As farm organisations have their say on biodiversity this weekend, the chair of the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss wants to challenge the narrative that tackling the issue will negatively impact rural communities.

Speaking ahead of the meeting, assembly chair Dr. Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin told Agriland that members want to hear from farm organisations about the challenges and successes of farmers tackling biodiversity loss.

Having grown up in Carnacon Co. Mayo, she said the environment and nature is incredibly important to people who are from rural Ireland – “it is something they don’t take advantage of or take for granted.”

Ní Shúilleabháin believes a lot has to be learnt from rural communities, saying that a lot of people are very keen on maintaining the health of the environment and already conserve and preserve biodiversity on their farm.

“The question is what policies can be put in place to help support the farmers that are doing this already, and encourage more farmers to join the farmers who already consider biodiversity.

“If there is a loss of biodiversity, it will impact on us humans and that is why we have to try and stop this as quickly as we can to make sure it doesn’t impact us in how we live, and what we live on,” she said.

Agriculture, forestry and peatlands will be the main focus of the fourth Citizens’ Assembly meeting today and tomorrow (October 16) at the Grand Hotel, Malahide Co. Dublin.

The assembly was established by the government in February to help Ireland tackle biodiversity loss, and bring forward recommendations in this regard by examining different areas and industries.

Panel discussions this weekend will include the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA); the Irish Creamery and Milk Suppliers’ Association (ICMSA); the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers’ Association (INHFA); the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA); the Irish Grain Growers’ Group (IGGG); and Macra.

‘It is important to preserve that for our children’

Nature depends only on some main fundamental species that are able to survive the extreme situation we have found ourselves in due to invasive species and climate change, she said.

Growing up in a family of fishermen in Co. Mayo, Ní Shúilleabháin told Agriland she has spent days on the bog, absolutely adored going to the woods in Moore Hall, and having farmland all around.

Chair of the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss, Dr. Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin. Image source: Maxwells Photography Dublin

She explained that without a diversity of species interacting with nature, the environment and biodiversity will suffer. Ní Shúilleabháin continued:

“I feel very lucky to have grown up where I grew up and that is why it is important that we maintain and conserve that for our own children, and our children’s children.

“Ireland can really be a leader in [tackling the issue]. We are the first nation to have a Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss, and I am hopeful that our outcomes will be demonstrable for other countries globally.”

Ní Shúilleabháin is an assistant professor at the School of Mathematics and Statistics at University College Dublin (UCD), and was nominated by Taoiseach Mícheál Martin to chair the assembly in April.

Her background as a science communicator has equipped her with the skills to interrogate data that is presented, as she frequently corrects researchers and scientists, she said.

Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss

As chair of the Citizens’ Assembly she ensures that members are as informed as possible to make recommendations, however “no one is considering themselves an expert”, she said.

Ní Shúilleabháin emphasised that “this isn’t about us imposing any ideal, we have no recommendations written [yet]”.

“We have had great presentations describing biodiversity to us in layman’s terms. I and the members themselves as well feel knowledgeable enough now to start interrogating the policies and practices that are there now.

“We will begin drafting our recommendations towards the end of November, and the report is due to go to the Oireachtas in December,” she said.

A total of 20,000 letters had been sent out by An Post to households across Ireland, of which 2,300 people volunteered to take part in the Citizens’ Assembly over a period of six weekends.

The assembly chair explained that 99 people were randomly selected based on statistics by the Central Statistics Office (CSO), to ensure a diverse representation of age and gender. She commented:

“There is a welcome knowledge growing in the room and I think this is what is lovely about the Citizens’ Assembly. It is actually a group of people who are learning as much as they can about something in order to make informed decisions.”

Every meeting hears from researchers and scientists from across Ireland and the world, and members of all walks of life, including a number of farmers, have done field trips and engage with documentation and submissions made to the assembly.

‘Citizens’ Assembly cannot be the only consultation’

Speaking to Agriland ahead of the meeting, the national president of the INHFA, Vincent Roddy said that having only a couple of farmers in the assembly is “really not enough”.

The EU Biodiversity Strategy which is expected to be signed off by government at the end of this year is a major concern, as there has been no “meaningful engagement” with farmers to date, the INHFA president said.

“The Citizens’ Assembly can’t be seen as the only means of consultation. The consultation that is needed is with those that are expected to do the heavy lifting, and who would have to take the heaviest burden – that being the farmers.

“My concern, and the concern expressed by all of us, is that the Irish government and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage will be able to go back to Brussels and say we had a consultation,” according to Roddy.