Dear Editor, It is difficult to articulate just how betrayed dairy farmers feel by this Government.
Last Thursday, our Taoiseach and Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine failed to secure last-minute flexibilities desperately needed by farmers to delay the implementation of the 220kg N/ha stocking rate in affected areas.
With just four weeks until the new year, farmers are faced with the raw reality of culling pregnant dairy cows.
We knew just how detrimental this policy shift would be on our rural landscape since it was announced in April 2022 (without any consultation, may I add) and have lobbied steadfastly to overturn this decision.
In the past year, we have visited the European Commission twice, held four parliamentary party briefings, briefed MEPs, held farm walks to brief TDs in almost every county executive, attended the Oireachtas Committee of Agriculture three times, declared ourselves a notice party to the An Taisce case, and held three demonstrations at Agriculture House, the Fianna Fáil think-in and the Fine Gael think-in.
Upon our initial lobby, our minister was forced to announce to the Seanad in March that he would seek “further flexibility”.
Ironically, this was only announced after our first meeting with the European Commission. At this meeting, Commission representatives stated that they would need strong scientific evidence to reconsider their position on moves to 220kg/ha.
So, we did just that and submitted a 19-page document in June.
Set up for failure
The expectation that a shift in stocking rate would reverse trends in nitrates and eutrophication status in our catchments over a two-year period set us up for immediate failure.
Our expertise in Teagasc has clearly stated that a shift from 250kg/ha to 220kg/ha would have no tangible impact on water quality.
In August, the minister created the agricultural water quality group, which, in my own opinion, was only to serve as a political mudguard for the changes that were yet to come.
This group has met eight times since then. In this group, we presented very valid alternative proposals to reduce our nitrogen load on farms without decimating farm incomes.
While welcomed initially, these were dismissed.
In September, the minister declared failure to achieve anything after the now-infamous Zoom call with the Commissioner. From there on in, farmers were cascaded into what can only be described as ‘political football’, with the final whistle blown at 4pm last Thursday.
‘Without any scientific footing’
While we are always told that policy will follow the science, the announcement of a reduction from 250kgN/ha to 220kgN/ha flings our entire sector into very dangerous and unprecedented territory.
Environmental policy is now charging ahead without any scientific footing.
Having been at the coalface of this debacle for the past year, I haven’t been given enough evidence to quell my suspicion that our nitrates policy is being manipulated to reduce cow numbers.
Conveniently, this caters for a reduction in cow numbers without the need for the Government to provide compensation. Equally, it provides a platform to mitigate blame for our two main political parties who have consistently said that they won’t cut our herd.
While this knee-jerk shift in policy might solve some of the problems for our Government and, indeed, the Commission, its ramifications will span a lifetime.
At farm level, once-viable farms that offered the next generation an opportunity to farm are now stifled. At national level, the economic fallout has been immediate, with land rental skyrocketing and dairy trade upended. But critically, at European level, we are sleepwalking into a food security crisis.
Constantly prioritising environmental policy over food production will increase our reliance on imports from countries with weaker environmental policies and will do little to actually reduce emissions globally.