JUST when Irish beef farmers thought things couldn’t get much worse for them, along comes the news last weekend that a draft agreement had been reached between the European Union (EU) and the South American Mercosur trading block, comprising Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, which clears the way for imports of cheaper beef from these countries. Predictably, it was robustly railed against by Irish farming organisations, with IFA president Joe Healy describing it as ‘a bad deal for Ireland, a bad deal for the environment, and a bad deal for EU standards and consumers,’ while his newly-elected ICSA counterpart, Edmond Phelan, said the deal was ‘an absolute disgrace, which completely undermines the EU’s moral authority to lead on climate change.’
Even our own Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed, TD, tweeted within hours of the announcement on Friday evening: ‘I am very disappointed that the Mercosur agreement includes a significant Tariff Rate Quota for South American beef, at a time when the beef sector in Europe is facing significant uncertainty because of Brexit.’ One of his predecessors in the job, current EU Farm Commissioner Phil Hogan, opined that the South American beef would have to meet EU standards, but it seems the production model there at the moment is very far off Europe’s high-quality values and this is part of the reason the Mercosur countries can produce their beef so cheaply.
It could take up to two years for the process of ratifying the Mercosur free-trade deal, which took 20 years of negotiations and is the largest such agreement ever entered into by the EU, to get through the European Commission and the European Parliament. Farm leaders here have called on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to reject the deal as it looks as if the European beef sector as a whole has been sacrificed in order to make gains in other areas, such as car and machinery manufacturing, the chemical and pharmaceutical, and services sectors.
Edmond Phelan put it bluntly: ‘a calculated decision has been made by European leaders to increase car sales, mainly petrol and diesel, at the price of sacrificing the EU beef farmer.’
It comes at a time when the sector was coming under sustained pressure, with climate change activists calling for beef production to be cut away back in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and urging people to eat plant-based food instead. With many farmers already producing beef at a loss, the effects of Brexit before it even happens have been felt so badly that the EU and the Irish government agreed to put €50m each into an aid package to compensate them for their losses to date – but the manner of its distribution is proving contentious at the moment.
However, that issue pales into insignificance, relatively-speaking, in the light of the Mercosur deal announcement that smacks of breath-taking hypocrisy on the part of the EU, which – rightly – insists on such high standards of food production by all its own farmers and processors yet is prepared to cut a deal involving a country like Brazil, which is chopping down huge swathes of rainforest in order to expand its beef industry and has much lower standards when it comes to traceability, animal welfare, food safety and the environment. It is difficult to argue against IFA boss Joe Healy’s contention that Europe turning a blind eye to double standards and environmental degradation in Brazil is indefensible, and he described the deal with the Mercosur countries as ‘a sell-out.’
Ironically, while Brazil is cutting down trees to expand its beef industry, under our new Climate Action Plan, Irish farmers are being asked to plant more trees here to act as carbon sinks and then, what about all the emissions from the fuel will be burnt to ship cheap, lower-standard South American beef to a EU market that is already fully supplied? It really doesn’t make any sense at all.