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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