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Speech of An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD, at the IFA AGM

President, Deputy President, Director General, Committee Members, Members, a dhaoine uaisle, oíche mhaith daoibh.
Colleagues, Minister Creed, Minister Doyle. I would like to recognise the work they have been doing for Government and for your sector over the past 3 years.

President, it’s a pleasure to be here for your 64th AGM Dinner. I welcome the opportunity to speak to you at the start of an eventful year for the farming community.

We live in interesting and turbulent times, full of risk and opportunity.

But I’ll come back to that.

I am going to start on a positive note.

Despite all the challenges we faced last year, 2018 was a strong year for the agri-food sector. The value of our agri-food exports exceeded €13.6 billion, about 11% of all our exports.

Agri-food is now almost 8% of our National Income, employing over 174,000 people in rural and urban communities up and down the country. Last year, dairy grew by 4%, much faster then the EU average.

When I spoke to you last January, we discussed the threat posed to the Irish and European beef sector by the EU-Mercosur negotiations and our determination to protect your interests. I believe with the help of like-minded countries we succeeded in our objective. In the months ahead we will continue to protect your interests.

In the same way that I was determined that there should be no deal on Mercosur that would undermine our farmers and food produce, I am equally determined to secure a deal on Brexit that protects your interests as major exporters and importers to the UK.

I promise you that we are in this together and that the Government will always have your back. In our actions, in our negotiations, we have kept our word.

I know there is a huge focus on the border at present but I want you to know when it comes to Brexit, farmers, fishermen and exporters are always at the front of my mind and the need to protect the jobs, wealth and revenues you create, to defend the communities you serve.

President, it’s worth recalling that last year we exported €4.5 billion in agri-food and beverage products to the UK. That’s just under 40% of our total agri-food and drink exports. We are also the UK’s largest agri-food export destination. So there is a significant relationship and it goes in both directions.

Brexit is not something that we wanted, is not our policy, but nonetheless we have to deal with it. Our objective is to maintain as close a trading relationship as possible, no tariffs, no red tape, and avoid the reintroduction of a hard border on the island of Ireland. We are also determined to protect the integrity of the EU Single Market, something which Ireland relies on so much. And also the rights and freedom of citizens on both sides of the border.

While working to achieve the best solution, we are preparing ourselves for the worst.

For example, in the most recent Budget, we introduced a Brexit package of almost €80m for farmers, fishermen and food SMEs.

This came on top of the range of initiatives introduced in previous budgets, including low-cost loans for farmers and food businesses, and significantly increased funding to Bord Bia. There is more to come.

Through Global Ireland 2025 we are working to increase our global footprint and to diversify market opportunity. Over the last two years, Minister Creed has led several trade missions to Asian and American markets, and they have brought concrete results, with access to China for Irish beef a good example alongside trade deals with Canada, Mexico and Japan.

We have already alerted the European Commission that we will seek emergency aid in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The purpose of this aid would be to help cope with the impact on Irish trade, particularly for the beef, dairy and fishing sectors.

The Common Market Organisation also provides for exceptional aid mechanisms to be introduced in order to manage serious market disturbances.

It was used to support the Baltic States when the Russian market was closed to them. It can be used for us too. But, we will need to do more than that again. Among the options discussed at cabinet this morning were intervention, aids for storage, restructuring grants and other states aids. We already have approval for rescue and restructuring and for businesses hit by Brexit.

You’ll know Minister Creed is engaging with Commissioner Hogan on these issues and I know that he has been active over the past two years to sensitise other Member States and the Commission to the unique vulnerability of the Irish agri food sector to a disorderly Brexit. I can assure you that Ireland is seeking every possible assistance.
Brexit is the great political challenge of our time, and we have to hold our nerve. I think the words of the poet Maya Angelou apply perfectly to Brexit. While hoping for the best, we must be ‘prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between’.
I cannot offer you the reassurance provided by certainty, but I can reassure you that untilthings are certain we will keep fighting your corner.

I know that this has been a difficult year for the beef sector, weather, fodder and broader challenges around market volatility and Brexit and of course price.

Last year, I said to you that Ireland without our beef industry would not be Ireland and I mean it.

The beef industry is vulnerable so we are focused on working with you to meet the challenges ahead.

Through the rural development programme we want to do everything we can to help. As you know, €300 million has been invested in the Beef Data and Genomics Scheme, and €23 million in the ANCS.

The Beef Environmental Efficiency pilot will also be in operation by the end of February.

By enabling farmers to calculate the weaning efficiency of a suckler cow it will improve performance and efficiency in the herd. We’re investing €20 million in this, and we will work to ensure that this targeted funding for the beef sector is maintained in the next iteration of the CAP. I strongly believe that central to securing adequate funding for CAP in the next EU five year budget, will be environmental programmes - putting the E in cap you might say!
So, when it comes to these negotiations, our single most important objective is to protect the CAP budget for the period 2021-2027, especially payments to farmers. We also want a more modern and less bureaucratic CAP, delivering more for the environment, and with greater national flexibility.

I believe provisions to help family farms and support for our agri-food sector contributes to the advancement of the European ideal and delivers value for our citizens.

We have set an ambitious timescale for agreement. Ireland is preparing to work with the Romanian Presidency to secure the best possible outcome for us all and we have strong allies from the Mediterranean to the Tundra, big countries and small, former members and new members. I am confident we will succeed.

At the end of November, former American president, George Bush senior, passed away. He dealt with many great events during his Presidency from the Iraq war to the fall of communism.

However, the most controversial thing he ever said during his presidency was a comment in 1990 that he hated broccoli and had banned it from the White House. Farmers were so outraged that they sent him a 20 tonne shipment!

I guess, Politicians have to be careful about what they eat and they have to be careful about what they say they eat!

At the same time, we cannot stay silent about matters which affect all of us.

We do a disservice to the public and to your members if we were to ignore or dismiss genuine concerns in the hope they might go away if we do.

We should never deny science. There is no future for us in that.

The truth is that people all over the country and all over the western world are having conversations about diet and how it impacts on human health, climate change and global development. It is happening at dinner tables and in schools and it is increasingly a factor for millennials, the younger generation, many of whom are parents, when they are making decisions about what to eat and what to feed their kids.

People are aware of the impact of diet on health and the environment. And they will become increasingly aware. Irish agriculture needs to be part of that conversation, or it will be left behind. I want you to be part of the conversation and I don’t want you left behind.

Agriculture accounts for 30% or more of all our GHG emissions.

You have an important role to play in the debate about how agriculture can help us reduce our carbon emissions. And your voice is needed to help guide us on the best way forward.

We need your advice on climate actions that will reduce emissions without reducing your incomes and climate actions that might increase them.

Ireland is currently off course in meeting our emissions reduction targets.

We’re catching up but we need to catch up much quicker.
You can help us in so many ways – forestry to mention but one example. There are many others. Renewable energy generation is another.
Minister Bruton is working with colleagues to develop new initiatives across electricity, transport, agriculture and other relevant sectors. These will form part of an All-of-Government Plan which will be completed in the next few months. It can also be seen in the way Minister Creed is enlisting our fishing fleet to remove plastics from the sea – the Clean Ocean Initiative.

We need to match our ambition for the environment with real action. This is critically important if we are to save our planet and also to ensure that the well deserved green image of the Irish food sector, which is so central to its brand image on EU and international markets, is to be protected.

So collaboration and collective responsibility is the only chance we have of succeeding. And I know the Smart Farming Initiative, led by the IFA, is a great example of the type of co-ordinated action that will help the sector meet its environmental obligations.

President, I believe that tonight is an opportunity to take stock as well as to prepare for the challenges ahead. That means recognising the fundamental truth at the heart of the story of Irish agriculture.

Our farmers and rural communities are the custodians of our land. You produce safe and fully traceable food, locally produced and globally recognised.

You contribute to our economy and society by creating jobs and wealth and generating revenues in parts of the country where few other industries can.

You sustain thousands of communities all over Ireland.

Today, Irish agriculture faces enormous challenges -Brexit/Climate Change/ the need to bring more economic opportunities to rural Ireland.

I firmly believe that by working together we can rise to all these challenges and we will.