The Agri-Food Strategy 2030 process was always going to be difficult and complex, having as a backdrop multiple challenges and agendas.
Some of the challenges include:
• Evolving climate and environmental challenges facing the broad agri-sector;
• Legacy of 20 years of low food prices/below-cost selling impacting on farm incomes and margins;
• Covid-19 and its public health and economic impacts;
• Brexit and its trade and market diversification issues.
Balancing these complex, and in many respects conflicting imperatives, was always likely to require mature debate, goodwill and above all, a commitment to common sense-based solutions.
Unfortunately as demonstrated by the events of last week this ‘multi-stakeholder dynamic process’ is not where the Irish Environmental Pillar is comfortable.
Exit of Environmental Pillar
The exit of the Environmental Pillar (EP) from the Agri-Food Strategy 2030 process, while unfortunate, was not unexpected, given the core opposition of An Taisce and the environmental group to the continued existence of livestock farming in Ireland and the fact that 85% of farming food businesses associated with Irish agriculture are inextricably linked to livestock production and its outputs – dairy and meat products.
To be very clear, the disagreement here with the rest of the participants in the 2030 process, who include the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other regulatory bodies, was not over the achievement or implementation of improved environmental targets through ways, means or even ends.
According to the EP / An Taisce statement: “The strategy’s fundamental flaw is its failure to recognise that the business-as-usual export-driven intensification of animal agriculture can no longer justifiably continue.
“That system change toward food crops from tillage and horticulture, and the rebuilding of natural ecosystems for biodiversity is unavoidable, necessary and long overdue.”
In many ways the clarity of the absolutist view of An Taisce and the EP is important and speaks to the core of the case made by the EP, that the climate change debate in Ireland, and in particular the role and impact of agriculture environmentally, comes down to a tribal ethical superiority issue.
Or superior to those who point out that simply suppressing Irish agricultural output, while locally ruinous, is not globally beneficial, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) recognises.
Balancing increased supply from less carbon efficient or non-compliant regions will see global emissions increase.
Threat to Food Harvest 2030
The real danger, and in my view… intent, of the withdrawal of the EP is an attempt to debase the Food Harvest 2030 process and in particular to diminish all of the environmental elements in the process.
This includes all of the work to date and future commitments by both law makers like the EPA and people who actually farm or work in Irish agriculture to improve environmental performance, while continuing to deliver badly needed rural economy jobs and economic impact.
Never mind the 35 million people in Ireland and the rest of the world who consume our meat and dairy products as food.
Nor is there any recognition of the huge investment and hard labour in producing food in volatile climatic and economic conditions including the global pandemic of Covid-19, and the additional slog of finding markets across 150 countries globally for Irish food annually.
There is also no understanding of the huge effort to deal with the market diversification challenge of Brexit, including the investments in new and different cheese plants required to manage the Brexit diversification threat.
Lets look at some facts and the distortion of them in EP commentary.
The increase in Irish dairy production by 40%, subsequent to quota abolition, has required a total investment on-farm and in processing capability of €3 billion, while delivering an additional €2.5 billion annual increase in exports and, even more importantly, Irish economy spend.
Yes, increased production has had its environmental challenges as well as its major local economy benefits and there are very clear signals from government and the EU that new regulatory constraints will be applied and that livestock numbers may be capped.
But all of the above balancing of real life challenges is dismissed by the EP, and in particular Irish dairy expansion is regularly given the negative description of intensification or industrial farming.
The facts do not support this allegation:
- Average Irish dairy herd size up to the abolition of milk quotas was 56 cows; it is now 83 cows
- Average size of dairy farm in Northern Ireland is 130 dairy cows;
- Average size of dairy farm in England is 160 dairy cows;
- Average size of dairy farm in Scotland is 203 dairy cows.
Is New Zealand at average 460 dairy cows or USA at 900 dairy cows per herd industrial?
Move to horticulture
Magical thinking around replacing imported fruit and vegetables by instructing / mandating Irish dairy and beef farmers to cease what they have been doing and move into plant production, regardless of land suitability, scale, soil type, the wishes of individuals, or the reality of market outlets, is not a plan.
The issue of global climate change like the issue of the future of Irish agriculture and the Irish economy after Covid-19 and post-Brexit, requires serious, not tribal, reflection.