Back when I was in school, the Boomtown Rats released their first album 'A Tonic for the Troops'.

I was fascinated by the fact an Irish band could be rubbing shoulders with English punk and new wave bands in 1978 and also fascinated by the album's title. There was no Google back then, so it was only recently that I discovered its origin.

Unsurprisingly, it comes from Winston Churchill and refers to Churchill’s belief that gin and tonic had saved more lives among the armies across the British empire than all the British doctors, due to the presence of quinine in tonic, which has properties that protect against malaria.

I was minded of Churchill and Bob Geldof on Thursday evening when roving from one Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) tractor demonstration to the next.

The action, taken at short notice, was an expression of solidarity with protesting farmers from across Europe and a shot across the bows of Government, but was also a chance for farmers to make a public expression of how frustrated they feel.

Fellowship of the ring-roads

And so, at 24 hours’ notice, dozens of farmers from the Camolin, Ferns, Boolavogue and Monageer branches gathered at a couple of overpasses above the M11 motorway.

Hundreds from around Wexford did the same; thousands across the country gathering on approaches to every major town in the country - the Fellowship of the ring-roads.

I had talked to IFA president Francie Gorman at the start of the week and he had made clear that he didn’t think this was the moment for Irish farmers to go on a war-footing similar to their German, French and Belgian counterparts.

His reasoning was straightforward - the IFA had just hosted the Taoiseach and Minister for Agriculture at its AGM. He, as the incoming president, had made clear that while constant engagement with Government is all well and good, he would be demanding delivery as well as dialogue.

But it stands to reason that a grace period be given between that call for change and escalating to the level of a full public dispute. It might only take half an hour to have delivery of a pizza or a Chinese takeaway, but delivery of Government policy will take a little longer.


That said, events across the continent are resonating with Irish farmers. The dairy farmers meeting I reported from in last weekend’s Long Read was conducted in an atmosphere of restlessness and that mood has only strengthened, as French and German farmers shared their fears and frustrations.

News bulletins and social media clips highlighted that while the accents may be different, the English broken or the subtitles grammatically challenged, the message was the same as that being heard wherever Irish farmers are gathered.

Donegal IFA tractor run in solidarity with EU farmers. \ Clive Wasson

Tuesday evening’s demonstration by Waterford farmers set the template and, 48 hours later, half the tractors in the country were out. They were out displaying the need for Government to show that their words have meaning; that it isn’t enough for Leo Varadkar or Charlie McConalogue to say they understand how difficult it is for farmers to constantly adjust to ever-changing, constantly ratcheting-up regulatory requirements. There must be more than that.

I talked to a number of local farmers on Thursday evening and they seemed glad to at last give be giving public witness to the extent of their dissatisfaction.

It isn’t that they don’t care about the environment and it isn’t that they aren’t prepared to play their part.

It’s a combination of three things - the sheer volume of changes they are being asked to make, the rate of those changes and the lack of support for them to make so many changes - some of them quite fundamental - in so short a timeframe.

Sustainability and supports

The shift from production supports to payments for public goods makes sense from one angle. The argument is that food production should be able to stand on its own two feet, whereas actions taken to enhance biodiversity or improve water or air quality gain no market return and can justify public support.

However, that overlooks the central and eternal truth of our food systems. Farmers have no control over the price they receive for their product.

Food production should stand on its own two feet in the real world, but frequently doesn’t. And until that changes, supports for farmers will continue to underpin food production.

There are those who argue that Irish dairy and beef production is unsustainable because it requires supports. That is true, but only in the sense that our entire food system is similarly unsustainable because almost no form of food production is economically viable without supports.

Food at primary production level is underpriced because farmers cannot pass on their costs. Our food systems have evolved to devolve control to processors and particularly retailers - to farmers’ cost. That can’t be fixed easily.

The level of oversight required to deliver equity in the food chain runs counter to the instincts of our politicians, their economic advisers and civil servants. And allowing the free market free reign by removing all food production subsidies could collapse thousands of Irish family farms and millions of European ones. This is not empty apocalyptic rhetoric, because that’s exactly what happened in the US in the 1980s.

Fast transition

So there needs to be support for food production in a rigged market and there needs to be support for the evolution of food production at farm level to reduce its environmental footprint while more or less maintaining output.

The proponents of a fast transition to a plant-based diet might say we can feed the planet if we abandon or drastically reduce meat and milk production and consumption, but while that works as a thought experiment, there’s little sign of people anywhere signing up for that journey at this point in time.

And the global population keeps growing. I was watching the wonderful documentary maker Simon Reeves in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) last week. He was in the jungle, looking for bonobo monkeys and highlighting the threat to their existence posed by the human footprint.

By any standards, the people of the DRC have little and consume little. The estimated carbon footprint of the average person in the DRC is 0.08 tonnes CO2 per year, compared with 12.4 tonnes for the average Irish person.

But the population growth being experienced in sub-Saharan Africa is frightening - the DRC has seen its population double since the turn of the century.

Economists will tell you that education and affluence will bring birth-rates down, that it’s the poorest countries that see parents have larger numbers of children. And the numbers of children in education in the DRC is increasing.

But the demands being placed on the local environment by what is no more than a subsistence existence from such a rapidly growing population are putting the jungle and all who live in it in grave danger.

A general view of over 250 tractors taking part in the IFA's solidarity protest in Cork city. \ Donal O'Leary

So, when we talk of sustainability and food systems, some will argue that Ireland’s responsibility is to protect its environment and lower its carbon footprint, not to produce food for the people of the DRC or other developing countries.

Whereas farmers feel that we have natural advantages in producing food sustainably, especially meat and milk from grass-based systems, and should be exploiting that potential, not just for ourselves, but also for the common good.

As Bob Geldof, the man who in 1978 wrote 'A Tonic for the Troops; said in 1984, 'Feed the World'.

But to do that in an environmentally sustainable way, we need to support farmers to transition to low-carbon, lower-impact systems. And we can’t rob the Common Agricultural Policy to do that, because unless we dramatically change food pricing, food production itself needs support from the CAP to remain economically sustainability.

So, we need new funding to match the new ambitions farmers are being told they must achieve on behalf of society. And we need it soon.

And that’s the message that was sent out from farmers all over Ireland on Thursday. The clock is now ticking for the Government to demonstrate that they hear farmers - that they have got the message - that they have a plan.