As a young student born and reared in County Dublin, I am no expert on the ins and outs of beef farming. Yet, I have always appreciated the hard work farmers put in to ensure we have high-quality beef that is known worldwide. My grandad would often tell me about his fond memories of growing up on a beef farm in County Kerry. Even if he gets his animals mixed up, he can still recall how much he thoroughly enjoyed being out and about on the farm when he was young. Unfortunately, these days, beef farmers are often victimised in the midst of the climate crisis debate. However, after consulting with a diverse range of Irish beef farmers, it is clear to me that the government is tackling the issue of climate change the wrong way. There is often too much focus on creating a ‘blame game’ and not enough on ensuring a sustainable and just future for all, especially beef farmers. As part of my Trinity College Capstone project, I interviewed a number of beef farmers from around Ireland to understand why farming is important to them, what challenges they face, and what can be done to keep Irish beef farming alive and kicking. I began by asking farmers what being a farmer means to them. The most commonly cited answers included a family tie to the land, a love for the farm, and a pride in produce.
What about the money?
Even though the farmers I spoke to said that they enjoy the job at hand, they still face economic hardship compared to other industry and service workers. One-third of farmers contacted in this study have to work full-time off-farm to subsidise their wages. Another third were retired from service positions or close to retirement and therefore felt too old to change their occupation. Another farmer contacted in this study described how they are considering quitting farming in 5 to 10 years as they see a lack of reward/encouragement for engaging in sustainable practices. Therefore, it can be concluded that even if farming is a great lifestyle, farmers still need to be paid more for their efforts to ensure a sustainable food system.
What is the government doing?
A ‘Just Transition’ is a term often used in government policy. It highlights the need to involve all stakeholders in the implementation of sustainable practices to protect the environment. All farmers who participated in this study agreed that our food systems need to become more environmentally friendly. Still, in order to change fairly, the government must not put the entire blame for climate change on beef farmers alone. In reality, Irish grass-fed beef approved by Board Bia is sustainably verified via audit, and my farmers believe the government is not rewarding/compensating them enough for this. Also, factory beef prices are not fixed and are lowered at the common time of slaughter. Even though this contradicts the Unfair Trading Practices Act, participants spoke of how the government does not intervene. The government has encouraged more beef farmers to switch to dairy by abolishing milk quotas. This is despite the fact that many elements of dairy farming are more environmentally harmful than beef-producing practices. This is due to higher usage levels of chemical fertilisers and the more carbon-intensive nature of dairy farming.
How can we make farming fairer and more sustainable?
The government must intervene in unfair beef pricing and stop the discrepancies between beef and dairy farmers. Potential government actions include providing more funding and education to encourage farmers to consider a transition to environmentally sustainable farming. Alongside measures relating to sustainability, a fair wage for farmers in this current cost of living crisis requires a bigger margin between the prices farmers receive for their beef and the expenses they face. Consideration is also needed with regard to preventing Irish beef farmers from being undercut by imports from competing beef-producing nations. One example of this is beef production in Brazil, which contributes to environmental degradative practices, such as the deforestation of the Amazon. Ireland’s landscape and climate naturally support the production of sustainable grass-fed beef thanks to our seemingly endless rainy spells. One participating farmer suggested the need for a food regulator to impose the Unfair Trading Practices Act to investigate and penalise beef processors and retailers for wrongdoings like price cutting.
What is stopping us?
What can we do? We can check where our beef is sourced from, be it in restaurants and supermarkets, and we should be willing to spend more for it if it is Bord Bia. This ensures that it has been produced ethically and sustainably. We also need to pressure decision-makers to take more action on climate change and stop the blame game towards beef farmers because only action will create a sustainable and just future for all!
Thanks to the farmers who took time out of their busy schedules to participate in my research and help provide us with an action plan to keep Irish beef farming alive all the while
Figure 1: Age of respondents
Figure 2: Gender of respondents
Figure 3: Geographic location of farmers (in yellow) – ½ from Munster
My name is Molly Breen. I am 21 years old. I am a fourth year student of the BESS Programme in Trinity College Dublin, majoring in business and minoring in political science. My capstone (thesis) research is on the need for a 'Just Transition' in Irish beef farming that not only aims to protect the planet but the key actors' livelihoods too such as the farmers. This is why I decided to ask Irish beef farmers directly (via a questionnaire) what they need in order to farm more sustainably.