Opinion: Drift of the farm orgs

Jul 15


Drift of the farm orgs

By Pádraic Fogarty 15th July 2023

This blog represents the views of the author and is not an Irish Wildlife Trust position.


Last May, I found myself on the farm of Donie Regan in the west of County Offaly. The open day was organised by the Farm Carbon project that he is involved with. Donie farms cattle on the edge of a raised bog and some of his land is peaty. This project is looking at practical solutions to rewetting these peaty soils, which are a large source of carbon emissions. He and his wife welcomed all and sundry with tea and sandwiches, told us about the wildlife he sees on his farm and how he was happy to be involved with the project. He has even blocked drains to help raise the water table but didn’t see this as a threat to his business as it was only a small part of his farm that would be affected.

Donie is one of thousands of farmers across Ireland taking part in agri-environmental schemes funded by the taxpayer through the Department of Agriculture. Under this ‘European Innovation Project’, farmers volunteer to take part in schemes that help to deliver results for climate, biodiversity or water quality. Farmers get paid for delivering the results while allowing the land to be used as trial fields to see what works and what doesn’t. The visitors included environmental groups, neighbouring farmers and peatland scientists. The atmosphere was collaborative, inquisitive and forward thinking.

Indeed, Ireland is full of farmers like Donie: engaged, proud of their land and their role in their communities, and willing to try new things. If he was nervous about the future and the changes that are coming for the agricultural sector, it didn’t come across on our day out.

Most people will not get to meet Donie or to visit his farm to appreciate the work he is doing. Indeed, most people will probably see farming in Ireland through the media appearances of the farming organisations and they project a very different picture of the sector.

Irish farm organisations increasingly appear happy to spread conspiracy theories, undermine scientists and their findings and convince their members that their way of life is under attack by an urban elite that cares little for them or their values. It is an approach that sets them increasingly adrift not only from the direction of public policy but also public opinion.

They have adopted a hard ‘no’ position on nearly all measures designed to address the climate and biodiversity emergencies.

The approach is leading to frustration among many, including traditional allies who see no flexibility or willingness to adapt. This week, five Fine Gael MEPs voted against the lobbying demands of the farm organisations in supporting the Nature Restoration Law (NRL) even though a former Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) president is now an advisor to Fine Gael on agriculture and rural affairs. In doing this, the MEPs even went against their political grouping in the European Parliament.

Although the voice of farmers is more dissipated than ever before, it is still dominated by the IFA and these days, they are on the wrong side of every argument. They lobbied hard against emissions ceilings in the Climate Act, opposed the EU’s Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies which aimed to make farming more sustainable, oppose reducing dependence on pesticides, spoke out against the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss and, most recently, lobbied hard to kill off the NRL.

In this latter campaign, they sided with Manfred Weber’s EPP which used the NRL as a testing ground for Trumpian-levels of disinformation and scaremongering. IFA president, Tim Cullinan, was seen behind the shoulder of Weber on the day of the European Parliament vote in Strasbourg this week, as he denounced the NRL as a threat to farmers and food security.

This is an odd alliance in one way as the EPP is also lobbying for approval of the MERCOSUR deal that would see more South American beef imported to the EU, something the IFA has simultaneously argued against on the basis that it would further undermine beef prices for Irish farmers.

The IFA was once respected and feared in equal measure, however those days are gone. But rather than recognise the shifting centres of power and influence they have instead sharpened their divisive rhetoric. In response to the impending loss of the Nitrates derogation, that would see some farmers forced to reduce the amount of manure they can spread on their land due to worsening levels of water pollution, the IFA hit out at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an independent body of respected scientists, slamming their report into nutrient levels in waterways as “nonsensical”. A separate, EPA-commissioned report from February on how our land-use sector could achieve net zero emissions by 2050 was denounced as “fundamentally flawed” and the IFA demanded that it be “immediately reject[ed]”.

But it’s not only the IFA. The Irish Creamery and Milk Suppliers Organisation represents livestock and dairy farmers. Its president, Pat McCormack, speaking to RTÉ radio in June, challenged the idea that there is a biodiversity crisis, asking listeners to instead consider the loss of habitat from motorways or the impact of mink on wildlife.

In advance of the vote on the NRL, the Irish Times gave McCormack free reign to vent his conspiracy theory that environmentalists and corporations are in league “to end traditional farming” and to repeat well-debunked myths regarding the regulation, including that “acres [that] had once been “marsh”… must be returned to that state forthwith”.

Having split off from the IFA in 2015, the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) aims to represent farmers with land designated for nature conservation. They have every reason to feel grievance at the shabby treatment of the State which failed to respect their rights or adequately incentivise nature conservation.

However, their messaging to the outside world also rests on a mix of climate/extinction denial and predictions of apocalypse for rural Ireland. The passing of the NRL this week saw “farm families and their communities thrown under the bus” according to their twitter account, while blasting the proposed law as “the most frightening piece of legislation on land use that has ever came [sic] from Brussels”.

Their leader, Vincent Roddy, has questioned well established facts, such as that hills are badly degraded through overgrazing, as well as questioning public consultations that showed strong support for nature restoration as akin to Vladimir Putin’s referendums in annexed Ukrainian territories. A recent press release from the INHFA after a European Court ruling against Ireland for failing to implement the Habitats Directive, called for the directive to be renegotiated entirely, something they must surely know can never be delivered.

The farm orgs were once conservative, centrist figures in Irish society. But in their doom-laden, denialist rhetoric they have found themselves in the company of ragtag groups like the Rural Independent TDs, and fringe voices from the internet that are little more than WhatsApp chat groups.

It’s a far cry from the thousands of farmers in Ireland and elsewhere who want to see climate and biodiversity action but worry about growing inequality, volatile markets and a State that has yet to come up with a coherent plan for the future of farming and land use.

What can the farm organisations deliver for these farmers if they continue their march down the cul de sac they are on?

*This article has been updated on 21st July 2023 to remove political references that could be perceived to be divisive.

This blog represents the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Irish Wildlife Trust