I welcome this debate on an important part of our agriculture sector and our economy. A total of 78,000 farmers are engaged in beef production. While I welcome the motion, the Opposition has offered few solutions. There is grave concern about beef prices in the farming and rural communities. Given what has happened over the past number of months and what might happen in the autumn, farmers in the west are wondering whether there will be beef rearers and fatteners to purchase their weanlings. This is causing significant concern.
We are, thankfully, a beef-exporting nation. We exported €2.1 billion worth of beef in 2013, which was a 10% increase on 2012. Like any exporting nation, Ireland is affected by external circumstances, including supply and demand. Over the last period of time, – this is probably a reflection of beef prices over the last number of years – we have seen increases in the supply of product, but we have also seen, unfortunately, a reduction in consumption in our markets. Consumption has decreased in the UK by 10% over the past year, while it decreased by approximately 5% in the EU between 2010 and 2013. According to basic economics, when supply increases and demand drops, unfortunately, prices drop.
To stabilise and increase prices when consumption falls, one can first try to market the product more extensively. I welcome the additional €500,000 the Minister has allocated to Bord Bia to market our saleable high-quality product, which is grass-finished, hormone-free and highly traceable. Second, one can pursue alternative markets. The Minister is currently in the US developing that market for Irish beef and he has negotiated the reopening of markets in the Middle East and elsewhere. Third, cattle must be exported by boat. As previous speakers said, while the live trade has increased, some animals are exported for breeding. We need to ensure more boats are licensed but we must be cognisant of the high standards applying to such boats because we do not need an international incident that will destabilise the beef sector and cause an international outcry.
Northern Ireland is part of this island. While there are issues regarding whether beef is British or Irish, will the Minister of State consider a new “Island of Ireland” label, which will account for cattle born in the South that are reared and fattened in the North? That is a major concern to many farmers who sell cattle in our marts.