No budging the agri-debate

May 08

No budging the agri-debate

It is rather depressing to see just how little the debate on agriculture and eco-action has progressed in recent years. The voices of the farming community, typically the leaders of farming organisations, the farming media and a cohort of rural politicians are sticking with their arguments on carbon leakage (if we don’t do the polluting someone else will) and how our efficiency is world-beating, so why change it? This week saw already entrenched positions harden further.

On Tuesday, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on agriculture met to discuss the issue of the ‘Climate Action Plan and its implications for agriculture’ and had invited An Taisce to present their ideas and answer questions. The all-male parliamentarians who spoke spent the two hours giving the NGO a drubbing on such issues such as to why they make so many objections to planning applications (Sen Paul Daly, Fianna Fáil) and whether the An Taisce rep, Ian Lumley, had ever visited a dairy farm (TD Paul Kehoe, Fine Gael… and yes he had). Senator Kehoe suggested An Taisce “would close down rural Ireland if you had your way”. TD Matt Carthy of Sinn Fein laboured a question on whether there are countries with higher standards of food production elsewhere. Fine Gael Senator Tim Lombard, whose party has been in government for the past decade, talked at length about the lack of investment in wastewater treatment from towns and villages which he said was the “sins of sins” and was “the biggest frustration I see in rural Ireland” (as oppossed to intensive agriculture). Independent TD Micheal Collins chose to use his time to question how An Taisce was spending its money and even tried to suggest that staff costs at the organisations were too high. Mr Lumley clarified that he worked for the organisation in a voluntary capacity. Brian Leddin of the Green Party was notable in expressing praise for An Taisce for their work in standing up for our heritage over the past half century. In all, there was little discussion on the substantive issue of the day.

The naked hostility towards An Taisce has sharpened in recent months with their court case against the granting of permission for a Glanbia cheese plant in Co. Kilkenny. But this gladiatorial display of chest thumping can be seen alongside the headline in the Farming Independent this week which proclaimed that “Cutting national herd would lead to rise in global GHG emissions – top US scientist”.  Professor Frank Mitloehner from the University of California, Davis styles himself as a ‘GHG guru’, is not a climate scientist and runs a research centre which is partly funded by the US meat industry. It’s small wonder he’s the darling of big-ag here in Ireland and readers of the farming press are being water cannoned with this messaging.

Or what about former agriculture minister Micheal Creed’s (FG) statement to the Dáil on Thursday that “there is a great deal of prejudice, propaganda, misinformation and ideology [surrounding the climate debate]. There are also many instances of big business trying to shape, inform and influence the direction of this debate”, adding then that “if we were to sacrifice the national herd on the altar of climate change, the reality is that on a global scale, and this is a global challenge, there would be no net gain because we are one of the most efficient producers of food globally”. He concluded by saying that “Irish agriculture needs to embrace wholeheartedly the challenges of climate change” but clearly that is also not what he’s saying.

The issue of carbon leakage would be an issue had all the other countries of the world not signed up to the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. Every country has its pet industries that it wants to hang on to and no country wants to take painful measures that may be to the advantage of others. But water quality and biodiversity are not global issues in the way that climate breakdown is. If Irish farming was not polluting the waterways of the south and east of the country, it is not the case that someone else would. No one else is going to drive our curlews to extinction. We also know that our efficiency in producing food is not relevant when we have absolute targets for protecting nature, water and air quality.

However, these arguments are not sinking in. The fact that the debate is not moving on is a source of great frustration for many people who are not directly involved but who are nevertheless concerned about the general trajectory of environmental indicators while also worried about the social impact of meeting these targets.

If we are to cut our herd of cattle by 51% to meet greenhouse gas emission targets is the idea that all farmers will do this equally? This would put many out of business, especially those in the diary sector who might have borrowed heavily on foot of industry growth projections, and egged-on by the Department of Agriculture. Are some farmers expected to destock entirely to allow others to maintain their numbers? If this is so, then is the land that is vacated to be taken over by forestry funds, wind farms and data centres? And will dairy then be left as the only show in town for farmers, maintaining the current levels of water and air pollution for people who live in the south and east of Ireland? These are the questions that people are asking.

It is of great concern that a new narrative is not emerging which provides the answers. We should all be worried about this. Climate and biodiversity action must come without the blunt force trauma to communities including, but not only, farmers, and which is currently a cause of fear and anxiety. To do this will require a level of interdisciplinary collaboration which we are not currently seeing. In other words, we need to join the dots. In its absence the vacuum is being filled with misinformation, greenwashing and fear mongering.

We know we can produce food without using imported or artificial inputs (pesticides, nitrogen, animal feed etc.) using agro-ecological principles (organic/regenerative). But if farmers go down this road, something which will require not only long-term commitment from the farmer but training and assistance from state bodies, will the income be there for them? This is the overriding question for farmers.

A webinar held by the Irish Farmers Journal this week, on the topic of farm incomes under a new Common Agricultural Policy, challenged Minister Pippa Hackett on this issue. The host asked had the Department of Agriculture done any modelling of farmer incomes under a scenario where we greatly increase organic production. It appears they haven’t. There are many farmers who have already taken the plunge in this direction, but they have done this despite the best efforts of the Department, Teagasc and An Bord Bia.

Once again, we find ourselves at the crux of the issue: targets that the government have signed up to protect the common good are not aligned with government policy to grow an industry that benefits relatively few. It’s hard to see how the debate will move on until this changes.