The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was set up in 1962, and at that time it was the greatest attempt at mutual cooperation within Europe.
Its objectives were noble: to increase agricultural productivity, ensure a fair standard of living for the agricultural community, stabilise markets, provide food supplies and ensure that those supplies reach consumers.
The vision was to create unity by securing a self-sufficient food supply, driven in part by the shared horrors of starvation and battle during World War II.
Somewhere along the way, we forgot all that. We lost sight of the key aims of CAP and if we do not fight to protect them, everyone loses out.
We need this round of CAP negotiations to incorporate change and adapt to our current conditions. We have all the innovative technology we need to produce food and the ability to share best practices throughout the community.
But what I want to see us do is overcome the lack of ambition to protect our environment, biodiversity and farming sector, while striking an economically advantageous deal.
Let us not forget that this CAP deal is still about producing food to feed us (and others). According to the European Commission’s executive vice-president for the European Green Deal Frans Timmermans, the EU produces more than enough food for our population size and we generate a food waste of 20% of what we produce.
There is enough room for change towards sustainability within our policies. Another aim of the CAP was to provide good-quality food at a moderate price.
I don’t believe we have taken into account the external increased costs of doing food production; those inputs that our farmers know full well are getting more expensive – feed concentrates, machinery parts, materials. We can do better here.
And the third goal of CAP was to create a decent income for farmers. I speak to farmers weekly who tell me that this goal is not being met, and they are struggling more and more to make a living off the land.
My worry is that farmers are being made the villains here. There is fear and panic among many of the farmers I engage with about eco schemes and what they will mean for their holdings. We have to adopt the mindset that farmers are ecosystem stewards, they are custodians of the land and we have to empower them to protect that land for future generations.
We lost sight of the key aims of CAP and if we do not fight to protect them, everyone loses out.
Worse still, there is a clear historical imbalance between farmers working on one side of the country and those on the other. But, I believe, the "them versus us" narrative is not serving us. Instead, we need to look at practical ways within CAP, so that we can address the regional imbalance that exists.
As an industry, farming has come to rely solely on the cash payments of the Common Agricultural Policy. We need to look further and look to develop outwards into different areas versus relying solely on the Basic Payment Scheme and top-up grants to survive. It is not sustainable, economically or socially.
This all starts with ensuring that farmers have better incomes. Eighty per cent of the money is only going to 20% of farming enterprises and larger identities. In my eyes, that is not right or sustainable.
We now have to challenge our vision of what a farmer is. We have to make access to farming more attractive, sustainable and future-proofed for generations.
The stigma attached from secondary school in individuals wanting to farm needs a desperate makeover. We have to place a greater value on their role in food production – our tillage farmers selling organic and well-produced fruit and vegetables; our dairy farmers producing the purest of milk; our drystock farmers creating the best of animal meat. The very best packaged and stamped with the green label for us to consume.
As a newly trained young farmer, I see immense scope to support and build better enterprises that are not solely reliant on encouraging young people to enter into a dairy or other intensive farming methods.
A significant added value about being in the European Union is the sharing of "best practices" and connectivity of our farming methods. I fear if we do not adequately review how we will sustain all farmers, large and small, we will face mass immigration similar to our healthcare and construction industry after the 2007/2008 financial crisis.
Essentially, encouraging our young trained farmers to work and develop farms in far corners of Australia and Canada.
There is a clear historical imbalance between farmers working on one side of the country and those on the other.
Education is key
I believe, as a member of both the Employment and Culture and Education Committees, that education is key. Similar to mental health and well-being literacy, there is also a much-needed space to educate us on why biodiversity and environmental protections are so important.
We cannot reprimand a farmer who has developed their farm over generations and insist they are the direct causes of our climate and biodiversity problems worldwide.
We have forced regions to stop the process of peat production, but ship it into the country from other countries. To me, that seems to be band-aiding a problem versus working with the farmers and climate activities to develop a system that can protect, promote and be economically sustainable. We need to ask, have we worked hard enough to help solve this problem by providing the necessary tools?
We are fortunate there are best practice examples in how farming can play a role in protecting our climate and promoting biodiversity.
The Burren Programme, created by Dr Brendan Dunford, is a terrific example of such. It could operate on a wider scale in the west and northwest where family farms and lands are smaller holdings or segregated.
The programme works with the farmer to develop a sustainable plan for farms ensuring each farmer is playing their role in preserving the land for future generations and creating a sustainable cash enterprise.
Within this discussion, there also needs to be a conversation around the broken system in Ireland. The impact Brexit is having on supplies like feed makes margins non-existent in many cases. But we can’t make decisions for our neighbours. The United Kingdom left and we are left with the deficit of their decision.
Too much emphasis on dairy
We are not asking farmers to do X and Y. We are telling them. No wonder there is fear. No wonder there are people, young and old, stepping back and leaving their uphill lands and small family holdings in regions west of the Shannon. I believe there is too much emphasis on dairy and large farms.
We are not sharing best practices or openly discussing various enterprises that could be a value add to the marketplace and our environment. We are comfortably living in the status quo. There is simply no time for the status quo or forcing our farming communities to live in this blame and shame vacuum.
Pointing and pivoting one group against the other is a waste of time. Plus, iti s holding us back from being bolder and braver in creating better policies and frameworks for our farming communities to live comfortably, generate great produce and protect our environment.
There is no quick fix and we aren’t getting any faster if we keep ignoring what science is telling us.
As a young farming politician, I wonder if we have not been bold or aspirational in our CAP design, ensuring fairness and balance, out of fear of electoral consequences.
I also wonder why it took me, at 33 years of age, two recessions and a pandemic to really appreciate the value in how and where our food originates from. We also have to look at ourselves as consumers. Buying local and green shouldn’t be a tagline for just the Christmas season.
As Dr. Brendan Dunford of the Burren Programme rightly said: "the status quo isn’t really acceptable or sustainable".