Very shortly after I posted to my blog yesterday, I received notification of a blog posting by prof. Alan Matthews; it was about a paper he had co-authored with, among others, prof. Allan Buckwell. The paper can be accessed here 2017_RISE_CAP_Full_Report. It contains a lot of sound thinking around a complex subject. I have known the latter Allan for some 30 years so that is no great surprise. I may have liked to see some stronger linkages to some on-the-ground farming issues, but maybe I am expecting too much, comprehending the machinations of the CAP itself is complex enough. I would suggest that everyone involved with providing leadership to Irish farming sits down and reads it, thoroughly.
My immediate thought upon browsing the paper was to ask the question, ‘is any country less equipped than Ireland to deal with the consequences of major CAP reform?’. It was not a case of asking ‘is Ireland ready for CAP reform’ or such like, my instinctive reaction was to use the phrase ‘is any country less equipped’! For a farming industry that spends so much on funding its farming leadership, that is a shocking indictment of the situation. Ireland wants to engage in the debate over CAP reform but its aim appears to be to maintain the status quo. From my perspective, it cannot, apparently, countenance the idea that the European tax payer may want to see a reduction in the CAP budget or a transference of money away from direct farming support. I think it is fair to say that the Irish approach to CAP reform is to ask for more of the same but with the bureaucratic burden reformed and reduced. With Britain leaving it even wants to see the EU tax payer fill the ‘black hole’ in the CAP’s finances that Britain will leave behind.
Sadly, I have long since concluded that most of Irish farming’s leadership lives in a parallel universe. The reason is probably due to the overly political nature of Irish farmer representation. Just how do you get elected to its leadership if you have a tough message to sell? It ends up with a ‘popularized’ approach and the telling of voters, for that is who the organisations’ membership are, what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. It is little different from modern mainstream politics. CAP reform provides a clear case in point; the leadership’s position is that we must insist upon the continued transfer of EU/Irish taxpayer funds to Irish farmers, period. I recently described it as a Dickensian approach, ‘bowl-in-hand, more please Sir’, to farming leadership. At every turn and in response to every crisis, it is about asking others for help.
Has a serious dependency culture been allowed to develop over the years? I find it difficult to conclude otherwise. It is a situation that precludes addressing the possibility that the other 26 countries of the EU may decide it is time to seriously restructure the CAP, how it functions and what its purpose is. Apparently, there are some strong professional voices calling for it to happen [as per the aforementioned paper]. Now Irish farming may punch well above its weight in EU agricultural lobbying terms and I wonder if any other EU farming community commits so much expenditure to lobbying in Brussels, but Ireland is only one in 27 and its population and its representative numbers a little over one percent of the EU total. Realistically, Irish farmers should expect to get what they are going to get and planning for a status quo, post 2020, may not be such a good idea.
I am not at all surprised that I am writing this about potential CAP reform. I have only been in Ireland a relatively short time but a common theme I have identified is that farming here lurches from one crisis to another. When those crises are market-driven, it is no great surprise as it is difficult to imagine that anyone has ever developed a post-farm-gate processing and exporting system that is so unsuited to the farming structure that serves it. Worse, such has even been embedded in its sacrosanct national agri-food policies. I can only think of one Irish farming leader who is willing to highlight and question this anomaly. The rest, apparently, prefer to see the tax payer pick up the shortfall in farming incomes that occur because it is nigh on impossible for the market to deliver a decent income to Ireland’s small-scale family farms. To that objective, the system is designed to fail.
This post seems to be becoming about the telling the brutal realities of life. Thankfully I have no intention of seeking election to Ireland’s farming leadership. And therein lies the problem, we are facing some of the most complex issues to ever face farmers; be they related to climate change, food security, health and nutrition, consumer demands for high animal welfare, taxpayer demands for farmers to deliver both food and public services… the list goes on, but where is the engagement in these issues by Irish farming’s leadership? Is it happening?
The debate around these many issues is now beginning to happen in the UK; it is one consequence of Brexit and the re-nationalization of food and farming policy back to London and, probably, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. The array of interested lobby groups in the UK is just too strong for the debate not to occur and my advice to UK farming groups is to engage with them to develop a thoroughly modern food, farming, environmental, rural policy. And reading the paper I mentioned at the beginning, the EU-27 will be, almost in parallel, actively debating CAP reform. But will Ireland really be engaged in the process or will a too entrenched, driven-by-domestic-farming-politics, position leave the CAP to be reformed by others? If so, it will have consequences and I do not doubt that they will be consequences that Irish farming is unprepared for. It will be yet another crisis for Irish farmers and one that, through a lack of engagement at home and a leadership unwilling to suggest and promote change, they will be far less than prepared for?