Some farmers feel like they’re being made out to be environmental terrorists, IFA deputy president elect Brian Rushe has said.

He told RTÉ’s Countrywide debate on food supply, veganism and farming that farmers are very aware of their responsibilities in terms of the environment but they do feel that maybe they’re getting unfairly tarnished.

“Farmers are growing increasingly frustrated at being portrayed and the way the debate had become so polarised.

“If you look at farmers, regardless of where they are in the country, they are delivering a lot for the environment. They’re adapting technology all the time.

“They’re adapting best practice and depending on what part of the country you’re in, you know you look at some of the marginal areas of the country which are lower stocked, they’re delivering massively for the country in terms of hedgerows and biodiversity, permanent pasture.

Eating meat twice to five times weekly is actually better for your health than eating it once or less a week

“Other parts of the country where they are a bit more intensive are adapting new technologies, they’re planting hedgerows, they’re trying to get into GLAS, which is the environmental scheme run by the Department and that’s oversubscribed,” he said, adding that farmers have a “massive appetite” for the environment.

“Farmers like myself and farmers throughout the country, the number one priority we have is to hand over a viable asset for the next generation,” he said.


When asked if it was time that farmers looked at other alternatives to beef production as part of a just rural transition, Rushe had this to say: “In parts of rural Ireland there is no other option only livestock or sheep. Fruit and veg in parts of the west and midlands – soil type just won’t allow it. So there’s livestock there turning an inedible fibre source into a very high-quality protein.

“Now I will say in terms of alternatives there is a group of farmers out there who are growingly increasingly frustrated at a lack of access to the renewable sector and things like that and they’re willing as part of their farming enterprise to look at that and they want that opportunity because farmers want to deliver on these things,” he said.

What should we be putting in our trolleys?

Professor Alice Stanton of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) told the programme the message some people have taken from the call for veganism or for a major reduction in dairy and meat is that dairy and meat are bad for human health and that’s not the whole story.

“In excess all foods are bad for human health. However, eaten in moderation, about a quarter of the plate between meat and dairy actually saves lives and reduces disease burden.

Professor Alice Stanton.

“Eating meat twice to five times weekly is actually better for your health than eating it once or less a week. Obviously the data are also true for eating meat more than once a day – that is not good for your health.

“The big picture is the things that are killing us and causing heart attacks, strokes and cancer are excess calories and excess salt and processed foods,” she said.

When asked what people should be putting in their trolley, Prof Stanton said: “They should be putting one-third fresh fruit and veg, one-third starchy wholegrain foods and about a quarter meat and dairy. That is not what is happening.

“The trolleys are filled with 50% processed and ultra-processed foods, rich in sugar, calories and salt, and that is very damaging for our health,” she said.

National land use plan

When it comes to climate change and the environment, one of the very first things we need is a national land use plan, Prof Peter Thorne of NUI Maynooth and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said.

“The point was made there are areas of the country where the current is the only thing that can be done. We can’t penalise people for where they live.

“We absolutely need a national land use plan. We need to work with the CAP reform to ensure that it meets environmental obligations and helps farmers to make a transition. I think that a rural sector that is more diversified is hugely valuable, it’s less troubled by market vagaries, more resilient. If we have something like, God help us, foot-and-mouth or BSE outbreak or similar we would not decimate rural Ireland in the way we would at the moment,” he said.

Supplementary feed in cattle

Catherine Cleary, restaurant critic with the Irish Times, argued that Ireland has let go of the idea that animals are purely grass-fed.

“From a consumer point of view and from somebody that eats in restaurants where the quality of that food is taken very seriously, the quality of pasture for life beef and dairy which up until very recently was the Irish way of farming, that has been jettisoned in the name of making bigger and vaster production levels of both beef and dairy and I think an awful lot is being lost along the way,” she said.

In response, Rushe said that in times of shortage in terms of grass, supplementary feed has always been used.

“It could have been byproduct from human food or it could have been a small bit of imported grain as well and there’s a market for that pasture for life. There is definitely a market but that is a niche. Most farmers, or all farmers I’d say, are maximising the amount of grass in the cows or any livestock unit’s diet and that’s in their best interests,” he said.

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