Beef protests and rural unrest

Current protests are a product of recent unrelenting bad news for beef farmers and have created widespread rural unrest, writes Niall Hurson.

Picketing at factory gates began on Sunday July 28 with farmers gathering at the gates of ABP Cahir, Co Tipperary in response to weeks of unrelenting bad news for the beef sector. Farmers congregated under the Beef Plan Movements banner in an effort to create awareness around the poor prices they have been forced to take with no sign of improvement on the horizon.

Beef Plan Movement originated in Co Meath in late 2018, created by farmers who were unhappy with their representation from traditional farm organisations. The movement began as a Whatsapp group and soon gained momentum amongst beef farmer circles. The group claims to be centred around “regaining control of the animals produced from birth to slaughter, returning the cost of production with a margin to the farmer, and regaining respect within the beef sector.” In an effort to achieve these objectives Beef Plan Movement began a wave of protests which effectively shut down 14 meat processing plants in its first week from Bandon to Slane.

The extent of the effectiveness of these early protests can be seen in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) weekly beef kill figures. By week two of Beef Plan protests the total head of cattle kill had been cut in half. Just 15,065 head of beef cattle were slaughtered in DAFM approved plants. In contrast, the same week in 2018 saw 30,470 head of beef cattle slaughtered. A well-coordinated beef protest had proven to be an effective tool in creating awareness around poor beef prices. The cattle kill was reduced by over 50% and mainstream media began to take notice of the farmers at the factory gates.

Meat Industry Ireland (MII) had seen enough by August 9th and agreed to talks with an intervention from the Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed to bring all concerned parties to the table. The talks commenced on August 12 at the Department of Agriculture’s Backweston Campus under the condition all Beef Plan Movement protests were to be stood down during the talks period. Beef Plan cooperated with the terms and entered the Backweston talks with MII and other industry stakeholders. Agreement was reached during the early hours of August 21 which signified the permanent cessation of Beef Plan protests. The parties involved made allowances on various criteria farmers had been previously forced to comply with. One such compliance was the 70-day residency of an animal on its holding prior to slaughter in order to qualify for a bonus which was reduced to 60 days during the talks. Aside from these small steps of progress, price remained unchanged and ultimately proved to add fuel to the rampant protest fire.

Many farmers remained unhappy with the outcome of these talks and felt they had been a failure for the efforts of farmers who spent many days and nights at factory gates. On August 25 ABP Cahir witnessed its second wave of famer protests which are still ongoing today. The Beef Plan Movement could take no further part in protests with risk of incurring legal action. In a controversial move the group threatened to “immediately expel” any member that takes place in the new wave of protests.

Protests are currently uncontainable with independent farmers taking to the gates of beef plants across the nation. Further protests are currently being planned with new talks being shot down by MII. A fresh round of talks had been organised for September 9th again under the condition’s farmers stand down from their protests at factory gates. This time around farmers opted to ignore the call leading to MII pulling out of talks. A stalemate has been reached between factories and farmers as animals are not being slaughtered leading to enormous financial losses for both parties each day the protest continues. These independent farmers who have led a new wave of protests have diversified their campaign to address the retailers and any connected industry such as Larry Goodman’s owned dog food company.

Many retailers claim beef is sold as a loss leader; a product sold at a loss to attract customers. Factories are under pressure to sell their product to retailers at a low price in order to ensure the security of their outlet market. Factories are in turn passing on the low prices to farmers who are currently producing beef at a loss with no one to pass the loss down to in the chain. Factories remain highly profitable businesses while farmers struggle to supply at unsustainably low prices. Recent Teagasc research suggests the current base price of €3.50/kg is causing suckler farmers to lose €150 on every animal they sell. A breakeven price of €4.17/kg was suggested in the report.

Since protests began over seven weeks ago the total kill is down over 50,000 head on the same period in 2018. Finding a lasting resolution to this standoff won’t be easy but ultimately it will be in the best interest of farmers, rural Ireland, and meat processors alike.