Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, Mr President, Deputy President, Commodity Chairs and County Reps of the Irish Farmers Association.
At the outset I thank, IFA President Tim Cullinan for the invitation to speak at your AGM today. This past year has been a difficult one, with unprecedented challenges facing the whole country, not least the farming community.
In particular, I would like to commend the IFA and individual farmers across the nation for keeping supply chains operating during this extremely difficult time.
AgriFood Strategy 2030 and PfG
The Government is fully aware of Agri-Food’s importance to this country.
It is Ireland’s biggest indigenous exporting sector, based around 137,500 farms.
It exported a record €14.5 billion in 2019, a 63% increase from €8.9 billion in 2010.
This food and drink, is produced by over 1,800 companies and is exported to over 180 markets worldwide.
The sector employed over 164,400 people in 2019, over 7% of total employment.
This proportion is much greater outside of Dublin and the mid-east region, up to 14% in some regions.
Beyond direct employment, the sector is the heartbeat of the rural and local economy, with ancillary spending and employment essential to local towns and villages.
One of the main policy initiatives outlined in the Programme for Government is to develop a new agri-food strategy to 2030. We are working on an ambitious blueprint for the sector, adding value sustainably in the agri-food sector into the future, and supporting primary producers and employment in rural and coastal Ireland.
We do this while acknowledging the profound challenge posed by climate change.
A strategic focus of the strategy will therefore be on environmental protection, reversing biodiversity decline and developing additional market opportunities for primary producers closer to home.
The process to develop the Strategy is well underway and Minister McConalogue will discuss this in more detail later.
We have a strong foundation on which to build.
We have a positive international reputation as a supplier of quality, safe, nutritious and sustainably-produced food and beverages.
International consumers seek out our produce in a very competitive market and appreciate the great food and drink brands that have been developed over many years. We should be proud of this, but not complacent.
All stakeholders, from farmers and fishers right through to our food processors and distributors have to continue to work hard to enhance our hard-earned reputation.
I know that the IFA, in collaboration with all the stakeholders, is playing a key role in the development of the new Strategy.
Importance of Keeping Supply Chains Operating Under Restrictions
From the outset of the pandemic, the Government has been very conscious of the need to support supply chains operating during this unprecedented crisis.
The Government categorised farming and food production as essential services under the COVID-19 Regulations.
Irish food supply chains have continued to operate effectively and secure a supply of safe and healthy Irish food for consumers at home and abroad.
I particularly commend all parts of our sector along the supply chain who worked together to ensure the minimum disruption and put together strong contingency plans.
This was a key element in the successful maintenance of supply chains, particularly in dairy where the peak COVID crisis last year clashed with the peak milk supply period. I know you will be well prepared this year also.
As you know, we face particular challenges in food and meat factories. After a difficult start, a huge amount of work has been done to minimize risk in those settings. We have a programme of serial testing of workers at larger food plants and other businesses, which is now in the fifth cycle of testing.
However, as recent events have shown, the risks remain and we need to redouble efforts to protect the health of workers and the wider community.
Export Performance and Prospects
Despite the extraordinary challenges we faced in 2020, recent Bord Bia figures show only a marginal 2% decline in the value of exports of Irish food, drink and horticulture in 2020.,
In 2020, 33% of Ireland’s total food and drink exports were destined for International markets outside the UK and EU, while 34% were destined to the EU27 and 33% to the UK.
These figures underline the dividend of a decade-long, cross Government, national diversification strategy, which we need to build on in the years ahead.
I would like to pay tribute to farmers, your members, as well as our food and drink producers for their heroic efforts during 2020 despite dealing with a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic.
The Government will continue to support our primary producers and agri-food and drink manufacturers as they trade through continued uncertainty during 2021.
Also in 2021, Minister Charlie McConalogue and Minister of State Martin Heydon will be working closely on a series of market development and promotion events, to key international and European markets to further increase the footprint of Irish food and drink exports.
Of course, this year is when we will see the full impacts of Brexit, now that the Transition period has ended.
The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, together with the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, means that Ireland’s key objectives in the Brexit process have been achieved.
The agreement reached is fundamentally in Ireland’s interest. It provides for no tariffs and quotas for goods of EU and UK origin.
For the agri-sector the avoidance of tariffs and quotas was particularly important.
The beef sector in particular would have faced an incredibly punitive tariff rate equivalent of 72% on our beef exports of €1 billion per year. We have avoided this very difficult No Deal scenario.
The Agreement also protects the Single Market, which is so important for our future prosperity, and ensures fair competition for Irish businesses.
Of course, there are still enormous impacts on the agri-food sector.
We are seeing the extra costs imposed by necessary checks and controls – and these will increase for exporters later in the year when the UK fully introduces its own import regime.
There has also been disruption in fishing and other sectors, and further challenges will arise down the line.
The Government has worked intensively to help the sector adjust to these pressures – and will continue to do so into the future.
The European Commission also recently shared the initial allocations to Member States from the Brexit Adjustment Reserve which is valued at a total of €5.4 billion in current prices.
The initial allocation proposed for Ireland is more than €1 billion in current prices.
Ireland's proposed allocation reflects the extensive engagement undertaken by Government Ministers to present the unique, adverse and disproportionate impact of Brexit on Ireland.
The Commission’s proposal, including these initial allocations, will now be considered by the Council of the EU and by the European Parliament before it is finalised.
In those discussions, Ireland will continue to put forward our case that funding is needed to support structural adjustments in the most affected sectors of the Irish economy.
Farm Incomes and enhancing Market Transparency
For a long time my colleagues and I championed the cause of supporting farm incomes and enhancing the position of farmers in the supply chain at national and EU level.
I am pleased therefore that one of the key policies agreed in Government negotiations is to create a new authority called the National Food Ombudsman (NFO).
The NFO will contribute to increased fairness, equity, and transparency for farmers in the food chain by enforcing the Unfair Trading Practices Directive.
This new authority will also enforce EU-wide rules on prohibited unfair practices in the food chain.
Finally, it is envisaged that the NFO will have a role in analyzing and reporting on price and market data in Ireland.
Free Trade Agreements including EU Mercosur
Ireland trades with over 180 countries and has generally benefitted from Free Trade Agreements. Ireland always takes a balanced approach to such negotiations, so that offensive and defensive interests are both addressed as comprehensively as possible, having due regard to sensitive sectors.
We need to examine every deal on its merits to ensure that Irish interests are protected, environmental standards are not compromised and climate objectives are not undermined.
Regarding the EU-Mercosur Agreement, Ireland has consistently raised the negative impact that this agreement could have on the Irish beef sector. The Beef Tariff Rate Quota of 99,000 tonnes included in the agreement is more than we would have wished to see.
However, it should be noted, there are opportunities in the agreement particularly for the dairy and beverage sectors. Discussions are currently ongoing between the Commission and Mercosur to ensure that the provisions on deforestation and sustainability within the agreement are both achievable and verifiable.
Reports that we have all seen about deforestation in Brazil are of particular concern.
Ireland has commissioned an “Economic and Sustainability Impact Assessment for Ireland” on the agreement. This analysis of the potential effects of the agreement on Ireland, illustrates the concerns my government has with aspects of the agreement.
The Commission expects to bring the Mercosur deal to Trade Council in 2021 for ratification. The outcome of the ESIA study, among other factors, will inform Ireland’s approach at this Trade Council.
Enhanced Market Development
Our ongoing market expansion ambition has been challenged significantly by the impacts of Brexit and COVID-19.
However, our aim is always to maximise the volume and value of Irish agri-food exports to all destinations, while also anticipating and mitigating, as best we can, potential adverse trading developments.
Our strategy is to support existing and potential future UK trade, as well as development of increased EU and third country market access. For example, last year, Ireland gained access to the important Mexican market for pigmeat.
The Trade and Cooperation Agreement reached by the EU and the UK will help Irish exporters to maintain their UK market share and remain competitive against third country imports to the UK.
The Government has also provided additional funding for Bord Bia's market activities, including to strengthen the reputation of Irish food and drink through consumer and trade campaigns.
We have also been very active in the development of third country markets through Trade Missions – carried out virtually in 2020 due to the pandemic - and through leveraging our expanded network of agricultural attachés worldwide.
Indeed, the Government's focus on enhanced market development is illustrated by the appointment of Martin Heydon as Minister of State with specific responsibility for this area.
We will continue working on the opportunities provided by other recent EU Free Trade Agreements with third countries, and to press for the removal of technical market access barriers across a range of third country markets.
Beef Sector Supports & Market Transparency
The budget measures announced under Budget 2021 to support beef farmers build directly on the schemes established in recent years.
Core support for the sector is by way of the Beef Data and Genomics programme, which provided €300 million over the course of the current Rural Development Programme.
In addition, over the last two years, over €200 million in additional supports were made available specifically to the beef sector to increase economic and environmental efficiency in the suckler herd.
In Budget 2021, €85 million was allocated for specific supports for sustainable beef farming. This includes over €40 million for the extension of the Beef Data and Genomics Programme during the transition period before the next CAP.
As part of our ongoing work to increase market transparency in the sector, three market transparency studies have been commissioned as agreed in the beef sector agreement of September 2019.
These will be delivered soon and work will continue with initiatives such as enhanced price reporting at EU level and our commitment in the Programme for Government to establish a National Food Ombudsman.
As everyone knows, the agriculture sector is heavily challenged by the Climate Change crisis.
Indeed, no sector of the Irish economy is more directly exposed to the practical impacts of climate change as our farmers and fishers – which can already be seen in weather patterns.
I was pleased to see the Ag Climatise roadmap being launched last month.
This roadmap will need to evolve over time, given the scale of the climate action challenge facing Ireland, the EU and the World.
However, it provides clarity on the sort of practical measures we are asking farmers to implement on their farms over the period ahead to start making a difference to emissions.
Significantly, the Programme for Government commits to allocate €1.5 billion from the carbon tax to a REPS-2 programme to encourage and incentivize farmers to farm in a greener and more sustainable way.
The truth is that agriculture is entering a decade of change in some respects.
This will impact how we manage our breeding programmes, how we apply chemical fertiliser nutrients, and how we apply our organic manures back to the land.
Over time, I think the sorts of changes proposed within the Ag Climatise roadmap will be transformative for Irish agriculture, and will help set us apart on the global stage.
In the longer term, out to 2050, the agri-food sector will need to transition to become climate neutral along with other sectors of the Irish economy.
Farmers have a critical role to play with regard to increased afforestation and carbon sequestration in the time ahead. As a Government we will support the development of on-farm forestry initiatives through the new CAP and invest further in knowledge transfer in this area.
I know that I don’t need to tell anyone here about the scale of challenge which lies ahead. No sector is more familiar with change and challenge than yourselves.
The agriculture sector is the backbone of the rural economy and I want to assure everyone here today that the Government wants to work with you to map out a sustainable and prosperous future for the sector – supplying the food which the world needs, while meeting our shared environmental goals.
There are lots of opportunities as well as threats. The path forward will depend on imagination, research and use of new technologies, and investment by both private and public sectors.
There is much to do, and while the sector clearly needs to put its shoulder to the wheel, I am confident we will continue to export high quality meat and milk products over the decades ahead, in a more sustainable way.
By embracing this historic challenge and leading internationally, we can protect the Irish family farm for generations to come.
Rural Development Programme 2014-2020
These changes will take place in the context of ongoing investment in the sector by the EU and Irish Government.
The Irish Rural Development Programme provides support of €4bn to farmers and rural communities throughout the country. We have drawn down nearly 83% of the EU funds allocated for the 2014 – 2020 programme, and well above the EU average drawdown of 62%.
It supports the delivery of climate and environmental benefits, and maintenance of our unique landscape.
For example, it has 21 European Innovation Partnership projects, with more planned for 2021, to address the challenges facing the sector, including water quality, biodiversity and the restoration of peat uplands.
More widely, the GLAS Scheme pays farmers to promote biodiversity, protect water quality and help combat climate change. Nearly 50,000 farmers were participating at the end of 2020, with over €950m having been paid out since 2015. I am delighted to note the interest of the vast majority of participants in continuing this vital role in the coming years.
Organic farming will also play an increasingly important role in our response to the challenges of climate change and sustainability.
It is an area where Ireland is uniquely placed to leverage our brand as a clean, green location on the international market.
There are ambitious targets set out in the Programme for Government and in the Farm to Fork Strategy to increase the agricultural area under organic production, and I know that the Minister of State for land use and biodiversity Pippa Hackett is doing important work in this area.
To support rural communities in general, significant funding of €250 million is available under the LEADER Programme to encourage rural enterprise, training, environmental initiatives, tourism and broadband. Additional funding will be made available in 2021 and 2022.
You will all be aware that the current Rural Development Programme was due to finish at the end of 2020. It is hugely welcome, therefore, that after an unavoidable period of uncertainty Minister McConalogue and his EU colleagues agreed an extension to the programme until the end of 2022. This includes nearly €900 million in EU funds over the next 2 years.
CAP Strategic Plan
In preparation for the full Programme to follow this two-year transitional period, the new CAP Strategic Plan is being developed. Workshops have been taking place and further public consultations are expected soon. I encourage all stakeholders to contribute to this formative process.
The new Plan must reflect the increased environmental ambitions which the Commission has outlined in its Green Deal, and the climate and biodiversity challenges we all face. We must work together to find solutions, which meet the requirements of the sector, the economic and social needs of rural Ireland, and the responsibility we all have to build a greener future.
Before I conclude, I would like to take a moment to address the Fair Deal scheme.
Delays over the last few years have been inexcusable and I know have been a source of considerable anxiety.
I want to assure farmers today that this Government will publish a Nursing Home Support Scheme Bill to help ensure the continued viability of family-run farms and businesses.
I will conclude by expressing my sincere gratitude for the work carried out in this sector, which I know could not be done without the hard work and dedication of farmers.
Farmers, your families and your businesses are the backbone of rural Ireland and are key to a balanced economic development. I sincerely thank you for the invitation here today and I thank you all for everything you have done thus far in keeping our society fed over this truly once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic.
I look forward to working with you in the challenging period ahead, as we embrace the climate change and sustainability challenges facing all of our country and all of the world.
I wish each of you all a happy, safe and successful 2021 - enjoy your evening.