Monthly Archives: August 2017


This post first appeared online at on the 23rd August 2017

When I started delving into the Irish agri-food industry, an early finding was a preference for focusing on partial farm-production costs. For some reason which, in my less cynical moments, I put down to an academic desire to compare one farm with another or one national industry with another, like with like, all the talk was about how low Ireland’s direct production costs were. Of course, if you wish to go around promoting the idea that Ireland is a World-leading, low-cost producer of milk, it is the go-to data, it provides some great rallying calls and media copy.

Thankfully, but very belatedly, there is now some effort being made to disseminate more in-depth economic data on the costs of production by including an imputed cost for the farmer’s own labour; hitherto something that was left out of the equation, presumably because every farm is different, or so we like to think. Sadly, the partial cost approach did not just exclude family labour, the major labour source in Ireland, it also ignored the costs of land and capital for the same reason.

It is not as if full-costings had not been done. Farm business survey work is routine across the EU and, in Ireland, sporadic surveys are done into the international competitiveness of Ireland’s dairy farming. In a nut shell, the latter highlight that Ireland has low direct costs per litre of milk but also that this advantage was negated when all labour, land and capital costs were factored in. It is only when farms are significantly above average size, that Irish dairy farms are internationally competitive, all costs considered. My own calculations concur with this.

So, were those promoting an expansionist agenda for the dairy sector guilty of cherry picking their data sources? Or was it just the desire to be positive and promote a best in the world image? That is a judgement that I will leave to others as I, as a blow-in, could not possibly comment.

What prompted me to return to my partial costing hobby horse was the recent highlighting of dairy-sector labour shortages. I have read about the pilot scheme to incentive the unemployed to milk cows and proposals that the Government should provide milking visas to non-EU nationals and create a Sunday-off relief-milking scheme to lessen the work load. I am still awaiting to hear that convicted criminals will be sentenced to years of hard milking.

It is, of course, not a subject to jest about as milking every day, usually twice a day, is a tough way to make a living. It is relentless and farmers need to be able to take a break from the milking routine. To do so means incurring relief milking costs and they are costs come higher at weekends when, not atypically, the second [or primary] income earner in the farm household gets time away from work. This a just one reason why labour planning is such an essential part of farm business planning. It is no less vital to understanding your industry than the variable costs of growing grass.

A few of my farming correspondents have, rightfully, pointed the finger at the pivotal problem, the farm economics. It has been exacerbated recently by a low milk price. Nonetheless, the question is, when is the labour shortage going to be resolved in the only way it truly can be, by farmers being able to afford to reward people with an attractive enough payment to incentivise them to want to milk cows? Is it going to happen at 30cpl, at 35cpl or maybe at 40cpl?

The tragedy in this is that potential labour issues should have been analysed and factored in before rapid post-quota expansion was mooted as the way forward for the dairy industry. Likewise, for land and capital. I would also add to that list demand and supply-side market analysis but that is a story for another day. Full, in-depth analysis would almost certainly have contradicted the we are globally-competitive, low-cost milk producer mantra and brought into question the headlong rush to follow the New Zealand model, be it in milk production, milk processing or market focus. Full-cost economic analysis would have shown that the farm-scale differential would mean that following New Zealand’s approach would not create a sustainable Irish milk-production sector.

One likes to be positive, but finding sustainable solutions for the Ireland’s dairy sector labour shortage is going to be difficult. It is because the problem goes beyond finding the willing and able; it is about having invested magnificently in targeting markets that are unlikely to yield the farm-gate milk price that will make the economics of milk good enough to pay sufficient money to attract the needed staff. It is one hell of a conundrum. And as with so much with the way farming is evolving these days, the consequences will fall hard on the farmer. And that would, probably, never have happened if there had not been so much data cherry-picking in the first place.




This post first appeared online at on the 21st August 2017

This week That’s Farming post “Fatally injured Bullock left for over 10 hours in mart” has been viewed over 24,000 times. It is also a week when BBC Countryfile raised the question of how many calves are killed soon after birth on UK dairy farms. And it is not so long ago that the fate of Irish cattle exported live to Turkey was also attracting the attention of the media.

The common theme of these stories is ‘animal welfare’; a term that covers an array of activities, be they everyday farming practices to what one hopes, as with the mart bullock, are far from common-place incidents. Animal welfare is a concern from birth to death and, if you believe that eating quality is influenced by pre- and post-slaughter practices, it extends to the consumer’s fork.

Vegetarian and vegan numbers are rising as more people prefer not to eat meat or any animal-derived products respectively. Some may consider them as at the fringe but to do so is to hide from the reality of their broader influence. Then we have foodies who seek premium foods and who want to know more about production and processing practices and animal welfare issues are high on their agenda. And then we have those lobbying for an eat less but better approach. True their primary concern may be to reduce foods’ carbon footprint but you can rest-assured, most will see better as also relating to animal welfare.

In a social-media-informed market that is increasingly urban, animal welfare, in all its guises, is only going to rise further up the agenda. We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg at present. And any producers who aspire to supply these markets need to be highly aware of animal welfare, what it means to consumers, and to work out how to respond accordingly. If you don’t you will join a race to the bottom where only cost matters, whereas, for a country with small-scale farmers, it is must be about partaking in the race to the top.

To do so, we must first ask if we want to impose market-orientated regulation upon ourselves or accept it from others as has happened before? Demands for higher animal welfare offer opportunities for those who recognize them as such and are willing to change to meet those demands. Ireland’s farmers work on the periphery of major consumer populations and they will have to react to the demands of those consumer, eventually. The question is, do they wish to be in control to the degree that they can they make a profit while fulfilling those demands?

Inevitably, there will have to be some change to farming practices. It will mean, for example, questioning dairy systems that produce low-to-zero-value bull calves. At the other extreme, a few dairy farmers in the UK are trying to develop calf-at-foot milk production; it is a positive way to address the rise of veganism but it is not easy. It also means developing very close contact with the consumer. Without doubt, changes accrue cost and the question must be asked of our broader society, do we wish to support farmers to make these changes?

After decades of responding to a low-cost-food policy environment, change will cost farmers and if we, as consumer-taxpayers, wish to see major changes to our food systems we must be willing to pay for the changes through the shop till and through offering change-over financial support. One would also like to see more animal welfare groups support farmers to change. There is a relationship in the UK between Compassion inworld Farming and the Pasture for Life Association.

The issue of live exports for meat animals is a case in point; it can only be resolved without antagonism by cooperation. Farmers point out that live exports are needed to counter-balance a local livestock market dominated by a few processors. It is this lack of local competition in the supply-chain that is driving the farmers desire to see live exports grow. The solution is more routes to market that enable farmers to slaughter and process close to home. It is a double win as the presence of these new routes should also allow farmer groups to access premium markets with fully traceable, designated-origin products. Hence, farming leaders and animal-welfare lobbyists should hand-in-hand be demanding that the government helps to create more routes to market. Further, those Irish in Brussels who talk of more competition in the food supply-chains should demand that it happens within Ireland first.

Over the years Irish beef has gone from being sold frozen to being sold fresh. It was a step-change in the industry. It is now time for another one. This will not happen overnight and there will remain a major role for the current high-throughput/low-margin players to handle the volume side of the business. In theory, they could provide farmers with alternative routes to market, but does their operational model or facilities allow it? Could they provide a fully-transparent, competitively-priced slaughtering and processing service to enable farmer groups to develop their own consumer markets? It would certainly take a great leap forwards in cooperation and trust from where the often-antagonistic relationship is now, but one should not rule anything out. Supply-chain partnerships is where it is at, but will the Irish meat sector ever get there?

If not, it is time for farmer groups, possibly in the guise of co-operatives [where farmer-ownership is guaranteed infinitum], to go their own way. In so doing they need farm to fork control. Both farming leaders and animal welfare lobbyists need to see that this happens. And within this the farmer groups need to do their own market research and product sales as it is imperative that they understand their customers and the final consumer. For too long now they have been several steps divorced from the consumer. They now need to fully appreciate what motivates them, animal welfare perceptions included. Only then can they ‘design’ the products that meet the expectations of consumers who are willing and able to pay premiums to those who satisfy their demands.

And as to the Government, it must ensure that supply-chain development funds are available and that regulatory burdens are not inhibitory, even to the degree of subsidizing the on-going bureaucratic costs. So often, these are cited as the reason why we have lost crucial, local supply-chain options and they need to be addressed directly. The Government’s role is about removing bottlenecks to farming’s development and this is a prime case in point when it comes to enabling Irish farmers to sell high animal-welfare, high-value products to consumers who want to buy them. And ensuring that the Government plays this role is why farmers pay their associations to represent their interests and, in this instance, it is now time for the latter to stand up and to be counted.



This post first appeared online at on the 17th August 2017

Stephen Carr wrote an interesting article in the Farmers’ Weekly concerning the future of beef in the UK. Those involved in beef farming policy making in Ireland should read it. It may appear to be counter-intuitive but not if you put your ducklings in a line first.

To quote from Friday 28 July 2017’s edition, “In a recent speech to the World Angus Forum, Gavin Hill of Scotland’s Rural College insulted the intelligence of British suckler cow producers by telling them they needed to understand how to calculate their total costs of production”. Strong stuff indeed. I wonder how many Irish suckler beef farmers have had felt similarly?

Stephen goes on to say that “No rational business person would have continued to keep suckler cows since 2005 when beef cattle headage payments were withdrawn… suckler cows have been a financial disaster (I keep 40 pedigree Sussex cows) … Eblex Business Pointers survey has shown consistent losses for suckler cows (often running into hundreds of pounds a cow a year) if unpaid family labour is included in the costings”. So why, then, have suckler cow numbers held up so well given the sector has been losing money for 12 years?

The ‘poor’ performance of the suckler herd is an issue that is being addressed in Ireland with knowledge transfer groups and demonstration farms. It is all about improving ‘efficiency’. It is also not just about farming profitability, it is about our ‘sustainable’ image and reducing GHG emissions; both require ‘improved’ on-farm production performance. And further, policy makers seem determined to replace poor-performing suckler herds with dairy cows and forestry plantations.

Poorly performing, unprofitable and just plain unwanted. So why do suckler farmers continue?

Let us first look at the decision making behind so many suckler farms, and Ireland indeed has many. To do so, one should mention that one has two broad groups; those that are part time and those who see keeping suckler cows as their full-time occupation and primary income source. The time that the farmer can or is willing to commit to keeping cows is a major but much under-appreciated factor when it comes to the way the farm is operated. That needs to change.

A flaw in Irish agri-food policy making in recent years has not been starting from an understanding of what the objectives of the primary producer are. It also ignores the key issue of the resources they have available. It has neither been about meeting farmers’ objectives or providing them with an adequate return for the use of their resources. Net result, a dysfunctional agri-food policy.

To return to Stephen’s article; “the key to the numerical stability of the national herd… is the small size of the average UK suckler herd, which remains stuck at 28 cows… The reason for this average low herd size is that a small herd does not require any third-party labour if the farmer and his family are prepared to do the work themselves… a few cows are not going to lose anyone much money in hard cash terms”. Sound familiar? How many Irish suckler farms continue because the owner’s objectives are not firstly about making money?

Basically, there are many who keep suckler cows because they have a passion for farming but work off-farm. It is also a way of managing the family homestead, keeping the land in the family, providing an escape from urban and/or office life and owning it for its amenity value. It is about enjoying these benefits and minimizing the financial losses. It creates a different mindset.

For some these farms are under-performing, be it in a financial, sustainability or emissions context. For the owners, they may be not. The crux of the matter is that their chosen farming ‘model’ does not factor in the labour or, crucially, the management time necessary to improve ‘productivity’ and ‘performance’. Simply, to commit the resources required will mean that the farm fails to meet the owner’s loss-minimization objective. They are successfully unsuccessful.

So how do policy-makers address this conundrum? Obviously forced land transfer is not an option. De facto, the control of the land is in the hands of farmers with their own ideas about what they want. It is what policy-makers must deal with, like it or not. And, to-date, they have largely failed to do so. One can have any number of policy targets but they are unattainable if the decision-makers on the ground operate with a different agenda. It is this agenda that must first be understood.

The key point is that we must design a farming system that works for Irish suckler beef farmers, be they part time or full. And the former’s less monetary goals must not undermine the latter. Most will remain small scale and that means focusing on producing and selling a high-value product. Irish beef farmers have a passion for beef farming and that is an asset that must be utilized. A farm-to-fork beef system must deliver the multiple product characteristics that the modern premium-paying consumer wants and it must convert that premium into an enhanced farm-gate price. Fundamentally, suckler beef farming cannot be about producing high volumes of commodity beef, albeit farm assured, that ends up as mince and meatballs on the shelves of Tesco.

And last, when it comes to policy and the design of support mechanisms for the suckler beef sector, suckler beef farms should also be evaluated in terms of emissions AND carbon sequestration, their role in landscape management and biodiversity enhancement, and their contribution to the social fabric of rural Ireland. They can and should be many things to many people even if, frustratingly for some, they are not just ‘efficient’ and ‘productive’ profit-orientated ventures.


This post first appeared online at on the 14th August 2017

I have been around long enough to remember the passing of the UK’s Food Safety Act in 1990, it was when I first came across the Defence of Due Diligence. The timing coincided with the rise of the supermarkets and their dominance of the food supply chains and it was easy to recognize that being diligent was going to be a serious activity for those who supplied the nation’s food.

Those who supply food anywhere in our ‘modern’ world must now be able to demonstrate that they have taken all reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of their food and that they have systems in place to demonstrate their diligence. A consequence is that food retailers need to verify their suppliers and processors their sources of raw materials, thus giving rise to quality assurance schemes throughout food and farming. With concerns about resource use and climate change, they now increasingly encompass ‘sustainability’.

These quality assurance schemes must not, however, be confused with premium quality. They are akin to factory-based quality control systems; they ensure the quality of the product, be it aimed at the budget, standard or premium markets. Probably all car manufactures operate QA systems to ensure that their product meets their own determined quality level. With farm assurance, it is about assuring how the product has been produced, be it of a budget, standard or premium quality.

Quality assurance schemes have become a part of Irish farming. It is difficult to sell animals for meat that do not come from quality-assured farms and milk processors are now demanding that their milk supplies are quality assured. For all but those farmers who process their own milk or have niche markets for their meat animals, de facto, being quality-assured is now obligatory. Such nationwide schemes are powerful market-access tools for Ireland’s food sector but they are just that, market-access tools. It is a misnomer to believe that they will deliver a premium farm-gate price.

The achievement of the QA schemes is that they provide near industry-wide farm-assurance for Irish produce. The question is, do they deliver a wholesale rise in farm-gate price across the industry? Do they enhance the value of Irish produce overseas? Scrutinizing the position of Irish beef in the UK market should provide an answer. My own observations are that they only allow retailers to sell farm-assured, due-diligence-box-ticking products in their standard and budget ranges. The QA schemes do not appear to be providing access to the top shelves.

In the beef sector, the breed schemes do provide another differentiator beyond the standard farm assurance QA schemes. But just how effective are they at delivering a significant farm-gate price premium? Angus is now a global brand, probably more so than Hereford, and it is being developed large-scale in places as far afield as Russia and New Zealand. There is, however, an Achille’s heel with the breed schemes, they have no volume control because of their sire-only requirement. In other words, conformation notwithstanding, any old cow and a straw can, in theory, produce another beef-scheme animal. With no limitation on supply, simple economics means ‘success’ will increase supply and erode any existing farm-gate premium down to a break-even price.

The QA schemes may, however, yet prove invaluable, albeit by accident rather than design, with Brexit looming. One does not expect UK supermarkets and food-service providers to change their position in terms of requiring farm-assured products and Ireland will remain well positioned with that regard, not least because of locality. It is, however, not a laurel we can sit upon for long.

The QA schemes are a success, albeit a limited one. Ireland can deliver farm-assured produce to the corporate players in the supply chain, be they retailers, in food service, or processors. On an industry-wide basis Ireland has been a first-mover, but first-mover advantage only remains for the duration it takes others to follow, and they will. Beyond that, what makes Irish produce unique? Yes, there is a value in ‘Irish’ but that only has real value when accompanied by other characteristics.

Simply, we need to be developing new, more in-depth, quality-assurance schemes that are firmly linked to farming practices that the consumer recognizes as imparting quality, be it eating or otherwise. Their development needs to be farmer driven and farmer owned. The products produced and labelled under these schemes then need to be delivered to the market by supply-chains that the farmer can influence to the degree that they deliver a fair return to the farmer-producer. Only then will quality-assurance deliver the market-derived returns that small-scale, Irish farmers need.

Meanwhile, quality assurance as we know it provides a defence of due-diligence for Ireland’s high-throughput-focused processors; but something more is needed to enhance the economic future of the Irish farming family. Quality assurance does provide a foundation stone for enhancing farm-gate prices, but only that. It comes with a cost and it is a cost that many farmers do not easily recognize the benefit of. Much more needs to be done but one sees little sign of it happening, not least because those who should be striving for more do not seem to realize that they have only just begun the process. Quality-assurance schemes can revolutionize the future of Irish farming but there needs to be changes beyond the farm-gate for that to happen. So, when do we start?


This post first appeared online at on the 11th August 2017

In a press release this week the ICMSA expressed their disappointment that the Irish milk prices is only 14th in the EU milk price league. They said that there was no logical explanation for the continuing price gap.

There is no question that the ICMSA should be lobbying hard for a better farm-gate milk price. It is what they are there for. It is also sad that in a country where the co-operative ownership of the milk processing sector is held up as an industry strength, a major farmer-representation body feels it is necessary to take the processors to task for not transferring milk market price improvements through to the farmer. Are they suggesting that there is some skulduggery around? Or is the problem that the Irish dairy product mix is such that it can only support a sub-EU-average price?

One should also add that it was only a few days ago that Ireland was shown to have the lowest 2016 milk price of any major milk producer globally! Given the Irish industry’s global aspiration, that should be of much greater concern, not least as it showed a significant price differential between Fonterra and Ireland’s main cooperatives. With NZ, there is at least some milk-production system equivalence, even if NZ dairy farms are multiples bigger than those in Ireland.

An Italian milk processor topped the second league table. Just how different is their product mix? It is almost certainly consumer-product orientated and targeted at supplying consumers all year. They have a significant proportion of fresh products within their range and their longer-life products include Galati and designated-origin Parmigiano Reggiano. Hence, they operate what I would describe as the European model; dairy farming and milk processing that supplies 400 million plus EU consumers with mainly fresh dairy products. Of course, it means farmers are needed to supply milk all year and, typically, prices are set accordingly.

As a note to the above, one can ask why did the dairy price crash occur across Europe? A part of my own rational is that some European processors had begun to use the GDT ‘global’ price within their general milk contracts even though the GDT is more about longer-life dairy commodities. Thus, when that commodity price collapsed with China’s withdrawal from the milk powder markets and oil price falls affecting other significant markets, the pricing mechanisms created contagion from commodity markets to fresh/consumer product markets. Thus, over-supply of ‘low-cost’ milk aimed at the milk-powder market impacted the wider markets. It left unnecessary devastation across swathes of the EU dairy farming sector and the European Commission to pick up a large market stabilization bill.

Hence, to a degree, therein lies the explanation for EU milk market price differentials. Simply all milk is not equal. It is about much more than milk solids, it is about the final product and the price paid for it. A fair transmission of that price through the processing activity should then determine the farm-gate price offered and that, in turn must and should reflect the resources needed to supply that processor. Of course, if that mechanism does not work over the longer term, the processor will have no milk and the market no product. Therefore, if the price gap is due to differences between the Irish and European product mixes, is it a realistic expectation that milk prices should be equal?

In determining what is a fair farm-gate price, we should also look at supply-chain efficiency, its ownership, and the degree of control farmers need to ensure that a fair proportion of the retail price earned is passed back to the farmer. Dairy product supply-chain components cannot be looked at independently, which I fear they have in Ireland, as long-term success and whole-industry, economic sustainability can only be achieved if all parts of the supply-chain make financial sense to those who invest in them. An effective and efficient supply-chain should also impact upon the milk price.

I frequently read comments from Prof. Keith Woodford in New Zealand about how their seasonal milk production model is inhibiting their development of higher-value products. He, like myself, certainly believes that as markets like China evolve, rising consumer incomes will allow consumer demand to move away from the basics like milk powder and into higher-value products. They will often be fresher in nature and their production will stimulate the need for all-year milk supply. It is unfortunate that Ireland has come to the milk-powder party late, possibly too late, and has been investing in a product range that is the one that New Zealand is trying to leave behind.

To hear that there is still talk in Ireland of more driers to meet growing production [itself partly driven by farmers scaling up to try to compensate for low milk prices] is, to put it politely, surprising. It is this investment strategy that ICMSA should be challenging because if it and, frankly, the wider Irish milk model is not challenged they will be complaining about the farm-gate milk price in Ireland for very many years to come. And if so, their failure to comprehend current milk pricing and the signals that it is sending, will mean long-term consequences for their members that will not reflect either their hard work or their recent investments.

Hence, to provide this with a concise conclusion, the most important message to comprehend from the EU and global milk price gaps is that it is time for a serious Irish dairy-sector, strategic re-think.





This post first appeared online at on the 9th August 2017

So, Lidl provided That’s Farming with a positive response to recent queries about the origins of some pork found upon its shelves. To quote; “We have investigated your query. This is due to the changeover of back bacon from EU origin to Irish Bord Bia approved product. The EU origin joint was supplied into Lidl until a couple of weeks ago… This is part of our ongoing push towards stocking more produce from local suppliers”. Grand, a success for farming’s journalistic fraternity.

One has also noted that the IFA is on the ball, instigating DNA testing of pork on Irish shelves to ensure that the country of origin labelling is accurate and that the Irish consumer is not being misled. Bord Bia has also long since been promoting its product-of-Ireland farm-assurance label.

Now this is fine but I have a small concern over the effort being put into selling Irish to the Irish.

Ireland is only a market the size of England’s south-east counties of Kent, Surrey and Sussex and Irish farming needs to export. True with pork, the domestic market is more important, but with, say, beef how much effort is being expended on promoting Irish beef in a market that accounts for only around 10% of Irish production? Cost-benefit analysis anyone?

While recognizing that the Irish consumer must be able to buy Irish origin produce with 100% confidence, is there also a slight whiff of a red herring around?

Is ‘Irish’ a characteristic that is exploitable to the extent that it can enhance the farm-gate price?

Ireland does have a positive international image and it is good news that the term Irish grass-fed beef has been accepted for use in the USA by the USDA. How is this going to deliver for the farmer? Are the processors going to develop the product so that any market-derived premium is going to be passed back to beef farmers who supply them with accredited beef; or is the beef just going to be sourced from the general pool of beef produced in Ireland to a loose definition of ‘grass-fed’?

The presence of Irish in its primary export market, the UK is also far too weak. Premium prices do not come from occupying the standard and value lines of only three UK supermarkets. It must be farm-assured and Irish is on the label but that does not reflect the quality that most Irish farmers consider to be what they load onto the wagon heading for the factory.

And one must also recognize that when it comes to country of origin labelling, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Lidl also operates a UK-only sourcing policy. Most UK supermarkets do when it comes to, especially, beef. Little Red Tractor operates successfully, not to mention Scottish, Welsh and West Country designated-origin schemes.

Personally, going forwards, I only expect the UK to develop more products that are of UK origin but which also encompass far more characteristics than geographic origin alone. France and Italy have been particularly good at it for years and others are catching on fast. A look at the list of EU registered designated-origin schemes does, however, tell a story. In numeric terms, Italy, France and then Spain are well ahead and others are catching on. In contrast Ireland, with all its food-island aspirations, sits alongside that renown EU food producer, Luxembourg. With all due respect to the latter, that is not where Ireland should be.

So, this is not so much about fake foods; the issue that should be concerning Irish farmers is how are they going to get paid a premium price if what they grow and rear is not going into premium-priced food products? The markets for such are evolving and farmers and processors elsewhere are working to develop farming systems and their derived products with the characteristics that premium-paying consumers want. Yes, geographic origin is important but it is only one single characteristic among several. It is a ball-game that Ireland, with its economy-of-scale-lacking family farms must get involved with but to do so it must produce genuine, multi-character, traceable products. When it does, we will then reach that grand day when we are worrying about how to stop others selling fake versions of market-topping Irish products on the World’s food markets.








This post first appeared online at on the 7th August 2017

And “the great majority due to agricultural and industrial pollution. Meat consumption is growing fast, encouraged by low prices that do not reflect the true costs… if the costs of pollution, habitat destruction, losses to fisheries and tourism, climate change and impacts on human health were fully accounted for, meat would be a luxury food.” An extract from the Guardian of 4th August 2017.

Now I can almost hear the groans, yet more ‘farmer-bashing’. But is it? Is it too easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to this, or should we be taking a pause and looking a little deeper and thinking about it?

Yes, it highlights meat production again and that is a cornerstone of Ireland’s farming industry. Focusing on cattle has become standard practice when raising environmental and climate change issues, but this is about much more than methane from cattle. Cattle-bashing is a common viewpoint that ignores the vast use of soybeans for poultry, pigs and direct human consumption. The cattle-are-bad dictum also ignores the role of grazing ruminants in carbon sequestration and soil restoration; the latter something that is urgently required due to over-exploitation of tillage lands for plant production, only a proportion of which are used for animal feeds; the rest goes for human consumption and biofuels. It also misses the connection between sourcing high-quality foods from correctly-biodiverse, forage-based farming and a rapidly expanding alternative to animal-derived-products food-stuff, namely palm oil, that also comes with a significant side-dish of externalities.

So yes, the issue is complex and it is far too easy to point the finger at farmers. It is also easy to respond along the lines of ‘people must eat and farmers provide food for 7 billion people and to do so means externalities’. Far better that we encourage people to take the time to understand the multitude of farming systems that exist on our Planet. Some are climatically and resource-using benign and some can even be argued as positive for the environment. Yes, some farmers are striving to create the perpetual-motion answer to food production. They need to be recognized and supported and helped to feed the growing human population. Is there an alternative?

Farmers are feeding the issues-aware campaigners. They consider that in return many environmental and animal welfare lobbyists are not giving them a fair hearing while they feed the very mouths that criticise them. Yes, it is easy to focus on the headline and the soundbite, to promote the sensational and to use industry-tarring advertising. Yes, it may raise awareness of an issue, but is it really being supportive of those who are trying to develop the necessary food-producing alternatives. Strangely enough, very many farmers are also aware of the issue and quietly trying to revolutionize the food system to address them but just how much support are they being given, by anyone?

It is also easy to overlook the fact that very many farmers are themselves victims of what is happening. Just to what degree are rural dead zones being created by the industrialisation of our food systems? The marine dead zones are a major externality of society’s desire for cheap agricultural products [I am not going to say meat as it extends to plant-based products and biofuels] but so are the social costs being inflicted upon our rural communities. Family farms have been driven to the wall by industrial agriculture’s mega ‘farms’ and rural economies have been decimated by the centralization of food processing; they literally have their raw materials extracted from them and processed elsewhere, it is more ‘efficient’ and ‘profitable’. And if that sounds familiar, yes, it is an agri-food strategy that is contributing to Ireland’s very own rural dead zones.

When one looks at family farms in Ireland and family-farm household incomes and the need to subsidize them from public and off-farm sources, one fears for their future. Production expansion is touted as one answer. Efficiency gains are another. The truth is, however, that the system chosen and the products it produces are not the ones that can deliver the needed farm-gate price to sustain family farms. The mantra is that they should get bigger. Fine, but that means less farms and fewer family farms. Simply, Ireland is chasing an industrialized agricultural model that is wholly unsuitable to the needs of its farmers and its rural communities. So even before we respond to the wider questions raised by activists, are we being too passive about a food system that some are advocating for Ireland even though, so far, it seems to only benefit a few?

I have no doubt that there are solutions being developed to create a truly sustainable food system. It is, nevertheless, being done on the periphery of the industry. It is being farmer driven and by farmers who are extremely environmentally aware, technically highly competent and personally motivated. Their ideas are, nonetheless, often in conflict with those of the agri-industrialists, possibly to the degree that their actions are as great a threat to the agri-industrial complex’s future profit streams as the actions of the World’s eco-warriors. The sad point is that there are many farmers around who are being alienated by an ‘anti-farming’ lobby that needs to be far more selective. The lobbyists need to do a wee U-turn and they need to start actively and TANGIBLY supporting farmers who, like themselves, are seeking to drive change.

As I repeatedly say, there are farmers and ‘green’ lobbyists out there who need to become allies, as strange as that may seem, because, if they do not, our planet will just become one single dead zone.