Hundreds of farmers descended on Dublin on Tuesday urging the Government not to “sell them out”.
Twenty nine Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) county executives from across Ireland visited the city’s Davenport Hotel for a two-hour conference to “intensively lobby” politicians against the EU Commission’s Mercosur trade deal.
The European Commission agreed the deal last month, after two decades of negotiations and despite strong opposition from Italian, Spanish, French, Irish and Polish livestock sectors.
The deal could see an extra 99,000 tonnes of beef, 18,000 tonnes of poultry and 25 tonnes of pork imported from Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, a development that Irish farmers say could decimate the industry.
The Irish farming lobby argue that the beef produced in Ireland is of the highest standard, and the import of south American meat will introduce unfair competition with producers who do not abide by similar standards, due to far less demanding health, traceability and environmental requirements.
Shane Galvin from Limerick, who has worked on his family beef farm since the age of four, says the trip to Dublin was vital to drive home the message that the deal must be stopped.
“We have to make them understand how important this is to rural Ireland,” he said.
“The EU are trying to flex their muscles against (US President Donald) Trump in case of any kind of trade war, but it’s a reckless deal when you compare it with the fact that we don’t know what will happen with Brexit.
“Three hundred thousand tonnes of Irish beef goes to the UK, if it’s a hard Brexit – where is that beef going to go?
“Now they’re talking about bringing in more cheap beef and poultry, it’ll all have a massive knock- on effect.
“Outside of this, if it’s a hard Brexit, the number of beef farmers will have to halve or quarter.
“When the cheaper meat comes in, it’ll drive the price of Irish meat down, we’re already in a loss making situation.
“In the west coast, beef farming is the only viable farming, if they go, the place goes wild, farms aren’t tended, tourism is affected because no one wants to look at that, and it all spirals from there.”
Another key issue for the IFA is the environmental impact.
Beef farming has come under sustained criticism as governments across Europe tackle their own environmental targets, over concern about the impact it has on climate change.
The EU Commission Joint Research Centre found that Irish beef is four times more carbon efficient than Brazilian meat, a fact that the IFA says highlights the hypocrisy of the deal.
Supporters of the deal argue that rather than undermining sustainability, the deal presents an opportunity for Europe to export high social and environmental standards to the South American bloc.
EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan said last week that critics are exploiting environmental concerns to block free trade.
Speaking after the deal announcement, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Michael Creed conceded that he was very concerned at the potential impact of some elements.
“I am very disappointed that this agreement includes a significant tariff rate quota for South American beef, at a time when the beef sector in Europe is facing significant uncertainty because of Brexit,” he said.
“I am deeply concerned at the potential impact on the Irish beef sector.”
Despite the Commission’s agreement, Joe Healy from the IFA said the ball was not yet over the line.
“We want to put the pressure on politicians here to exert that pressure on MEPs and pressure further down the line on our Taoiseach to veto this deal,” he said.
“There’s different opinions as to whether Ireland has a veto or not, but if we have that veto, we need to use it to stop this deal progressing.”
When asked if he felt the Taoiseach cared about farmers, Mr Healy replied: “Time will tell, Mr (Leo) Varadkar has much to do in terms of not selling rural Ireland out to get this Mercosur deal over the line, and also in relation to Brexit, he needs to ensure farmers are safeguarded from all the negotiations over Brexit.”