‘Hypocrisy’: Farming groups give cutting retort to Citizens’ Assembly proposals

There has been a strong reaction from Irish farming organisations to recommendations put forward by the Citizens’ Assembly in relation to increased carbon taxes for farmers over the weekend, with the IFA, ICMSA and ICSA all roundly criticising the decision.

The Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) has been highly critical of the move, with IFA president Joe Healy describing suggestions to the assembly put forward by Prof. Alan Matthews to consider increased carbon taxes on farming – which was supported by the assembly – as impractical and unlikely to make any real environmental difference.

Healy also took issue with Prof. Matthews’ suggestion that suckler cow numbers in Ireland should be reduced.

Dismissing this, Healy noted: “The carbon tax was introduced in 2010, and since 2011 overall national greenhouse gas emissions have actually increased by 4%.

There is no evidence that Alan Matthews’ suggestion to expand this tax further by imposing a second carbon tax on agriculture would have any positive environmental effect in practice.

Focusing on livestock, the president said: “Our suckler cow sector plays a vital role in the sustainability of so many rural communities and businesses across the country.

“Prof. Matthews made much of the current poor farmer returns from suckler farming as an apparent rationale for reducing numbers. We need to improve returns for suckler farmers not obliterate them, particularly for farmers in rural areas that are dependent on this enterprise for their livelihoods.

“Suckler farming is welfare-friendly and also contributes to maintaining Ireland’s green image.”

Continuing, Healy said: “The IFA and farmers are conscious of the need to play our part in addressing climate change, but a second carbon tax would be the wrong approach.

Agriculture already has significant initiatives in place and agricultural emissions have fallen by 6% since 1990 while our output has increased by over 40%.

“However, transport’s greenhouse gas emissions are now out of control, having increased by 130% over the same period,” Healy noted.

Initiatives

Healy said that the Smart Farming programme will be scaled up in 2018 and it will continue to focus on demonstrating the win-wins of improving farm incomes, enhancing the environment and reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

In addition, farmers’ ongoing participation in carbon monitoring, measuring and management will continue through participation in programmes such as Bord Bia’s Origin Green programme and the Department of Agriculture’s Beef Data and Genomics Programme (BDGP) and Green, Low-Carbon Agriculture Scheme (GLAS).

Farmers will continue to build on our sustainable model of food production, currently being the most carbon-efficient milk producers and the fifth most efficient beef producers in Europe.

“We will continue to seek to make improvements in carbon efficiency across the food supply chain. For example, to-date over 137,000 carbon audits have been completed by Bord Bia as part of their Origin Green programme, 90% of beef exports are now in an audit and carbon foot printing programme and 100% of milk production is entering into a carbon auditing cycle.

“However, we cannot accept further unjustifiable carbon taxes or attacks on the national suckler herd,” Healy concluded.

‘Proposals should be rejected outright’

The Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) also issued a sharp riposte to the assembly’s decision.

The president of the ICMSA, John Comer, has called on the government to reject outright such a proposal – given its potentially severe negative impact on family farms and the wider rural communities, adding that such an added tax would be “completely illogical”.

Comer said that a key issue in the debate – the continued global population growth and increased demand for food – is either not being dealt with at all or being conveniently ignored.

Once this “inconvenient truth” is accepted, Comer added, then it becomes a question of where the food can be produced in an environmentally-efficient manner.

The president noted that Ireland is one of the most climate-efficient food producers in the world and, therefore, one of the locations where food production should be encouraged – not penalised as per the Citizens’ Assembly.

Comer said that imposing a tax on Irish agriculture to address climate change would actually have a result completely counter to that intended by the Citizens’ Assembly, as food production would simply move to other countries that are less efficient from a carbon perspective.

From an economic perspective, the ICMSA president said that statistical evidence on income from CSO (Central Statistics Office) is categorical and shows that rural areas continue to fall behind their urban and suburban counterparts – with the one area that is economically powering rural areas being agriculture.

Imposing an additional tax on family farms would have massively negative consequences for family farms that are already facing serious challenges both in relation to Brexit and from “relentless margin-grabbing” by large multiple retailers, Comer said.

Comer concluded, reiterating the need for the government to reject outright the proposal made on Saturday.

‘A completely daft idea’

The Citizens’ Assembly proposal was dismissed as a “completely daft idea” by ICSA president Patrick Kent.

Expanding, Kent described the decision as “a lamentable example of group think emerging from a part-time weekend talk shop”.

“When you get daft proposals on additional taxes for farmers enthusiastically backed by 89% of respondents and a proposal for a new quango backed by 98% of respondents, it is obvious that this does not arise from balanced debate and careful reflection.

“Instead it suggests that the findings have been orchestrated by the way the debate has been framed and the questions put.

“Did anyone ponder the hypocrisy of favouring carbon taxes for the end users of fuel, but not for beef or dairy?” the president asked.

The reality is that if the Citizens’ Assembly was asked if they favoured food taxes at retail level they would have been a lot slower to jump on the bandwagon.

“Moreover, they would then have to reflect on the fact that any such tax would have to be levied – not just in Ireland, but in every country in the world where we export food,” Kent added.

“If we close down Irish beef farmers, we simply relocate the production of beef to other parts of the globe where they don’t give a toss about citizens’ assemblies. How stupid would it be to reduce Irish agricultural output so that the likes of Brazil could expand at a far higher environmental cost?

Government and all public representatives need to man up and stop outsourcing policy decisions to hobby weekend policy makers.

“It is a wasteful, diversionary tactic when we could incentivise farmers to supply solar energy or invest in anaerobic digestion which produces renewable heat while reducing slurry emissions.

“Ireland also needs to reject the absurd EU Commission proposals to undermine crop-based biofuels on EU farms which produce up to 70% lower GHG emissions than fossil fuels. While electric vehicles might eventually be attractive as an alternative, we have to deal with today’s fleet today.

“The government also needs to stand up and be counted on the climate impact of a potential Mercosur trade deal which, in essence, will result in increased imports of beef and ethanol at significant environmental cost – when we could produce all we need of these products in the EU, without the global transport emissions involved in imports from South America.”