and some of that work involves stakeholder engagement on price transparency issues. I know that Bord Bia and the industry are working on that but it is not as straightforward as the Deputy suggests. As I said earlier, the functioning of the beef forum is dependent on members sitting down and engaging. If it becomes entirely about the current price of produce, then it will miss a host of other areas that can contribute to the viability of the industry.