Glanbia’s announcement of a new peak milk supply management scheme has created waves across the dairy industry, but is unlikely to create even a small ripple in Ireland’s ‘mainstream media’.

To the frustration of all in agriculture, and to the economic detriment of the whole of the Irish economy I would argue, the said mainstream media’s consciousness and representation of agriculture rests solely these days, on the characterisation of agricultural output in terms of carbon emitted or environmental impact.

Ways agriculture is not considered:

  • Not in terms of on-farm activity in 105,000 farms;
  • Nor about the 260,000 jobs supported across the economy;
  • Not in reference to agriculture’s unique impact on driving the rural regional economy;
  • No mention of Ireland producing food for the equivalent of 40 million people;
  • Or €13 billion total exports to 150 countries in 2020, despite severe Covid-19 restrictions in Ireland and the closure of food service markets across the globe.

The expanding disconnect with agriculture by mainstream media has come from a ‘dumbing down’ of the agriculture story.

Previous emphasis on agriculture

In the past RTÉ ran a piece at 6:15 or 6:20 every evening around activity in agriculture and there was a midweek agri radio programme also.

Indeed up to recent times, The Irish Times used to have an actual agricultural correspondent!

Moreover while the agri-food sector supports one job in eight in the economy, and is the largest sector by Irish economy expenditure according to the Department of Enterprise’s annual survey, it barely or rarely makes the business news in mainstream media.

Unfortunately this disconnect and the negative characterisation outlined above have increased the business risk associated with milk production in Ireland, above and beyond the framework of post-quota milk production.

Milk production

Glanbia on behalf of its suppliers (as with other milk processors) has responsibly and effectively addressed business risks, like increased processing capacity requirements; management of global price and income volatility; access to competitive finance; and Brexit over the period from 2010 to 2020, through a combination of investment and innovation.

However further threats / business risks to dairy farming in Ireland have emerged:

  • The use of the planning appeals process by environmental NGOs, to prevent the provision of much needed alternative cheese production capacity required to diversify away from the UK market to cope with Brexit;
  • The provision of a new climate action bill, which building on the AG Climatise report of 2020, will effectively cap livestock numbers and effectively kill off the national policy of dairy growth.

The destructive characterisation in mainstream media, combined with the noise of the environmental lobby, has focused in on Irish agriculture solely in terms of the infamous 30% of national carbon emissions statistic, particularly since we emerged from the 2008-2012 recession; eaten bread is soon forgotten!

So when the Green Party became part of the government in June of last year, against a backdrop of leaked documents from the public service stating that without a limit on the national herd, Ireland’s whole climate action policy was nonsense, the writing was clearly on the wall.

Given this change in perception how should agriculture represent itself?

Perception of agriculture

In parallel to the ‘dumbing down’ of commentary on agriculture in mainstream media, the narrative from the agricultural sector itself, particularly in beef but also increasingly in dairy, has tended to be solely about low, chronic prices and incomes and not about improvements in environmental management.

This negative narrative allowed many commentators, and even those with a favourable disposition to agriculture, to suggest that beef farmers would be better off doing less or doing something different like forestry, because the more animals they produced the less money they made and the more emissions increased.

Another example is the narrative around the €70 million grant announced by the government in November 2020 as a response to Brexit trade diversification challenges.

A key metric for qualifying for support under this scheme set up by the Department of Enterprise and Enterprise Ireland, was proof by the processor that the project would explicitly not lead to increased output.

Yet most of the agri commentary was focused on either criticising the fact that industry was getting support at all, or looking for guarantees of increased pricing.

Agriculture is a ‘hard sell’

This constant negative narrative about agriculture from agriculture – framed only as a row about prices – is a very hard sell compared to the sometimes exaggerated, but unrelenting positive spin put out by the multinational sector and its agencies, about their ongoing relevance to the Irish economy.

One of the bigger delusions in Ireland’s body politic, is the acceptance by mainstream media that Ireland is the second richest country in the EU because our official Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figure shows this.

This acceptance of the face value GDP accounts, means media reportage states that Ireland was the only economy in the western world that demonstrated growth in 2020 with GDP increasing by over 3%, while in the real Irish economy, unemployment reached more than 20% and may stay at this level until the end of the year.

Furthermore under the fantasy GDP statistic, agriculture constitutes less than 2% of Irish GDP versus 30% of total Irish economy spend by the food and drink sector.

In fairness, good news or positive news from agriculture is increasingly hard to sell. Agri-food companies and organisations like the National Dairy Council (NDC) – with a positive nutritional message – have struggled to get testimonials about dairy nutrition or new customer demand for grass-based Irish food or even the endorsement of validated improved environmental practices, past the green washing firewall in the mainstream media.

But it is very clear that in the absence of agriculture speaking more positively about its unique Irish economy impact, nobody else will. Also the mainstream momentum behind capping the national herd will only build resulting in more constraints in Irish agriculture and more opportunities missed.