Diversification of Agriculture, New Fishing Deal Recommended
Foodwise 2025 is supposed to set the tempo for Ireland's food strategy over the next decade, but events have already passed it by. Brexit came as a shock and now the whole assessment will have to be re-evaluated.
Foodwise 2025 came in for criticism from environmental groups soon after its publication. They accused it of having the contradictory aims of reducing emissions while allowing agriculture to scale up. So this report by the Oireachteas Committee on Agriculture will be an opportunity to place the ambitions of Ireland's food and agriculture sector on a realistic footing.
The report deals specifically with the impact of the UK referendum on membership of the European Union. There's not much to argue with in its main conclusions. It identifies uncertainty as the main worry. The terms of the UK's exit will affect Ireland in many ways. The report calls for “an outcome which is the least damaging to the interests of all parties.” While initial fears of a contagion effect have subsided, the report says Brexit “demands a response from the EU which balances a significant number of competing demands.”
The prospect of the UK insisting on a 'hard Brexit' seems likely, which is the worst-case scenario coming to pass. The report notes that opposition across Europe to the TTIP and CETA trade deals (with the US and Canada respectively) indicates that negotiations will take place in a “generally sceptical environment. This suggests that negotiations may be prolonged and that concessions to the UK are unlikely. Due to the strong economic linkages between Ireland and the UK, many commentators are of the opinion that a bad agreement for the UK will also be a bad agreement for Ireland.”
The report's authors note that dissatisfaction with the EU is due to poor communication of the benefits of membership. The Committee believes that the UK should neither be punished nor rewarded for choosing to leave the EU. “The agreement must be nuanced and based on
objective rather than subjective criteria,” says the report.
This puts negotiators in a pickle. As the report's authors note: “An agreement which is perceived as lenient on the UK could embolden Eurosceptic movements and weaken the Union further. Alternatively, an agreement which is overly onerous on the UK could have a similar effect, allowing Eurosceptic movements to portray the EU as an authoritarian force and an enemy of national sovereignty.” As a result “finding the appropriate balance” could take a long time.
Regarding Ireland as a whole, the report wisely recommends close contact between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government “to voice concerns and pursue common objectives”. This will be crucial to the task of finding a way to keep the border open and checkpoint-free.
Because there is a two-year time limit on negotiations for the conclusion of Article 50, the report recommends that Ireland call for an extension should it be needed. The report's authors call for a tariff-free deal with the UK, to protect the many businesses and employees reliant on trade within the current EU.
Northern Ireland faces lots of uncertainty due to Brexit and there has been justifiable fear that the UK will sacrifice the north's best interests in following a hard exit. The report outlines the sectors that are most at risk from any tightening of border controls:
- “A significant volume of live imports of pigs and cattle from Ireland which is necessary
to help Northern Irish processors achieve scale efficiency in their plants (with pigs in
- 25% of the Northern Ireland milk pool goes to Ireland for processing;
- 36% of Northern Irish lamb is processed in Ireland; and
- 50% of Northern Ireland milled goes to Ireland.”
Future of Farming
The report calls for a process of diversification of Irish agriculture in order to make it more able to withstand shock. It presents three options:
“i. Finding new export markets for existing products;
- Reopening any possible markets;
- Developing new products to substitute for loss of market share in the UK.”
These recommendations are all well and good, but they will take time and product development is not so easy, requiring investment. The report does not indicate where this will come from.
UK farmer supports
The report quotes an analysis by Teagasc which finds that “a dramatic, New Zealand style ending of government support to agriculture in the UK is unlikely.” Instead, it is believed that the UK will favour a shift in funding towards agri-environmental schemes. “Overall, if the level of income support provided currently is dramatically reduced, this could lead to significant changes to the structure of UK agriculture and to the level of UK agri -food self-sufficiency that would have more significant implication for UK agri-food trade.”
The report acknowledges the diversity of Irish farming enterprises, but notes that some will probably have to look at farming part-time. Others might have to invest heavily to survive, by scaling up. The report predicts that if the UK manages to source cheap produce on the world market Irish producers will face “considerable downward pressure”.
The report could have focused more of the areas of promise like organic small-holdings producing speciality good as well as agroforestry possibilities, but while these are not suggested they would fall into a broad diversification bracket.
Country of origin criteria may have to be strengthened post-Brexit, which would affect certain products processed cross-border and re-sold at home. These products could attract tariffs for not being “deemed sufficiently Irish”.
Some shared Geographical Indicators (GI – products with specific location associations like Irish whiskey) will need to be re-examined in light of Brexit. “The Committee is of the opinion that the UK be allowed to voluntarily participate in the geographical indications (GIs) scheme. The Committee believes that GIs are beneficial to consumers in both the UK and the EU27, as such, there seems little merit in mandating the exclusion of the UK from participation in the GI scheme.”
The report calls for increased support for the biofuels industry. “Increasing Irish production and encouraging use of biofuels could help Ireland meet emissions targets, reduce reliance on imported fuel, and help sustain Irish horticulture by allowing farmers to diversify their crops and by creating greater domestic demand for their produce.” The report recommends a Renewable Heat Incentive.
The report predicts a reduction in the CAP budget, with subsequent loss of income for farmers. As CAP was due to be reformed in 2020 anyhow, “the convergence of CAP reform and Brexit timeframes places CAP reform in a difficult context; with little scope for the CAP to reflect, or indeed, take advantage of the post-Brexit environment.”
The Committee recommend a complete renegotiation of Irish fishing quotas. This is to be welcomed. The authors say that the UK was a traditional ally of ours when negotiations for fishing quotas were carried on, helping us to gain what are known as 'Hague Preferences'. These are special extensions of allowable catch for important white fish stocks. Now that the UK is leaving the EU, it is an opportunity for us to revisit the terms of our fishing agreement with the EU. “The Committee recommends that every effort be made to argue for a re-evaluation of Irish fishing quotas, recognising the failings of the current system, and facilitating the long-term elimination of the Hague preferences. The Committee believes that if quotas were allocated fairly that the need for
the application of the Hague preferences would be a non-issue, removing a contentious element of
annual quota negotiations.”
The report contains an interesting case study on the potential of seaweed to boost Irish aquaculture into the future. Its authors state that although the Irish seaweed sector is currently growing by up to 7% per annum, it is still underdeveloped. Under-supply of sea vegetables within Europe is being filled by imports, mainly from Asia. “While not sufficient on its own, promotion of seaweed and other opportunities can help diversify Irish agri-food; developing the long term viability and robustness of the sector.”
In short, Foodwise 2025 was conceived in those heady pre-Brexit, pre-Trump days when optimism roamed free and dreams took flight. The world has been dealt a wake-up call since then and Foodwise 2025 was always more aspirational than practical. Its shortcomings have been noted before. Now is a chance to introduce sustainable policies that will safeguard our agriculture sector into the future.
Many of the Committee's observations are unquestionably sound, but as usual it is possible to quibble with its recommendations. There is no doubt however, that they are made with the best intentions. The big problem remains uncertainty and we cannot make too many grand plans until we know more about how this Brexit deal will be done.