Beef farmers have occupied the offices of the European Commission in Dublin to protest over a multi-billion euro threat to Europe’s livestock industry.
Members of the Irish Farmers’ Association staged a sit-in at European Union House on Monday (7 March) over trade plans which could see Europe’s beef industry lose as much as €25bn (£21.5bn) a year.
Accusing the EU of “selling out”, the IFA said a trade deal to give the Mercosur group of South American countries preferential access to EU markets would open the door to cheap beef imports and seriously damage Europe’s farming sector.
“The demand from South America for a huge increase in imports would destroy the European steak market and severely damage beef prices across European markets,” said John Bryan, IFA president.
“The EU cannot hand over half of our high-value steak market to the South Americans, who fail to meet EU food safety standards.”
A report by EU farmers’ organisation, COPA-COGECA, said the EU’s beef sector faced “total collapse” if negotiations over the Mercosur trade deal – which are set to resume next week – were agreed.
In a study on the impact of trade deal, COPA said the Mercosur countries of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay would export more than 1m tonnes of high-quality beef cuts, worth about €16bn (£13.7bn). Further costs of €9bn (£7.7m) would be incurred due to the indirect effects on the price of beef in Europe.
IFA livestock chairman Michael Doran, who was one of the 30 farmers staging the protest, said the industry needed to send out a strong message to the EU.
“If Mercosur goes ahead as planned, we will only get about €2.30 per kilo for beef,” he told the Irish Examiner. “At present, we get €3.30 per kilo, and that is already below the cost of production due to rises in fuel and animal feed costs.
“This protest is about the viability of rural life. It is also about the type of food we want to eat.In Europe, we’re being asked to manage our carbon footprint, while in South America they’re burning down rain forest to make way for cattle farming.
“We’re just trying to raise awareness, and to save people’s livelihoods.”
One EU study estimated that Irish beef has a carbon footprint of 18kg-20kg of CO2 per kilo of beef produced.
The South American equivalent is 40kg, which rises to 80kg when the land use change from forest to farming is taken into account.
The IFA warned further protests were likely to follow across Europe, where farmers believe commissioners are trading access to EU food markets in exchange for concessions in manufacturing goods and services.