IFA Presidential Address to the 67th AGM
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good morning and welcome to the 67th Annual General Meeting of the Irish Farmers’ Association.
There’s a great sense of relief to be speaking to you today in person. I also want to welcome those joining remotely.
The last two years have posed a huge challenge for everybody in society, and I want to recognise the contribution of so many since 2020.
COVID-19 has had a massive impact on our everyday lives.
But there are better days ahead.
As farmers, our role is to provide food to the highest standards.
I want to acknowledge the efforts of everybody across the food chain who worked to keep the shelves stocked.
We have a number of officers here today who are completing their terms. I will come back to this later.
Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge facing our sector is climate action.
Since our last AGM, we now have a new Climate Act on the statute books. Flowing from that, we have emissions ceilings for all sectors.
Agriculture has been allocated a reduction range of between 22-30%.
Everybody on this Council put in a lot of hard work lobbying on this issue to ensure that agriculture was not saddled with an unfair burden.
While our ceiling may be lower than other sectors, it will be extremely challenging.
We must remember that our emissions come from food production. They must be regarded differently from those in other sectors.
Climate policy around the world is now impacting on food production. Other EU member states are taking drastic action to reduce their output.
Yet, our global population is due to increase from 7.5bn today to 10bn by 2030.
We all accept we have a climate emergency, but we now risk creating a global food emergency.
Too many policy decisions in Europe and around the world don’t have a proper analysis of the consequences.
The EU Farm to Fork is a classic example of this. A policy being launched and slipped in through the back door.
Only now has the EU Joint Research Centre and the Wageningen University spelled out the potential negative consequences for the production of food.
Global climate policy treats every country as a silo, but there is a lack of joined-up thinking on food.
Not every country can produce its own food. We are fortunate that our island is an ideal location to produce food.
We should celebrate this, nurture it and continue to develop our sector. Global demand for our main commodities is growing.
More people will need more food.
But the EU and our Government want us to produce less. This is shortsighted.
This policy will have to change in the years ahead. Food will have to a bigger priority and Irish farmers will be needed more than ever.
Farmers know their responsibilities. They want to play their part.
The debate so far has been far too narrow.
We are the largest indigenous sector in the country.
Farmers are constantly lectured on sustainability. But sustainability has three pillars – Environmental, Social and Economic.
Last year the process to agree Food Vision 2030 concluded. We were part of that process.
While we didn’t agree with everything in the document, we stuck it out and a plan was agreed. Others walked away.
We will work to achieve all the targets set out in the document.
We will not shirk our responsibilities, but we won’t allow our members to be thrown to the wolves.
I want to warn against imposing solutions without reaching agreement with farmers.
The African proverb says: to go far, go together.
Ignoring the economic contribution of farming to the rural economy would be a monumental own goal.
Since 1990, our output has increased by 40%. But our emissions have remained largely unchanged.
And in this time, we have reached exports of €13.5bn, a record figure. Food Vision sets out a target to increase our exports to €21bn by 2030.
We must strike the right balance between environmental, economic and social sustainability.
There has not been enough focus on what our sector can deliver. After all, we are the only sector that can sequester carbon.
We have huge potential to contribute to renewable energy, but the Government has done nothing to make it possible.
Forestry has been identified as a top priority and then it was derailed by our own Government’s bureaucracy.
There is a commitment in Food Vision to put a plan in place for a sustainable dairy sector.
Stakeholders have been invited to a meeting tomorrow to begin the process. We will attend and play our part.
However, the Minister for Agriculture cannot use a blunt instrument to achieve climate targets.
The emphasis must be on reducing emissions, not reducing output.
We are fortunate to have research institutions such as Teagasc and the ICBF.
We need to give them the time to devise and activate solutions.
Using a blunt instrument to satisfy the Green Party would be a huge mistake.
We live in a democracy. A party with 12 seats out of 160 cannot rule the roost.
I was in Strasbourg last week for the vote on animal transport, a crucial issue for Irish farmers.
The Greens opposed the amendments, which were very important for the continuation of live exports.
One of those Green MEPs was Ciaran Cuffe, who took it upon himself a few months ago to try and sabotage young farmers by warning the banks not to lend to them.
There must be a balanced approach to policy making. We must fully understand the consequences of policy decisions and the impact they will have in all our communities – including our rural communities.
Our suckler herd is one of our great national assets. The Government cannot allow it to wither on the vine.
In the CAP Strategic Plan, our Government short changed the sector.
There is €80m in funding for the suckler sector in 2022. But they’ve only committed €52m from next year.
We are told by the Minister he will fight for more in the national budget. He must deliver on this.
Our sheep sector also needs to be supported.
Again, less money has been allocated for sheep in the CAP than the last one. These vulnerable sectors are the bedrock of the rural economy.
These farmers should be backed by the Government, not face death by a thousand cuts.
Our grain sector is going to be severely hit by the new CAP. A sector that we need to grow, is being put into reverse.
More initiatives are needed to grow our area under tillage. We have the potential to reduce our reliance on feed imports by producing more here, but it’s backwards we are going.
There’s a big focus in the next CAP on the new agri-environment scheme. I want to put down a marker here today: this scheme has to work for productive farmers.
And the money cannot leak to service providers. It must stay with farmers.
While farmers are facing these CAP cuts in 2023, 2022 has gotten off to a bad start with rocketing input prices.
Energy, feed and fertiliser bills could overwhelm farm families trying to run their businesses.
The pigs and poultry sectors, in particular, are going through a very difficult time.
What we need to see is a comprehensive response from all stakeholders.
Four actions would help:
- Input suppliers must quickly pass back any reductions to farmers
- Banks should be flexible and take an understanding approach
- The EU Commission should finally remove anti-dumping duties on fertiliser.
- We want a proactive approach from the Government with innovative support measures.
Today, I would call on the Minister to pull the sector together to address this.
We need a taskforce, involving all stakeholders, to see how we respond collectively to this crisis.
Again, it’s our most productive farmers that are being worst hit.
We cannot pass our cost increases onto others in the chain.
It was John F Kennedy who said: ‘The farmer is the only person in the economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale and pays the freight both ways’.
We are being squeezed from all sides.
The CAP is no longer supporting food production. The emphasis is now on environmental measures.
More than ever, farmers need a higher price for their product.
Which brings me to the long-promised retail regulation.
Farmers are rightly asking: where is the Food Regulator?
The Minister for Agriculture said we would have one by the middle of last year.
And we’re still waiting.
You have to wonder what does it take to rein in the retailers?
Retailers who did very well in the last two years, but who seem to have a grip on Government policy that could bring fairness to the food chain.
Retailers who have pushed our pig, poultry, horticulture and liquid milk sectors to the brink of wipeout.
Food prices in Ireland have fallen every year from 2014 to 2020. This is unsustainable.
I met some of our horticulture producers recently and their situation is horrific. Many are planning to stop producing.
But the retailers keep turning the screw, using food as a loss leader. It seems they don’t care if all our growers go out of business.
Last week, our pig farmers were protesting outside retailers.
This week, our poultry farmers were protesting outside Lidl who decided to sell a large chicken for €3.49. They did this knowing that poultry growers are on their knees.
Last year, the same retailer tried to silence IFA by going to the High Court to seek an injunction against us.
But they didn’t get their injunction and costs were awarded against them.
They have now agreed to meet us next week.
They should decommission their highly-paid lawyers and spend the money on supporting their suppliers.
IFA won’t be bullied or intimidated by legal or other threats. And we won’t stand by while retailers make dirt of our food.
There is now a law banning below cost selling of alcohol. We need the same for food. This needs to be part of the food regulator legislation.
When he joins us later, we will be discussing this with Minister McConalogue. We expect clear timelines and a commitment that the Regulator will have teeth and will be able to stand up to retailers and processors.
The other reality is that our sector is still very vulnerable to a potential post Brexit impact.
Implementation of customs check has only been postponed.
The UK is doing trade deals with others which could displace our product.
Farmers may well need support from the Brexit adjustment reserve.
As the most exposed sector, a significant portion of this fund must be reserved for farming.
Our Association continues to be strong, with over 74,000 voting members. It’s positive to see us return to a financial surplus this year.
This wasn’t achieved easily. We have made huge changes in our association over the past two years.
We have added a number of new faces to our staff team. They have brought vibrancy and new thinking to the Association.
Our democratic structure is the bedrock of our association.
During the pandemic, IFA adapted very well in a short space of time.
Change came because it had to. We used technology to an extent that we would never have thought possible two years ago.
Our current structure has served us well, but it’s time to look at it afresh.
There must be opportunities for us to modernise, make more use of technology and to adapt to meet the new challenges of 2022 and beyond.
This year, I intend to initiate a review of our structures. We need to attract more new people to take on roles in IFA.
We must have an efficient structure that makes the best use of the time officers give to our Association. We cannot be afraid of change.
A number of officers who have given outstanding service to the IFA, particularly in the last two years, are completing their terms at today’s AGM.
I want to acknowledge the huge contribution all of you have made and to wish you well for the future.
We will recognise your commitment later this evening.
The Covid pandemic has made the last two years extremely challenging. Our officers rose to that challenge.
I also want to welcome all the new members to National Council.
The year ahead will be challenging, but we are determined to deal with those challenges on behalf of farmers.