It’s coming up to the first anniversary of the world virtually stopping and our lives being turned upside down. I have heard so many people in recent days reminiscing that it is “a year ago” since they did this and that, you know normal life things. Luckily for me, I’ve been able to continue about my business interviewing farmers about the issues of the day.
For a lot of farmers, their lives have continued relatively normally also. It was indeed around this time last year that I made the long journey south to meet the TD living furthest from Kildare Street, the then newly elected Holly Cairns on her small family holding at the southern tip of Co Cork.
I remember during the course of our interview, Holly pointed to a tree in a field and told me how once they had been docked their single farm payment because they “hadn’t [cut] the tree back”. It highlighted how policy – as much as practice – had led farming into conflict with the environment and biodiversity. As a result, both farming and the environment have paid the price.
So it should never be a huge surprise that broad agricultural activity accounts for the largest chunk of Ireland’s total emissions at any time
The EU has launched its ambitious Farm to Fork Strategy as part of its Green Deal. It aims to “clean up” European food production in the very short timeframe of the next 10 years. This runs alongside the Paris Climate accord recommendations and the various Government measures aimed at reversing Ireland’s status as a laggard of Europe in tackling emissions. In that Venn diagram sits food production which has become a victim of its own success amplified by the fact that the value of exports has grown exponentially over the past decade. So it should never be a huge surprise that broad agricultural activity accounts for the largest chunk of Ireland’s total emissions at any time.
But while there are arguably grounds upon which agriculture could plead for some leniency when compared to other greenhouse gas emitting sectors, it cannot afford another EPA report showing lack of progress in turning this juggernaut around. It’s the pertinent question I put to farmers when I visit: “What are you doing to protect biodiversity and reduce emissions?” And all bar none are at pains to explain how they are aware of their responsibilities and how they are making tangible changes to how they farm.
Embracing technology to improve feeding and breeding, planting native trees, measuring grass, applying protected urea and low-emission slurry spreading are among the plethora of practices average-sized farms claim they are now employing. So taking these environmentally beneficial measures on face value, farmers seem to be answering the call but feel they are not getting due credit. Then there are the likes of the BRIDE project in Cork, the ASSAP programme and the Teasgsc MACC research and so on.
Farmers engaged in good faith
The problem is that it is such a large collective industry all the micros create one big polluting macro. And it should also be remembered that the post-quota growth in dairy production was championed by the Government, underwritten by banks, facilitated by processors and met with new markets. Farmers engaged in good faith. Now it is seen to have been one big mistake, several billion euro of investment later. It is understandable why many dairy farmers feel hard done by.
But the clock is ticking. While we taxpayers need to put our money where our mouth is and be prepared to support a just transition to greener food production, unless the results of “best environmental practice” measures bear fruit very soon, public patience will erode and the farmer bashing will continue.
Here is a little tip. If you are thinking of escaping the lockdown for a holiday in the Canaries, may be best not to ring Liveline to tell everybody!