Monthly Archives: June 2017

IT IS TIME TO RECOGNIZE THE ISSUES FACING FARMING

This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 20th June 2017

So, parts of the Irish farming community have now decided to join the climate change debate. Whether you are a believer of a denier, it was, nonetheless, obvious that it was always going to be a serious issue for Irish farming; more so given the weight that farming has in the Irish economy.

It is astonishing that there has been little engagement in the climate change debate before now. Farming efficiencies have been targeted to reduce the carbon footprint per unit of production, but that was hardly radical. Hence, climate change agreements, targets and penalties now hang, Sword of Damocles like, over the agri-food industry. And it is now rather late to challenge climate-change science as the rationale behind the need to alter farming systems. The time for debate was before and not after agricultural expansion targets were set in stone within Irish agri-food policy?

A broad climate-change consensus is in place so that horse has long since left the stable. It was, however, obvious that Ireland’s much vaunted agri-food strategies were, at best, going to flat line GHG emissions and that should have led to a directional debate several years ago? Not having it has now magnified the problem. As with the agri-food strategies impact upon farm incomes, it appears that ignoring crucial subjects was the favoured, head-in-the-sand, issue-denial approach.

So, is it fair to suggest that there is climate-change denial around? And, if so, should we add this to a list that contains denials about the state of farm incomes and the wider rural economy? And how about the reality of the future of the family farm, are they sustainable without the support of the taxpayer and off-farm employment? Is there also a refusal to accept that a commodity-focus cannot deliver viability for small-by-global-market-supplier-standards farmers? And has the focus on consolidating the processing sector, left farmers with too few options to find more lucrative markets themselves? On the environmental side, what about the decline in farmland birds or the presence of so many green but wildflower-less pastures? Issues denial seems to be rather common.

Despite the emphasis place upon it, climate change is not the only major issue in town. There are others that will impact upon long-term food security. There should be far more debate about the resilience of our later-20th Century food-producing solutions. The efficacy of many are in decline as natural resistance to them builds. Others are too fossil-fuel reliant. It is also possible to suggest that soil degradation and soil health may be a greater threat to food security than climate change itself. But where are the debates on these issues? It is an unhealthy environment where debate is stifled, as it unhappily is in Ireland’s agri-food sector.

The situation is different across the Irish Sea. There the debate about the future of farming and food is typified by the Oxford Farming Conference and the Oxford Real Farming Conference sitting side-by-side. The latter is ‘greener’ and it is questioning the conventions of what has become known as ‘conventional’ agriculture. Its rising prominence is important in highlighting the alternatives.

True, British farmers have the advantage of a large domestic market on their doorstep and, hence, the option of direct sales and making the contact with the consumer that leads to an awareness of what concerns consumers. The direct seller is also often a farmer who wishes to do things differently or who has decided that business sustainability dictates change. Hence, the direct market-place is a fertile ground for alternative ideas. It is helping to bring together farmers and consumers and, funded by those consumers, the various ‘green’ and ‘ethical’ lobbying organisations.

There is engagement between lobbyists and farmers and many lobbying organisations are now putting forward their vision for the future of food, farming, the environment, and rural communities. For Irish farmers who often see environmental lobby groups as an unequivocal threat to their future well-being, it may be a surprise to see that high on many a lobbyist’s agenda is the viability of farming and especially the very family farms that typify Ireland. One would even venture that in the UK the future of family farms is intrinsically linked to support from the ‘green’ and ‘ethical’ lobbies!

Such a conciliatory and positive position between farming and environmental lobbyists must also be reached in Ireland if the country’s traditional family farms are to have a future. There is, however, little sign of the necessary dialogue happening. It is a stand-off that must end soon as there is so much to do and it can only effectively be done together.

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WILL BREXIT NEED ITS SACRIFICIAL LAMBS?

In these are extraordinary political times, we should ask how British farmers will fare.

To begin at the beginning, why was the election called? Was it to strengthen the hand of the British PM in Brussels? Or was the election to enable the eventual passing of the Brexit buck? Was it to allow the PM to say, ‘tough luck, you voted in the General Election for no deal is better than a bad deal and, de facto, you voted for a no-deal exit from the EU’.

One suspects that behind the scenes the numbers were crunched. There was a suggestion aired that more Tory MPs were needed to counterbalance the hard-Brexit cohort of MPs and that more MPs would allow the PM to deliver a ‘softer’ Brexit. I am cynical enough to suggest the opposite, that the soft-Brexit cohort of MPs was sufficient to stymie a no-deal or very hard Brexit. Hence, the question, was this election about internal party numbers and ensuring a hard or no-deal Brexit? And one that the Conservatives could say was mandated by the election?

Well Thursday revealed that British voters did not buy into the no deal is better than a bad deal position. Although other factors came into play, the ‘progressive’ parties message was that ‘Brexit was Brexit’ but it did not have to mean a hard Brexit. And further, no deal was a bad deal and a bad deal is not an option. Did the electorate just spot that a Tory landslide was an open ticket for soft-Brexit Tory MPs to be trodden underfoot as the hard-Brexit wing of the party stampeded the UK out of the EU. And one should add that UKIP’s ballot-box returns suggest that the electorate has also turned its collective back on a UKIP-driven hard Brexit.

After such shenanigans of politicking and such a debacle of an election, an October election should be called. It may delay Brexit negotiations but so be it. As they keep telling us, Brexit is critical to Britain’s future and the UK needs a coherent negotiating position. It did not have one in the run up to this election. Obviously, the political parties need to work out what they are about and, hence, they need time to present a comprehensive vision of Britain outside the EU.

The sound-bite campaign has been an insult to the intelligence of the electorate. Did we have such because the Tory party already new that its own internal balance was taking the UK towards an extreme, no-deal Brexit? Was ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ just an attempt to offer a palatable slogan behind which to hide the reality? Was the slogan to eventually be followed by ‘well we told you no deal was a possibility and you gave us a mandate to leave the EU with no deal’? Maybe some of the electorate worked this out. And maybe others just got the whiff of a rotting rat under the bonnet of that blue campaign bus.

So where does this leave us now on Sunday morning, the 11th of June? The UK is looking a minority government propped up by Northern Ireland’s DUP. The DUP is pro-Brexit but must deal with Northern Ireland’s unique position. A hard Brexit for a Remain population and a hard border are not options for the DUP. Then we have the Scottish Tories. It is their new 12 MPs who are allowing the Tories to hang on. But Scotland voted to remain and the 12’s presence in Westminster will change the ‘internal’ Tory dynamics. The Scottish Tories are already calling for a wider consensus position over Brexit. That will be a lead balloon for the hard-Brexit Tory cohort.

The June election has not clarified the UK’s position over Brexit, far from it. Was it ever even meant to do so? The UK now needs an election campaign with manifestos that clearly present a post-Brexit vision and how that is going to be delivered. Endlessly repeating ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ did not cut it. Will the election happen, probably not as the Tory party will not want it and neither will the Tory hard-Brexit cohort? After all, it is not their fault that the electorate got it wrong.

In all this it is easy to forget that the CAP is the major operational instrument within the EU and that Brexit will have a massive impact upon the farming sector in the UK. Farming and food will also be heavily impacted by the demise of free movement. Neither have mainstream election issues in such an urban country. There are some hard-Brexit supporters who say that Brexit will create a de-regulated Utopia for British farming; one in which they can just ‘grow more, sell more and export more’ but that ignores the realities of food standards for domestic and international trade and the relatively small scale of British farming. And British farmers will not be able to buy sufficient technology to survive post-Brexit, whatever the technology sales-folk might say.

Brexit will mean Brexit but Brexit will mean a negotiated ‘soft Brexit’. Deals will be reached on trade and even free movement. They will have a strong resemblance to what currently exists but they will be repackaged and relabelled. This will, of course, be hard to palate for the hard-Brexit lobby but so be it. It will be an easier Brexit to reach after an election re-run and the installation of a ‘progressive’ government promoting consensus, but do not hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

So, what will Brexit change? What EU instruments will be ‘sacrificed’ to appease hard-Brexiteers? The answer is farming subsidies and the expensive and overly bureaucratic Common Agricultural Policy. Trade and food standards will be about ‘trade’ but who in an urbanized Britain is really going to fight to maintain Britain’s membership of the CAP? It must be the stand-out sacrificial lamb. Hence, most others will get a soft Brexit whilst British farmers will not!

The above should be no surprise as CAP farming subsidies have not been overwhelmingly popular. A major revamp of farming and food policy will also be an easy sell to a growing ‘progressive’ and predominately-urban political class. And the one thing this election has shown is that it is they who are on the ascendency and politicians will have to take a closer note of their views.

One suspects that there is an alignment between those who want a consensus-based soft-Brexit and those who want a radically changed British food and farming policy. Hence, a new repatriated British policy will be ‘green’ and it will be ‘ethical’. Maybe perversely, there appears to be an acceptance that the farming, food, rural and environmental ‘envelop’ should remain similar in financial magnitude to what has been provided via the CAP. That will, nonetheless, be where the similarities end. A soft-Brexit will return British food and farming policy-making back to the UK, but it will lead to very different conclusions. Probably the only certainty in these uncertain times is that British farming needs to prepare for change, regardless of where UK politics goes over the coming months.

WHERE IS BRITISH FARMING GOING AFTER BREXIT?

This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 2nd June 2017

Over recent weeks I have been writing policy proposals for post-Brexit Britain. It is all highly relevant to Ireland. Simply, the market links are that strong. If Irish farmers aspire to compete in the UK after Brexit in an open market, maybe they will have to follow the same approaches being suggested for the British farming sector. Both face the same chill-wind prospects and both must react.

What makes the work fascinating is how extensive it must be. My 12 highly-structured chapters contain over 330 policy recommendations. Each policy statement is limited to one short paragraph. It is complex because food and farming is complex. Climate-change and environmental issues add another layer of complexity. It is a challenge to write a coherent, multiple-issue-addressing policy.

Market links aside, another relevance to Ireland is that my objective is policy which many interested parties can buy into. As we are seeing with the CAP reform process, many people want a say and very few are farmers. An expression I came across in a 1930s farming-policy text, was ‘the consumer-taxpayer’. It is one that farming leaders need to get their heads around as it is they who buy your produce and it is they who fund agricultural support. And, apparently, they want their say.

So how should British farmers react to Brexit? I have little doubt that their future lies by building stronger connections with the British consumer. That includes developing products to more clearly meet the consumers’ demands. It will mean changing some production practices to do so. It will require clear labelling and good communication. It will be about products with integrity and where production transparency is paramount. It will not be about a fancy label and promotional patter; that will get found out all too quickly.

There will be no room for telling the consumer that they are wrong. The consumer may choose to put an interpretation on an issue and so be it. There is no future in ‘educating’ the consumer. Hence, for example, animal welfare, less antibiotics, fertiliser and pesticides use, and pollinator wellbeing will come to the fore. Will the consumer be willing to pay for farming changes to address these issues? It is a question that can only be answered by giving them a chance to buy the product. And if the product is never offered we will never find out.

Secondly, the farmers’ role will be as a service-provider. They will be asked to deliver upon pre-determined targets and paid accordingly. Farm ‘payments’ will be linked to delivering change that is defined by policy and that will relate to, for example, reducing climate change emissions, landscape preservation, water-catchment management and flood prevention, and rebuilding biodiversity within the British farming environment. It may appear to be less relevant to Irish farmers but then UK policy may become a ‘radical’ example for CAP reform and a beacon of light to those who wish to see similar change in Ireland.

With Brexit, are British farmers caught between a rock and a hard place, between the consumer and the taxpayer? Or are they really becoming one and the same; the consumer-taxpayer? If so, they will end up calling the tune. This is not a British phenomenon, they will gain in strength in Ireland and in Europe. And it is also they who will define what is a premium market and if that is where you wish to be, you had better start listening, fast. If you do not, others will.

What I have been impressed with in recent weeks is how willing so many UK lobby groups are to engage in the farming, food, countryside, environment, rural community debate. There are some very powerful organisations involved. Whilst some within the Irish farming leadership have chosen to restart the climate-change debate, over the Irish Sea there appears to be a greater willingness on the part of the farming and environmental lobbies to engage. And high on their agenda is how to give the family farm a future. It also happens to be my starting point and it was when it came to writing my 333 policy recommendations.

In Ireland, the family farm is spoken of as all-important. But where is the coherent policy approach that will really give it a future? Where is the market engagement that will create the products that can provide the income to make Irish family farming sustainable? It is distressing to read about the inability of the farming and environmental lobbies in Ireland to get on the same page. The future for British farmers is totally dependent on that happening and, thankfully, there are more than a few people striving for it to happen. Ultimately, the future for family farms is about engaging with the consumer-taxpayer in all of their guises. Simply, here is no other way forwards.

 

BUILDING UPON ROCK-SOLID FOUNDATIONS

This post first appeared on line at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 8th May 2017

Apparently, every few years it is necessary to investigate how internationally competitive Irish dairy farming is. Apparently, every few years it is necessary to cherry-pick the results for the positives and to avoid any distasteful conclusions. Thus, are created the foundations upon which the national agri-food strategies are built.

Any farming visitor to the Emerald Isle will swiftly be regaled with tales of how competitive the Irish grass-based dairy-farming model is. It is legendary. It is again highlighted in the 2017 edition of the Teagasc report into the ‘Competitiveness of Irish Agriculture’. It states, “the competitive position of Irish dairy farms was very positive when cash costs were considered … [they] had the lowest cash cost to output ratio amongst the key international milk producing regions”.

Deliberately removed from the above quotation is the fly in the ointment; “in isolation from imputed charges”. Simply, to ensure consistency across data sources the costs of own ‘unpaid’, usually family, labour and owned assets are excluded from the cash-cost comparisons. It is standard comparative analysis practice and it is methodologically correct.

For an industry, reliant on family labour and with high land costs, ‘cash costs’ are a smaller part of total costs and, hence, partial costs are less indicative of the overall economic standing of the business. As the report states, such an approach is only “valid in the short-to medium term”. In other words, receiving a price below the full cost of production can only be sustained over short periods as farmers must live, assets renewed and debts serviced.

Add in imputed costs for labour and owned assets and the narrative alters; “when economic [all] costs are considered, the competitiveness ranking for the Irish dairy sector, for the average size farm in particular, slipped relative to the other countries examined… a warning signal for the future competitive performance of the average sized Irish dairy farm in a global environment”. This is a similar conclusion to that drawn in the 2011 report. Or, in other words, get bigger or get out?

Cost is of course only one half of the profit equation, but in a price-taking situation it is the crucial part. Elsewhere, farmers have chosen to get closer to the consumer, to process, to add-value and to focus on price first, even if their milk production costs are higher. It is not an easy option in Ireland’s small domestic market. Equally, is focusing on global commodity [premiumized or otherwise] markets despite having a relatively small-scale, higher fixed-cost farming structure, such a grand idea? Thankfully, at least for now, Irish dairy farmers enjoy CAP support and the off-farm-income-earning members of the farm household to alleviate the contradiction between their market position and their total farm costs.

The Teagasc report highlights that for Irish dairy farms to be internationally competitive they need economies of scale to reduce their fixed costs per kg of milk solids. To do so means more cows and/or many less farms. It means investment and debt loading. It means consolidating land. It means hiring labour. And what about its dependency on fossil-fuel-based N-fertilizer with all its arising implications. Or how about climate change, GHG and other environmental issues. One can envisage a rosy scenario where all Irish dairy farms are double in size but is that achievable? Is it even desirable? And lest one forgets, others’ herds are also getting bigger.

Chasing low-cost competitiveness off an Irish family-farming base is, frankly, a pipe dream. Small farms with high fixed costs do survive but they supply milk into supply-chains linked to higher-value markets. Even New Zealand, with its dairy-farming scale, is asking itself how it can add value and move away from its commodity-market dependency. Ireland must ask the same question.

Admittedly, these competitive reports can be daunting to read but they are drawing correct conclusions. It is the role of the farming organisations and, to a degree, journalists to analyse them and to ensure that farmers receive a correct and factual overview of the findings. It requires critical analysis. It does not need a back-slapping, aren’t we doing well, sanitized version of reality. It is about giving farmers rock-solid information upon which to build their businesses.

DEFENDING THE IRISH COW

This post first appear online on http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 3rd May 2017

Should the Irish cow be sacrificed to reduce Ireland’s GHG emissions? Or is the judgement too hasty?

Yes, beef farming incomes are low and its methane emissions are high. The income per GHG unit is poor. But should we be making these judgements on GHG accounting practices that ignore carbon sequestration? Or are we making erroneous judgements because the science of measuring sequestered carbon is not yet up to speed?

Are all cows equal or is there a class system? In 3rd class we have cows that live in a confined system and eat grains. In 2nd class there are cows who graze pastures that are low in biodiversity and fed on fossil-fuel-costly nitrogen fertilisers and in 1st class there are cows reared on biodiverse pastures and rotational herbal leys. It is a class system that can apply to both beef and dairy cows. But just how factually-based is such a class system and can we state such if we know little about the net GHG emissions from cattle farming?

Farming decision-making must be based on the complete story and not a partial one. Not having a robust carbon-sequestration accounting-system is no excuse. And to-date Irish farming’s leadership has been too slow in coming forward to demand that the required research is done.

Having a fair GHG emissions accounting methodology is only the start. One reads of farmers who are actively using grazing practices to build soil humus and to rebuild soil health. They are suggesting that by doing so they can lock up carbon in the soil. There is the assumption that GHG’s are due to burning fossil fuels and cows; but just how much has escaped from the World’s tillage soils over the last 200 years? And do we need to put it back whence it came?

Just what are soil organic matter contents like now compared to before. Is there anyone who questions that they need rebuilding to restore soil health, soil fertility and, ultimately, to maintain our food security? To grow plants we need healthy soils. So how important are cattle grazing rotational herbal leys to restoring tillage soil health? And just what are their net GHG emission like when they do so?

With Ireland’s limited tillage land, it may not be such an issue, but we should know what the carbon absorption capacity of Irish grassland soils is like so we can estimate what can be achieved by altering farming practices.

Cattle can have an important role in grazing high-nature-value lands, more so in the uplands. As ruminants, they consume what humans cannot. There is also a school of thought that says herbage-reared animal products are healthier than their grain-reared counterparts. Cattle are multifunctional and their many roles should be fairly assessed. If they are too GHG costly or need subsidizing financially, we need to know. We need information to determine how best to deploy our cattle to produce food, reduce GHG’s, manage our landscapes and support rural farming communities. For this we need to understand both sides of the equation.

There is a grave danger in vilifying the cow that the baby will go out with the bathwater. One is not saying that there should be no change in cattle farming in Ireland, far from it. One sees a certain dynamic happening in cattle farming around the World; it is often enlightening and frequently farmer driven. One suspects that it is bubbling just below the surface in Ireland; at present constrained by the will of orthodoxy. That will change soon enough.

The cow needs a fair hearing. For that we need the evidence about net GHG emissions. We should not be basing significant future food-system judgements on partial evidence. This is, nonetheless, not about avoiding the issues and for the foreseeable future we must play to the existing GHG accounting rules and to seek tangible GHG reductions. It may mean changing some existing farming practices rather than just doing more of the same more efficiently, but so be it. It is nevertheless time for open-minded discussions between all interested parties about Irish farming, Ireland’s cattle, climate change and food production. It is in nobody’s interests to avoid them any longer.