Ireland’s decision to export live pigs, sheepmeat to China sparks backlash

Green MEP Tilly Metz slammed the deal, sying it was "definitely not the way forward: neither for animal welfare nor for the climate". [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Ireland has struck a new deal which will pave the way for the export of sheepmeat and breeding pigs from Ireland to China, in a move which has caused consternation among agricultural stakeholders.

The deal, which follows years of negotiations, was announced on Saturday (18 September) in what Ireland’s agricultural minister, Charlie McConalogue called an “important milestone” in gaining access to the Chinese market.

“The announcement is a show of confidence in the skill and commitment of our farmers who produce a world class product,” he said in a tweet.

While a ​​number of technical steps remain before trade can commence, the minister said in an online statement that he expected that once the remaining steps were completed, exports will “grow gradually over time, as Chinese consumers become familiar with the quality and taste of our Irish sheepmeat offering.”

China is a substantial importer of sheepmeat, accounting for 38% of the global sheepmeat import market. In 2020, China’s sheepmeat imports amounted to 365,000 tonnes and were valued at €1.47 billion at current exchange rates.

Imports account for 8% of total sheep meat consumed in China and the supply gap is growing annually, with average prices for imported sheep meat in China more than doubling over the last decade.

However, most controversially, the deal also included a protocol on the export of live pigs, setting out the quarantine and hygiene requirements for the export of high-quality breeding pigs to China.

Minister of State Martin Heydon, who has responsibility for new market development, described the agreement as a “recognition of Ireland’s strong history of breeding and selling superior health status pigs to many overseas markets.”

“The export of breeding pigs with economically important traits is a niche market opportunity. It reflects well on the breeding population developed by specialist Irish producers,” he said.

The move comes on the back of increasing scrutiny over live animal exports in the EU, after an incident ​​which saw more than 1,700 cattle stranded on a vessel in the Mediterranean sea for close to three months.

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As such, not all stakeholders welcomed the news that live pigs would soon be making the 8,000km trip to China, and the move sparked considerable backlash both online and from EU stakeholders.

“Flying pigs from Ireland to China is definitely not the way forward: neither for animal welfare nor for the climate,” Green MEP and chair of the committee of inquiry on the protection of animals during transport, Tilly Metz, told EURACTIV.

“In the current context of climate turmoil and talks about making our food system more sustainable by shortening supply chains, I’m frankly appalled that the Irish Minister for Agriculture would proudly support this absurd new market outlet for Irish (over)production,” she said.

Meanwhile, Olga Kikou, head of compassion in world farming EU, told EURACTIV that she was “deeply troubled” by the deal, which she believes will lead to “significant welfare issues”.

“It is insane to promote sending animals halfway across the world and generating markets for exports outside the EU, just for the sake of financial profit,” she said.

“This productivist model makes sustainability talks go down the drain, completely neglecting both environmental issues and animal welfare concerns.

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