Britain’s pending departure from the EU represents the biggest threat to Irish farming in half a century and must be offset by direct aid, the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) has warned.
Addressing the organisation’s annual general meeting, IFA president Joe Healy explained that 40% of Ireland’s food exports were to the UK and no other country or sector was as exposed to Brexit.
“Agriculture and food cannot become a battleground between Brussels and London. There are too many farm livelihoods and jobs at stake,” he said.
Mr Healy called on EU agriculture commissioner, Phil Hogan, to prioritise the retention of free trade in agriculture and food products between the EU and UK.
And politicians in Dublin and Brussels should consider paying direct aid to farmers to offset the impact of the sterling devaluation since the EU referendum.
“Farmers have taken most of the pain resulting from the weakness of sterling. Beef farmers took a hit of €150m (£126m) last year from this alone and mushroom growers saw their margins wiped out.”
But in his response, agriculture minister Michael Creed explained that, despite a substantial fall in the value of exports to the UK, overall Irish food exports grew by 2%, or €165m (£139m), in 2016.
While not wishing to diminish the impact of Brexit on Irish food and farming, Mr Creed emphasised the importance of opening up new markets for Irish produce, both in the EU and third countries.
His department had already held trade missions to the Far East and Africa, which had helped open up live exports to Turkey and Libya, the export of 65,000t of pigmeat to China and a 31% increase in dairy exports to Asia.
Mr Creed added he would work to ensure the “unique impact” of Brexit on Ireland was recognised in Brussels.
But issues such as the possible imposition of tariffs and customs controls on cross-border trade, or the impact on labelling, would remain unanswered for some time.