This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com in January 2018

Has there ever been so much pressure on farmers from campaign groups? To the fore are those dedicated to halting and reversing climate change and those who wish to see an end to animal agriculture. Sometimes the two are combined and we are told we can only save the Planet if we forsake consuming all animal-derived products; as if the two are inexorably linked.

As the campaigning voices become stronger, what becomes evident is how weak the response is from the organisations that represent farmers. True, on RTE the other night Patrick Kent of the ICSA, did come forward to debate a representative of the vegan lobby on the merits of a vegan diet. Apart from touching upon the enhanced value of grass-fed [soon to be eclipsed by broader thinking in itself] meat, one wondered what there was to be gained from debating the nutritional merits of meat or no meat. Nutrition is a fluid subject at present, but it does come down to individual choice. It does not provide the high-ground that farmers need to find within the debate.

There are far better arguments that cattle farmers can make when it comes to countering the claims made by campaigners. At times they would do better to just listen. At times it is better to bend with the wind. Many campaigners are highly articulate and know the merits of the simple message. In an age of the soundbite, reaching an audience more attuned to such is relatively easy. In contrast, the message that farming needs to get across is far more complex. Why; because the issues are.

Sadly, that means doing the research. It is about putting forward coherent, well thought out and well-structured arguments. It means accepting, one hates to say, that such research may highlight that change has to happen. The systems that we are employing may not be the ones best suited to future needs. We may have to adapt to meet genuine concerns over climate change. And we may have to change to meet the concerns of the less radical of animal lobbyists; that is before their radical cousins do untold damage to our markets. What we cannot adopt is extreme, back-to-the-wall, defensive positions as no change is not an option.

A very interesting article crossed my desk this week. It was a Blog post by La Chef. [https://lachefnet.wordpress.com/2018/01/16/george-monbiot-once-again-tilting-at-the-wrong-windmill/] It was a well-thought out and well written response to one George Monbiot; himself a very articulate, well followed questioner of animal agriculture. The article seeks to provide a more comprehensive answer to the role of grazed livestock as a food source. And it places them within the context of climate change. It is well worth spending a few minutes reading.

Do not, however, assume that it is a get-out-of-jail-free card for Irish cattle farming. If anything, doing the research will show that change is required and that producing food within the context of climate change, the environment per se, and the concerns of [less radical] animal welfare groups, means altering the way things are done. And as I keep advocating, this also means getting closer to the consumer; an absolute must if family farms are to have a future.

Beyond the post in La Chef, I would suggest that one finds the time to read ‘Defending Beef’ by Nicolette Hahn-Nimen. Nicolette is a lawyer, an animal-welfare lobbyist, a vegetarian and married to a cattle rancher! She is one of the most able advocates for beef production around. But it is about beef reared the right way. And doing it the right way is not about marketing slogans, it is about how you produce it and building and selling the back story. There is a major difference.

Closer to home, another to read up on is Richard Young, Policy Director of the Sustainable Food Trust. Richard has spent much of his time bringing together the many complex issues around what comprises sustainable food systems. It has enabled him to become a forthright advocate for keeping grazing livestock within farming systems that provide nutritious food, preserve and enhance the environment and biodiversity, and minimize GHG emissions. It is a position of advocacy that you do not reach overnight. It takes hours, days, weeks, months and years of research and thought and it is far from complete. It is now going to take endless patience to slowly get the message across. Richard is now currently preparing the case for the return of small, local abattoirs to the UK.

How such contrasts to the position in Ireland. Here, just who is doing this work? Who is taking on the role of defending Irish family cattle farms? It is not about who can crow the loudest; it is about doing the hard yards. It is about finding the systems best suited to a rapidly changing environment, one where the lobbyist, the consumer and the taxpayer will only have a greater say. It is about identifying what works and making the case to these more than interested parties that what you are doing is the way forward to produce food and to address their significant concerns.

Judging by recent account disclosures, Irish farmers spend a lot upon their representation. But where are their representatives in this debate? Is it fair to say that they just do not want to go there? Do they not have the ammunition to fight with? Or is it just the fear of finding out that they might have to tell their members that they will have to change? The Irish farmer should expect and demand more. For all their expenditure they should not be relying on others to articulate their case.  Irish family farms will not have a sustainable future if they are reliant on the taxpayer, but appealing for ‘support’ is often the only game in town. Whereas, considering what is happening, Irish farmers need to be represented by more than one-trick ponies.


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