EU-Mercosur Trade Agreement: Statements- Wednesday 3rd July 2019


"Disappointment", "betrayal", "catastrophic", "reckless", "irresponsible" and "devastating". These are not my words but all of them have been used in the press by journalists and farm lobby groups to describe the deal in the last number of days. We should not be surprised because the deal has the potential to cripple the industry here.


In a former life, I was the president of the Ulster Farmers' Union. Nearly four years ago we were acutely aware of Mercosur and the risks it presented. In fact, the deal has been on the table for nearly 20 years. We were always fearful that agriculture and food would be used as trading or bargaining chips in a deal. We warned people about the impact the deal could have, the potential damage and the devastating effect it could have on the meat industry and, lo and behold, it has happened. The risks presented by the deal four years ago are exactly the same now.


First, granting access to the European market for 99,000 tonnes of product at a reduced tariff is still a major concern albeit a reduction from the initial figure of 300,000 tonnes. A beef industry under immense pressure on a number of fronts cannot take any more burdens. There is no question that the deal will ultimately impact on the European market where cheaper product, sourced in South America, will depress the market. The deal will curtail any improvement in prices. Most important, the deal will leave our farmers and producers at a distinct disadvantage. Products will be imported into Europe without the assurances and guarantees that we currently demand from our own farmers. The products sourced in regions will not be bound by the environmental protections and regulations that we have observe. Products will be sourced from places where no minimum wage exists, where workers' rights are not protected and where the costs of production are stripped back to the bare minimum. In reality, when products reach these shores they will be judged as being of equal standing as Irish beef, which they definitely will not. Will discerning consumers differentiate or identify different production methods? Will they be willing to pay more for Irish beef? Will they question the validity of cheaper food? I think not. In fact, I know they will not because many consumers cannot afford to do so. Anyone who struggles to get their weekly spend on food and provisions down may welcome cheaper food but what is the real cost of doing so?


On this island we have world-leading standards for traceability, animal welfare, food safety and environmental protections, which address all of the concerns consumers may have regarding where their food comes from and how it is produced. This deal presents a double standards policy and completely discriminates against our own farmers and producers. However, it must be stated that the deal is not bad for all sectors, as the Minister has indicated. The dairy sector is set to gain and possibly capitalise on opportunities. The Minister highlighted the examples of cream liqueurs, cheese, milk powder and infant formula. I have no doubt that many other sectors of trade and industry will benefit from the Mercosur deal. The European car industry and many others have openly welcomed the deal but that is of little consolation or comfort to anyone in the Irish beef industry. Where do we go from here? What are the solutions? How will we deal with this matter? The industry must be given solutions to these problems within the deal. The deal has been agreed in principle but the end deal will probably look quite similar to what we have in front of us.


Standards of food production on imported goods must be identified with robust monitoring and examples of malpractice highlighted as was the case in the audit reports performed by the EU Commission in 2013 and 2017, respectively. The reports clearly identified that Mercosur countries were not complying with the EU's strict sanitary standards or food safety standards. Furthermore, as regards sustainability, it is imperative that the Mercosur countries are held to account with binding commitments to the Paris climate agreement, under which Brazil has committed to end illegal deforestation by 2030 and restore and reforest 12 million hectares of forest, of which we have seen very little evidence.


In addition, we must consider mechanisms to ensure viable businesses remain viable. We must also avoid land abandonment, which could become a reality if margins are further eroded in beef production. We must ensure that assistance to underpin sustainability and profitability is implemented. Additionally, we must educate consumers to question food sourcing and integrity, and to place food procurement at a much higher priority in their value set. Consumers must get all the facts and information to make informed decisions when they purchase.


This week has not been a good one for Irish beef producers and many people have likened the deal to the boy who cried wolf. I urge people to be under no illusion because the wolf is at our door and the threat is real. The deal has created another layer of uncertainty in an industry facing unheralded pressure from a lack of profitability and environmental concerns, veganism, vegetarianism and alternative proteins, and draws into question its sustainability and future. The one thing that is for sure is that if we do not protect this industry then we will lose it.


As has been demonstrated by a number of scientists and academics, livestock production and beef production will be critical components in maintaining a healthy environment and rural landscape, to return nutrients to the soil, to maintain pastures and uplands and will be a vital player in the business of carbon management. The ideology of a world of vegans and vegetarians that is devoid of livestock but planted with fruit and vegetables has been proven to be unsustainable. Livestock production and beef production will be part of the mix for a healthy planet.


In conclusion, we must deal with uncertainty and give clarity. We must support sustainability and ensure margins. We have a deal and two years of a legal process before us. Therefore, we must engage immediately to protect those who will be the most affected.


Sourced from and full discussion available at;

https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/seanad/2019-07-03/15/#spk_148