This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 1st August 2017
Last week an Irish environment lobbyist had the audacity to ‘call out’ Ireland on the country’s Green House Gas reduction performance. Of course, as Ireland’s economy is so dominated by agriculture, the GHG emissions from farming swiftly came to the fore. The country’s on-going dairy expansion is going to flatline emissions and failure-to-meet-targets fines are now looming large.
So, what is the response? Well as we all know it was downright unpatriotic and it was just another example of the anti-farmer, farmer-bashing that some Irish environmental NGOs indulge in. We could do without them and their critical words. We as a farming industry should be left to get on with producing relatively low GHG emissions per unit foods without being inhibited by rules imposed by others. Or should we be asking why the criticism and can we justify the fines to a tax payer who already supports the industry to the tune of €1.5 billion per year?
GHG emissions is, nevertheless, only one issue in a dynamic, troublesome environment. It is not just about emissions; it is about nitrates and the use of finite fossil fuel resources to create artificial nitrogen. It is also about the growing resistance to antibiotics, fungicides, herbicides and wormers, with the former likely to have a massive influence on human health care. It is about the loss of farmland biodiversity. And very close to home, it is about the comparatively poor farm-gate milk price and the weak competition in the meat-processing sector and, hence, the sad state of farm incomes.
On too many fronts, the Irish model is not working and it appears that it requires an environmental lobbyist to say so. My own response was to send him a message and to ask him to elaborate a vision of how the Irish family farm is to create a future for itself given the numerous issues it faces. If he takes up the cudgel, I expect that he will conjure up a vision for Irish family farming that is better than the one that most farm lobby groups are putting forwards! And no, I am not naive.
That may shock readers, but I am finding that many issues-aware lobbyists have a strong belief in the importance of smaller-scale farming and family farming. And that happens to be the farming structure that Irish farming still has. It may be that, if push came to shove, we would get a vision that does put the viability of the family farm first and that would be long overdue. It would be a welcome change to official strategies where farm incomes have been an afterthought. I for one would be happy to assist in developing an environmentally-aware, family-farm-first, agri-food policy.
I pride myself with keeping at the forefront of the evolving issues around food and farming and I am afraid that too little change is occurring in Ireland, period. As I have said frequently, there is far too great a propensity for farming’s leadership to stick their collective heads in the sand. Apparently, they have two roles; the first is to promote the status quo and to forestall any demands for change, and the second is to lobby Dublin and Brussels for taxpayer funds to mitigate the consequences of the first. It is a very worrying approach in today’s dynamic food and farming world.
Although some may consider my views to be as welcome as meeting the Grim Reaper on a moonless night, I am very upbeat about the future of farming. It is an industry whose role is to feed a growing population while mitigating climate change. And there will be a grand future for those who adapt and change to meet these twin demands. The next two or three decades will be full of opportunities, but only if we recognize our current failings first. And too often, I do not see that happening.
At present, there are too many willing to sit on the laurels of a few indicators that say that Ireland produces low GHG per unit foods. What should be of real concern is that the value of that output per unit of GHG emissions is the lowest in the EU. It is about a quarter of Italy’s! If one is thinking of fines and farm incomes that should be ringing the alarm bells. Sadly, just to refer to such is farmer-bashing again; a rather perverse response when it highlights the farm-income issue.
Where I become truly concerned is when I look at the role of cattle going forwards. It is not just about cattle as suppliers of food. The eat-less-but-better campaign is very much focused on animal-derived foods and especially those from cattle. Those products will, however, become differentiated by their production systems and the nutritional properties of the foods created. This is a plus for Ireland, but only if it can adapt its grass-fed systems to ones that are not dependent on nitrogen and are built upon and enhance greater farmland biodiversity. For the Irish family farm, it is then about having a supply-chain that transfers the rewards from change to the farmer.
On a broader note, we must not assume that cattle production in a wet, maritime climate will be the ‘greenest’ option around. It may be. It may also be that cattle become seen as strategically important in the restoration of degraded tillage soils and, hence, the supply of plant-based foods and global food security. If mob-grazing of biodiverse rotational leys in dry climates becomes the norm, it will change the dynamics of cattle farming, its environmental credentials, its value to society and the markets for livestock products. And we are not just talking about the activities of a few now seen as eccentric farmers, we are talking about major changes upon massive land areas. It will be a farming system change whose impact will knock-on to others. Where then for an Irish farming industry that has not prepared for such an event?