Small farmers are fighting back across rural Ireland and, as Brian O’Boyle argues, their campaign is crucial to the development of a ‘just transition’ towards a fairer and more ecologically sustainable economy.
The Beef Plan Movement (BPM) was established in the winter of 2018 to protect the livelihoods of small and medium beef farmers in the Republic of Ireland. In less than 12 months, the movement has recruited 20,000 of the country’s 80,000 beef farmers, organising them into a grassroots co-operatives capable of challenging the processors and supermarkets that are squeezing their incomes. This is an amazing achievement for a group of farmers who have built the movement in their spare time—often whilst farming their land and working a second job to make ends meet. But it is also a reflection of the significant difficulties faced by many smaller farmers across the country.
When time spent working is factored into the equation, agriculture is now the most unequal sector of the Southern economy, with the richest 10% of farmers claiming 30% of all income and the bottom half left with less than 20% between them. Common Agricultural Payments were supposed to even out agricultural incomes, but 75% of this money goes to the top 30% of farmers leaving just 25% for everyone else. To give one indication of the inequality involved, an annual pot of €1.6 billon in EU funds currently gives the richest 13,000 farmers an average of €116,000, at a time when average earnings for beef producers is just €16,000 in total.
This has undoubtedly contributed to the hardship of smaller producers but their primary challenge is the vice-like grip of the major processors and supermarkets. Economists usually define cartels as markets with a small number of sellers colluding together. But cartel-like arrangements can emerge on the customer side too, when a small number of corporate consumers come together to squeeze much smaller (and more numerous) producers. This accurately describes the situation in the beef sector at present, as 80,000 producers have to sell their products to a handful of processing companies who, in turn, control 80% of the entire market.
Ireland’s eight biggest beef barons now control over €2 billion in wealth, with Larry Goodman’s APB Meats (€850 million), Bert Allen’s Slaney Foods (€650 million), the Queally brothers Dawn Meats (€300 million), and the Keating family’s Kepak (€185 million), leading the way. This disparity in power and wealth means that the smaller farmers become price takers from much bigger firms that squeeze value for themselves, whilst being aided and abetted by Meat Industry Ireland (MII).
To see this, consider the breakdown of costs and benefits in the industry at present. Beef farmers currently rear their animals for 30 months before selling them to be slaughtered. Thereafter, the major processors hold these animals for just two days before sending them to the supermarket to be sold within the week. Given these figures it is obvious where the heavy lifting is being done, but despite their labour and input costs, farmers get just €2 from every €10 made, with the processors taking €2.90 and the supermarkets a whopping €5.10 from the final sales price. The sheer size of their buyers is one reason why beef farmers are being squeezed, but there are also a series of anti-competitiveness practices that tilt the balance against their interests.
One example is the fact that farmers face levies on the prices of animals sold after 30 months even though the quality of the meat does not begin to suffer until the animal is 45 months old. Beef farmers legitimately want the right to sell their products when the market suits them, but the 30 month rule helps to ensure a steady supply for the Christmas market two and a half years after animals are born. Another rule states that beef farmers can only keep two units per hectare on their land whilst there are factory controlled feedlots that can supply cheaper beef units with lower costs and lower standards. In addition, there are rules to ensure that animals can only be sold up to four times in their lifetime and must be on the final farm 70 days before they are sold to the processor. These practices constrain farmers in their ability to control their own animals, making it easier for the processors to control the supply in the interests of profits.
It is for this reason that one of the three major aims of the BPM is to “regain control of an animal from birth to slaughter and beyond”. But they also want a price that guarantees them the cost of production plus a mark-up to live on and respect from an industry that has walked all over them. The scale of the problems currently faced by beef farmers is indicated by the fact that the main page of the BPM offers helplines for suicide prevention, the Farm and Rural Stress helpline and the Samaritans amongst others. Times are dire indeed for many small farmers, making the emergence of the BPM both timely and important.
Over the last ten months, the BPM has managed to establish branches across the country and in early August they organised a magnificent blockade of 21 meat processing plants with volunteers erecting 24 hour pickets on plants from Roscommon to Tipperary and beyond. This show of militancy had the desired effect as Meat Industry Ireland agreed to talks within two weeks, having ignored the plight of rural farmers for many years. These talks took place on successive Mondays over the last few weeks with the BPM presenting a series of 13 demands that centred on retaking control of their animals and securing a price that would allow them to live. To date, MII have granted very little of these substantial demands and it remains to be seen whether members of the BPM will accept results from talks that ended on Wednesday August 21.
With this in mind, three final points are important. The first is that worker militancy always works and it may yet be necessary for the BPM to go back on the picket lines to achieve their demands. The second is that although conservative politicians like to stoke an urban/rural divide to reinforce their local support, the real divide in society is not between urban and rural people but between those with capital and those without it. The final point is that with climate change, Brexit and the threat of Mercosur all coming around the corner there will need to be an even greater overhaul of the agricultural sector than even the BPM currently envisage. By 2030 we must be well on the way to replacing beef and dairy output with environmentally friendly agriculture, but this can only be expected of rural people if they have enough income to improve their lives and control of their own destinies. The BPM is an excellent start in wrestling back control from big capital, but in the end, we will need to fully break up the major agri-businesses and use their money for a just and ecologically sustainable transition for us all.