Beef, borders and Brexit: why livestock movement is essential

Flexible movement is essential for most livestock systems. Whether it’s the transhumance of pastoral herds and flocks responding to seasonally variable grass production or movement along market chains from production zones to markets, mobility is crucial, but under threat. Mobility reduces uncertainty, allowing for opportunistic responses to changing conditions, whether drought, price shifts or new markets. When borders are put in the way, conflicts can arise, or re-emerge.

The prospect of a hard border in Ireland when the UK leaves the European Union is causing many concerns, reversing as it does a central element of the Good Friday Agreement that largely saw an end to ‘the troubles’ in the north of Ireland. As part of Europe, free movement of people and goods is a central tenet of the single market and customs union, and this would stop, with border checks required. Today there are 275 crossings, involving around 30,000 people and 6000 lorries daily.

Boris Johnson, the UK’s foreign secretary, fancifully proposed recently that this would not cause problems, as technical solutions, as with London’s congestion charge, would be the solution. Not surprisingly, the idea was ridiculed. How can you have electronic checks on large numbers of livestock so as to prevent the spread of disease, for example? It just illustrated, once again, how little thought has gone into the Brexit plans.

The Irish livestock industry is integrated across the border. Animals flow in both directions, and in large numbers. About half of Irish beef is exported to the UK, at a value of 600 million Euro. About 320,000 lambs and 28,000 cattle go for slaughter in the Republic of Ireland from the north each year. Around 55,000 cattle move north for slaughter and as breeding stock, while huge amounts of milk also cross the border in both directions. And 45% of all lambs born in the north are moved south, representing a trade of over £30m each year. Under WTO rules, new agreements would have to be set up, and costs would increase as tariffs are imposed. Depending on the new deal, this will have wider ramifications across the UK livestock industry.

Any restriction on this movement would be catastrophic. Reports estimate that the Irish Republic will take a 2.8% hit on its GDP thanks to Brexit, much of this because of impacts on agricultural trade. This will hit border communities’ livelihoods on both sides. No wonder farmers are arguing for an extended five-year transition period. The fanciful post-Brexit ideas of the British government of a global free trade arrangement makes absolutely no sense when markets are so local, and long-range export would be expensive, not least costing the climate with added transport costs.

Livestock systems across the world suffer similar issues. Borders are political constructs, the consequences of colonialism, war and the process of nation-building. Those who produce livestock do so often in marginal areas, frequently on the borders of nation states, where land is extensive and cheap. Such systems of production emerged long before lines on the map were drawn, and connect ecologies, markets and peoples in ways that often conflict with the more recent idea of a nation and its sovereign borders.

Whether it is Somalis in the Horn of Africa, who produce livestock products in Ethiopia, Somaliland and Somalia, but export across borders to the Gulf, or Irish producers on either side of the border who link production and markets, all require safe passage, ease of movement and market flexibility. When new borders are erected – or old ones resurrected – there is often conflict. For example, the regionalisation process within Ethiopia has caused major disputes between ethnic groups, particularly around access to grazing and movement of animals to markets. It has resulted in many deaths, and the intervention of the security forces.

Brexit was a mad-cap idea, aimed at appeasing certain sections of the British Tory party, and was linked to populist panic about immigration. Those who proposed it in 2016 referendum, and are in the process of negotiating it now, have not thought through the consequences. Irish livestock producers are undoubtedly low on the agenda, just as pastoralists are in the Horn of Africa, but peace in Ireland, as in the greater Somali region, is a big issue.

Mobility is not just an ideological imposition from Brussels, it is essential for markets and livelihoods as a way of addressing uncertainty and boosting resilience, especially in livestock systems. This is why it is a central theme of the PASTRES project and, although we are not working in Ireland, many of the same issues apply.

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Image credit Fiona MacGinty-O’Neill via Flickr

 

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