If there’s one thing I’d love to see buried deeply underground and left to sequester carbon, it’s the ideation that if you’re a conventional farmer, there’s no way you can also be an environmentalist.

At the launch of last week’s National Biodiversity Conference, which was an initiative of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage (in support of Ireland’s Fourth National Biodiversity Action Plan), Green Party Minister Malcolm Noonan TD addressed the crowd with some personal memories from his childhood in Ireland’s Southeast:

“…My brothers, my friends and I were five minutes away from the river [Nore] to the east of our estate where we fished, swam and explored; and five minutes away to the west from scrub woodlands where we played war games and hunted for rabbits.”

He said the river sparked his curiosity of the natural world and it’s those “critical formative years” in the natural world which leads people down the activist route.

Respecting nature

I identify with what he said, but not in an Irish context. I grew up on a rural Canadian farm; understanding what to do if I ran into a black bear (hint: never climb a tree) or a bull moose during rutting season (hint: try not to do that).

During my childhood, nature was inescapable and I was raised to understand and respect it – but there were lovely bits, too. Summers spent swimming in the crystal-clear river, fishing for rainbow trout with my parents and aimlessly wandering the older mountain trails with my dog. I am sure many reading this have similar fond memories from growing up in rural Ireland.

Malcolm Noonan believes it’s those “critical formative years” in the natural world which leads people down the activist route

Today, we keep these memories alive through the small actions we make on our dairy farm. Through (often failed) attempts to grow our own food, to letting areas go wild and un-mowed, to making plans for a pond and planting native species to build up natural barriers and create habitats.

I don’t think we’re the only farming family making these kinds of plans. Things move slowly – way too slowly - but they move in the right direction as we learn more about what the future of best farming practise looks like.

Feeling positive

I sat down with Minister Noonan on day two of the National Biodiversity Conference to discuss the future of agriculture and the crucial need to include farmers in the discourse surrounding Irish biodiversity.

As we chat, the place is abuzz as Taoiseach Micheál Martin has just given the key note address to the delegates; committing to act on the recommendations which will arise from the conference (the conference itself runs as part of a public consultation process). Minister Noonan says he is feeling “very positive.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martin gave the key note address to delegates attending last week's National Biodiversity Conference / Maxwells

“By not just the Taoiseach’s presence here, but [also by] what a really important contribution he’s made to the conference,” he says. “I’ve been in meetings with him on climate and environment and when I say ‘he gets the biodiversity agenda,’ he gets it. He really is keenly interested and aware of the challenges ahead, particularly with the farming community. If it doesn’t work for farmers, it’s not going to work for nature - and we’re clear about that. And I think the Taoiseach has been a huge supporter of what we are trying to achieve in this Government.”

Missed opportunities

I enjoyed the parts of the National Biodiversity Conference I attended over the two days, but was disappointed to meet just two other farmers in attendance (more were likely present or attending virtually, but I couldn’t find them).

While groups like Teagasc, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) and certain European Innovation Partnership schemes (EIPs) were represented, I feel those who would have gotten the most value from the conference were every-day farmers – and their voice was lacking.

I ask Minister Noonan if there is a missed opportunity, at these kinds of events, for positive outreach with the greater farming community.

“We should always be doing more,” he acknowledges. “I wonder myself, do the farming community tend to go to farming conferences and the biodiversity people go to biodiversity conferences? It would be fantastic to have farm organisations represented here. It’s really important because their work is going to be deeply impacted and can benefit hugely from the biodiversity agenda.

“I met with the farm organisations a number of weeks ago in the Custom House just about the nature restoration law and designations in general, and we had a good, productive meeting,” he continues. “I’m very clear, I want to maintain constructive dialogue with the farming sector – even more than that, I want to ensure that this is a collaborative approach; it has to be.”

A sustainable future

Online publication Our World in Data (which takes international research on topics pertaining to the world’s most pressing problems and presents findings in an easy-to-understand format) is a collaborative approach from University of Oxford researchers and the non-profit organisation Global Change Data Lab. A recent article compared the available global research on land use and food output. It finds that, while land use has peaked, we are still able to produce more food than ever before.

“This shows that feeding more people does not have to mean taking habitat away from other wildlife. This decoupling means that we can produce more while giving land back to nature at the same time,” the article reads.

If this is potentially the best way forward to help the biodiversity crisis, where does Irish farming heritage come into play? Irish farms are traditionally smaller, family-owned operations and have been around for generations. As Minister for Heritage, I ask Minister Noonan where he sees the future of Irish food.

“You think of [economist E.F. Schumacher’s] book ‘Small is Beautiful’ - I think we need to localise everything,” he says. “We need to have local abattoirs, we need to produce really good quality food - which we do in Ireland, very well - and consume it, insofar as possible, close to the local communities. I give the example of a local butcher in Kilkenny who has his own farm and breeds his own stock, and when there was a meat crisis in the supermarkets during COVID, he still had plenty on his shelves because they were his own animals.

“To me, that epitomises where we need to be going with food production,” he continues. “And I know that’s not going to resonate with large dairy or beef farms. We do absolutely need to produce for the market as well, but I think there’s an opportunity there - Ireland produces something very unique; a very clean product. It’s not always green, because some of our green credentials in terms of water quality and climate absolutely need to be addressed, but I don’t think there should be anything to fear from embracing the climate or biodiversity agenda.”

Valuing output

Minister Noonan would like to see a future where Irish food is marketed not as a commodity, but as something much more unique – a climate-friendly, high-end product. He says, resulting from that, farmers would get better farm gate prices for their produce and this could help solve issues around over-production.

“If that were to transpire, you might see herd numbers coming down naturally because farmers are getting a better reward for producing energy for carbon sequestration or for biodiversity measures,” he says.

Dose of reality

This all sounds great, but how realistic is it? One of the biggest obstacles to overcome, aside from moving from theoretical solutions to something more actionable, is the lack of higher-level joined-up thinking when it comes to agricultural policy.

Minister Noonan says it’s important for the Government to lead on this at a policy level, and through the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) strategic plan, but that policy isn’t the “be all end all” of everything.

“There are already]really good programmes out there – the EIPs, the [EU] LIFE programme – and I think one thing farmers have been really good at is adaptation and innovation,” he states. “It goes back to [being about] conversations, changing our own collective mind-sets and rethinking how we do everything. If you’re saying, ‘Is it lofty or ambitious?’ It has to be, because we have to change everything. Because everything has changed.

“Farmers always want to do the right thing,” he adds. “I think the advice [given to them] has to be honest. If we look at what’s happening with the EU Biodiversity Agenda, there has to be – at a European level – funding supports for farmers to move to really strong concerted biodiversity actions. It’s happening at pace, it’s exciting and it’s really scary, as well.”

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