ICMSA President Pat McCormack: 'It's important to remember, whatever happens, Irish farming can feed Ireland and anyone else within reach that needs food'
Following discussions with farm organisations across the EU in recent days – specifically ICMSA’s sister farming associations in the European Milk Board - we are now plainly at the point where we have to accept that there has been very serious market disruptions across the EU arising from the Coronavirus pandemic and policy measures at EU level will be required to allow farmers and processors to adjust to the current market uncertainties.
The announcement last week that McDonald’s is to close its chain of restaurants across Ireland and the UK has merely underlined the writing that was already ‘on the wall’.
In the context where one-in-five of all burgers sold by that food services chain right across Europe are sourced in Ireland, the ‘knock-backwards’ effects will be immediate and substantial.
What’s encouraging, in this present atmosphere of anxiety and unprecedented dislocation, is the determination of authorities, at both State and EU level, to go at the problems and their seeming willingness to utilise the lessons learned so expensively a decade or so ago.
The first and most important of those lessons was the need to step in quickly and decisively, with both the determination and funds, before an economic fall becomes an economic collapse.
We can start from the point where there has been a surge in sales at retail level in recent weeks and this is likely to continue for the foreseeable future – if not at the very high levels seen last week. Food service has seen a dramatic drop and, again, the period of recovery at this stage remains uncertain.
What has emerged ‘front and centre’ over the last week is the importance of food security in the EU and the hugely important role played by farmers in producing high quality and safe food across the EU.
Certain markets and companies - particularly those supplying food service - have taken a hit and it is essential at this stage that the EU intervenes to ensure that the farmers and processors are supported in order to maintain this critical production going forward and for as long as the crisis applies.
ICMSA believes that implementing the following specifics will have both practical benefits and also signal to the wider and worried population that the Commission is across the issues involved in getting food from the farmers to the consumers.
- With transit across borders becoming more difficult, food products and materials associated with food production should be considered ‘essential good’ under the Commission’s proposed ‘green lanes’, which gives priority to certain products in freight transport. It is absolutely essential that the normal flows of food materials are maintained across and outside of the EU.
- Private Storage Aid Schemes (PSA) should be made available for dairy and other products to allow the strategic management of food stocks from the forthcoming peak production period.
- The rules in relation to farm schemes, including inspection requirements, will have to be reviewed and simplified to ensure that payments are made to all farmers at the specified time and that the maximum advances allowable are made.
- Low interest loans should be made available through the European Investment Bank to secure the long-term sustainability of farms and food processing businesses.
- The EU Commission must ensure that there is no opportunistic cutting of farmers prices by unscrupulous processors or traders of food produce and decisive action should be taken if such price cutting takes place.
- There must be an immediate suspension on all imports of beef into the EU as those imports specifically target the steak cuts that must be retained for EU production.
The EU is facing a major health crisis and there can be no adequate response without all links in the food supply chain playing their role and taking their responsibilities seriously. Farmers are ready right now and all we need is the EU to implement simple and specific measures aimed at ensuring that we can continue to deliver high quality food to EU and global consumers through this fraught period.
ICMSA welcomes the Croatian EU Presidency proposal for a joint approach by Agriculture Council Ministers on this matter and it would be important that Ireland supports such an initiative and that these kind of specific measures are introduced without delay to ensure stability in the Agri-food sector.
It's important to remember, even in the midst of such stress and worry, that whatever happens Irish farming can feed Ireland and anyone else within reach that needs food. We produce enough food every year for 50 million people and that’s why – apart from the obvious ‘frontline’ staff – it’s critical that we keep our farmers and food processing staff healthy and working. On a personal note, I’d ask everyone to look after elderly neighbours and each other. Wider society and communities are discovering – or perhaps, re-discovering – the wisdom and strength of the ‘Meitheal’ system that we farmers never forgot.
We’ve got through other problems and we’ll get through this - together.