Speech by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar T.D., at the IFA AGM

-   An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD

President; Deputy President; General Secretary; Committee Members, Members; a dhaoine uaisle, oíche mhaith agaibh.

First of all, I want to thank you for the opportunity to speak to your Annual General Meeting and for the warm welcome.

You might not know it, but the IFA has a long and distinguished history of welcoming people with a funny name who trained to be medical doctors at Trinity, such as me!

The very first president of this Association – and the driving force behind its foundation – was a medical doctor from Trinity with a somewhat unusual name – Juan Greene.

Thanks to Greene’s vision and energy in the 1950s there is now a unified representative body which helps shape national agricultural policy.

Irish farm families make a significant contribution to our economy and most Irish people, even those of us born in Dublin are often only one generation from the farmyard.

I have one uncle in tillage and another in dairy and my Christmas visits to west Waterford left me in no confusion about the ups and downs of life on the farm.

Agriculture is the heartbeat of rural Ireland. And farmers – tillage, beef and dairy – together with our fishermen, our foresters and our agri-food companies – are the lifeblood.

Although the economy has recovered and is growing, thanks to the sacrifices you made and the policies we implemented, we realise that our economic growth must be felt in all parts of Ireland.

That is why we created a Department for Rural and Community Development, with a Minister who knows exactly what needs to be done, and it’s why we developed the Action Plan for Jobs and the Action Plan for Rural Development.

The agri-food sector is one of the engines of the Irish economy, sustaining employment all over the country often in places where there are few other opportunities, as well as generating export revenues and regional development. Last year, exports reached a record €13.5 billion.

That’s more than a 70% increase in export value since 2009.

It’s an extraordinary performance of which you should be proud and for which, on behalf of the Irish people, I thank you. Foodwise projects an ambitious further increase in exports to €19 billion by 2025. We also plan to increase employment by 23,000 in the same period.

Sixty years on, Juan Greene’s vision for the future of Irish agriculture is still meaningful for us today.

A committed European, he argued that Irish membership of the Common Market represented not a utopia, but an opportunity. This is still true in the age of Brexit, and we have to be alert to the challenges and the opportunities.

Everyone in this room is aware of the long-term, structural and disruptive changes that could happen as a result of Brexit.

The agri-food sector is uniquely exposed – 35% of our total agri-food exports, worth over €4.4 billion, are to the UK. Some industries are significantly more exposed, like beef.

Even in the absence of tariffs, barriers such as sanitary and customs controls, transport logistics and shelf life, are much more significant barriers for food than for other exports.

That is why we negotiated so long and so hard in the weeks before Christmas. At stake is the future of Ireland, our peace and prosperity.

In a hard Brexit scenario food exports could, in theory, face very high tariffs. That would be catastrophic and must be avoided.

Your consistent involvement in Government-led stakeholder engagement, has fed into the whole-of- Government approach that is being taken in dealing with Brexit, and I thank you for that.

We are in this together and I want you to know: this Government will always have your back.

We have already witnessed the impact of sterling weakness on the cost competitiveness of many agri-food businesses.

And the ongoing uncertainty is bad for business planning, particularly for people thinking of investing.

So, over the last two Budgets, the Government has taken action to assist business, and farming in particular, to navigate the challenges of Brexit.

For example:
1. Low Cost Loans.
2. The National Food Innovation Hub in Fermoy.
3. Increased resources for Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland
4. And new embassies and consulates being opened to help us tap into new markets all over the world.

Brexit underlines the importance of pursuing and developing new markets for Irish agri-food exports. But it’s actually something we should be doing anyway.

In order to do this, we must gain a deep understanding of what consumers, often in distant markets, really want, and communicating those messages back to Irish farmers and food companies.

This is why we are doubling the Team Ireland footprint overseas by 2025.

We have also invested almost €15 million into Bord Bia, for the development of ‘Thinking House’ – a state-of-the-art consumer research and market insight centre.

We also need to communicate what makes Irish food unique to the international market.

Along with the increased funding for Bord Bia, Minister Creed has led an intensified series of trade missions and inward visits to establish relationships with countries both within and outside Europe.

We have developed new markets. The United States is now our second biggest market, and China our third. So by pursuing an ambitious global strategy we have grounds for real optimism at home.

Free Trade Agreements negotiated by the European Union enable us to establish and develop new export markets.

We welcome the opportunities that the European Commission’s recently completed Economic Partnership Agreement with Japan makes possible.

However, when it comes to the EU-Mercosur negotiations, it is evident that there is a significant threat to the Irish and European beef sector. We have worked closely with other Member States to ensure that Ireland’s sensitivities are well understood.

Ireland without our beef industry, quite simply, would not be Ireland.

As you know, I am a champion for the self-employed and people who get up early in the morning and nobody gets up earlier than the Irish farmer.

When I was Minister for Social Protection, and now as Taoiseach, I have been determined to ensure that farmers and the self-employed got a new deal. As long as I am around you will never be taken for granted.

In 2016 I made sure that farmers were able to receive paternity benefit on the same basis as employees.

For the first time, Farmers and their spouses can avail of Treatment Benefit:

1. Free or subsided dental examination and treatment.
2. Free eye examination
3. Subsidised hearing aids and eye glasses.

And, for the first time farmers who cannot work due to long term illness or disability can claim Invalidity Pension without having to pass a means test.

I know that running a farm can bring income volatility and we want to give farmers as much flexibility as possible when it comes to paying taxes. So, recent budgets brought in the option to step out of income averaging in an exceptional year, allowing farmers to counterbalance a poor income year and pay their taxes in the remaining 4 year period instead. I hope it’s helping to ease the pressure and reduce the stress of a bad year.

A hard-working, determined farming community deserves hard-working, determined ministers, and you have two of the best.
In Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed, and Minister of State for Food, Forestry & Horticulture, Andrew Doyle, you have two people who understand and champion your issues. Whether it is income volatility and difficult market conditions, or the challenges facing farming families across the country, their determination to act decisively and in your interests is to be applauded.

I know that the future of the CAP is a major concern for many of you here today. Ireland has argued and will continue to argue for the retention of a strong, well-funded and effective CAP Budget post-2020. We believe that if the EU wants to do new things, and it should, we should find new money. It should not come from cuts in established, well-functioning programmes like CAP, Erasmus or Research.

As we all know, in Ireland, agriculture contributes one-third of the country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

This is uniquely large in Europe. In some ways, that’s a reflection of the fact that we have never had much heavy industry, but it is a problem nonetheless.

Truth be told, Ireland is already one of the world’s most efficient food producers in terms of carbon footprint per unit of output.

Clear evidence of this comes from the decoupling of emissions from output in agriculture. Milk production increased by 13.2%, while emissions increased by 1.6%.

But the fact remains that emissions increased and are expected to rise by between 4% and 5% by 2020, reflecting expansion in this sector.

We need to do much more to improve the sustainability of this industry. We cannot underestimate the importance and scale of this challenge.

Ireland should be a world leader in sustainable food production, building on our natural advantages.

So, the Government has supported initiatives such as:

1. Environmental schemes and knowledge transfer programmes.
2. Forestry.
3. Origin Green.
4. Research.

In the next few weeks, the Government will publish a Policy Statement on the Bioeconomy.

There is an opportunity to create sustainable economic growth and employment by producing bio-based products, often from waste materials.

This fits closely with the European Commission’s ambitions for the sector.

It is traditional at these events to make an appeal for extra vigilance when it comes to farm safety. You know better than anyone the risks and the dangers in your daily work. As a doctor who worked in Emergency Departments, I know the horrors of a farm accident especially when the patient is a child. You can never forget what you saw.

We must all work together to ensure the safety of everyone involved. We need a change in attitude and behaviour. One life lost is one too many.

The construction sector can reduce death and injury to near zero. 2017 was the safest year ever on our roads. We should expect no less from agriculture than zero deaths and zero severe injuries

Conclusion

One of the greatest pieces of wisdom can be found in the old Irish saying, ‘Ní neart go cur le chéile.’ It is unity that we find strength, it is together that we can make a real difference. Since its foundation in the 1950s the IFA has drawn its strength from its members, bringing together people from farming families and communities all across the country for a shared purpose.

Today you have a vital role to play in future of this country. Our success depends on our ongoing development of the agricultural and agri-food sector. I look forward to working with you as we develop a shared vision for enhancing rural development and supporting the overall economy of Ireland.

Thanks to your hard-work, your courage and your determination – in good times and in bad, in good weather and in bad – Irish farming has a proud history. I believe that together we can have an even better future.

Thank you.

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