Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture Pippa Hackett made a keynote speech to last week’s biodiversity conference. It’s worth your while reading it. It was well-crafted and made some excellent points.
She challenged the IFA’s deputy president Brian Rushe to do just that after he criticised the event for its lack of farmer input.
There was some back and forth on social media about farmers not being invited versus farmers not being alert enough to events like this one.
My attention was drawn to one comment Pippa Hackett made in response to a question about forestry, as reported by Noel Bardon here.
“We can’t afford to lose any more high nature value farmland to trees” she said.
It’s worth considering the implications of this statement for a second.
We are supposed to be planting 8,000ha of new forestry every year. That figure is on top of re-plantings, which are effectively compulsory where mature forestry has been harvested, or in the case of ash dieback, salvaged.
Typically, commercial forestry has been planted on poorer-quality land, which had been farmed more extensively. This less farmed land has seen lower inputs, wider hedges, less drainage and is surrounded by similar land. It’s reasonable to assume the “nature value” status of this land is at a higher starting point than more intensively farmed land.
So, if we are not to plant commercial forestry on high nature value and low-output farmed land, it must follow that the intention is to plant commercial forestry on high-output land.
Which is fine in itself.
But this continues the narrative where farming is expected to produce more food using less inputs from a smaller land base. That’s without adopting gene editing.
This while our fruit and vegetable sectors, which produce more food per hectare than most other enterprises, are being allowed to die before our eyes.
Rewetting, Farm to Fork, sectoral targets for deep emissions cuts, less pesticides and fertiliser, more organic farming. All these things are stated targets for farming and land use.
But -land -inputs? - technology = + food is an equation that simply doesn’t add up. That’s before you add in any economic factor to the equation.
We all have some hard choices to make. We need to decide what our priorities are. As the Rolling Stones sang over 50 years ago, you can’t always get what you want. They’re still touring, still singing the same tune, as hardy as any old farmer.
That song continues, “But if you try sometime, you might find, you’ll get what you need”.
All of us, in Government and in farming, are going to have to try very hard indeed.