In the statement recently given to the Irish Farmers Journal by NI business organisation Business in the Community justifying their decision to opt for a plant-based meal at their gala dinner, they did not rule out having meat again so long as it is “sourced sustainably”.

It is a caveat that is easily written, and in line with the politically correct narrative of our times, but what does it actually mean?

In 1987, the United Nations defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” So while there is clearly an environmental aspect to sustainability, there is also an economic argument that something is not sustainable if it leaves people in poverty.

The reality on farms in NI is that those who are financially sustainable tend to be carrying high stocking rates or have an enterprise in the intensive sector – they are farms that might not necessarily be heralded by those lobbying for a green revolution.

Instead, the utopia for some seems to be farms with one cow/ha grazing out on the wild hills. Without the cushion of direct payments, or off-farm income, the reality is that none of these farms are financially viable, so they fall at the first hurdle of sustainability.

New payment

Looking ahead, NI farmers are going to have to get used to the sustainability term. A new area-based sustainability payment is due to replace the basic payment scheme in 2024, while discussions continue on a new sustainability body to help market NI agri-food.

It is to bring together various organisations into one, and work across the entire industry. The intentions are good, but it has a job on its hands to define its role and educate the wider public on what “sourced sustainably” actually means.

In return, farmers cannot bury their heads in the sand. We will have to embrace regular carbon audits, and taking on knowledge and advice that will ensure we leave our farms in a good place for future generations.

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