"[The] environment has played second fiddle to production and the volume of food produced over the last 50 years, resulting in a deterioration of its quality," dairy farmer and representative of the BRIDE Project Donal Sheehan has said.
The Biodiversity Regeneration In a Dairying Environment (BRIDE) is an European Innovation Partnership (EIP scheme) based in Cork and Waterford.
Sheehan was speaking at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action on Tuesday, and was joined by programme manager of the Burren Programme, Dr Brendan Dunford; owner of The Apple Farm and horticulturist Con Trass; and climate expert at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology Dr James Moran.
The current system "rewards farmers for producing larger and larger volumes of food”, according to Sheehan.
He continued: “The more you produce, the more money you make. Consequently, there is no value put on the habitats on farms.
“The road that we are now on due to the Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025 strategies is unsustainable.”
He described how farmers need to be paid to “produce food, while also needing to be paid for managing farmland habitats in a way that improves biodiversity, water quality and farm sequestration”.
There is indefinite financial value in maintaining and managing these vital habitats from generation to generation
“There is a need to give farmers a continuous signal that there is indefinite financial value in maintaining and managing these vital habitats from generation to generation.
“The environment has played second fiddle to production and volume of food produced over last 50 years resulting in a deterioration of its quality.”
Sheehan was highly critical of the expansion of the dairy sector, saying: “Small farmers are under increasing pressure to stay afloat and many of them have gone out of business.
“This model is pitting dairy farmers against each other and against every other farm enterprise and as can be publicly seen, pitting farmers against environmentalists and consumers.
“Everyone is talking about the number of extra jobs that dairy is creating, but no one is talking about the small farmers who cannot compete and are going out of business.”
Lessons from the Burren
Dr Brendan Dunford highlighted the success of long-term environmental works as part of the Burren Programme in Co Clare.
“The experience we have had in Clare of working with farmers, scientists and others to address the environmental challenges in the Burren for over two decades now, might provide both learning and inspiration.”
He told committee members that “support and engagement with those who owned the land and the livestock” was crucial in the project's early days, and also acknowledged the “brave local leadership” of farm leaders .
“As of 2020, the Burren Project has delivered €33m worth of landscape and biodiversity improvements, a €23m boost to the local economy and an additional €9.4m in payments to local farmers.”
Dr Dunford said the result has been “an annual improvement in the Burren’s environmental health over the last decade” and that “there is no reason why such a results-based incentive can’t be mainstreamed”.
He added that "we need to reimagine what farming is about and what it can deliver for society”.
Sustainable food system
Dr James Moran focused on the interactions between agriculture and the environment in his presentation.
“Climate change and biodiversity decline are interconnected challenges which cannot be addressed without building a sustainable food system,” he outlined.
Dr Moran described the loss of Irish native grasslands, contamination of previously pristine water and enhancing carbon emissions, stating: “We are not in a good place in regards to our current state and direction of travel in relation to land use and the environment.
“Threats have been identified, solutions have been developed at local level and now it’s time to scale up the implementation of these solutions.”
He said the challenge of maintaining food production while addressing the climate crisis seems insurmountable to the individual and to administrations.
“Individual farmers feel powerless in the face of increased globalisation and consolidation of the agri-industry, complexity of the policy framework and poor market returns. We need to create a policy framework which is an enabler for positive action.”
A “co-operation and a farmer-centred model coupled with an evidence-based approach” is needed for success, he said.
Opportunity in horticulture
Con Trass, owner of The Apple Farm, Cahir, Co Tipperary, promoted the contribution and opportunities for more sustainable farming found in the apple farm sector, orchards and wider horticulture.
“The horticulture sector in Ireland has an annual output of €500m making it the fourth largest sector after beef, dairy and pigs,” he said.
Trass described the carbon sequestration potential of horticulture and the market for produce both domestically and through export and reported that ongoing research is enabling further efficiencies to be found.