‘Ireland cannot continue to expand forever’ – McGuinness

Irish agriculture “cannot continue to expand, at an exponential rate, forever” due to limitations of the environment and climate change, MEP Mairead McGuinness has warned.

Speaking to AgriLand after the publication of the European Commission’s ‘Farm to Fork’ and ‘Biodiversity’ strategies – documents that support the EU Green Deal to make Europe “climate neutral” by 2050, and which will also merge into the next Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – the First Vice President of the European Parliament stated that when it comes to the future of farming “the direction of travel is very clear”.

This route includes some key twists and turns, namely: reducing inputs (chemical pesticides −50%; fertilisers −20%; antimicrobials −50% – all on current levels) by 2030; and moving towards organic farming (25% of EU lands are to be under organics by 2030).

And while pressure is already on to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the sector ahead of the 2030 deadline – Ireland’s current target for agriculture is to reduce emissions by 10% to 15% by then – it must also be borne in mind that, as Farm to Fork outlines, in September the commission will put forward a plan to increase GHG reduction targets even further over the next decade.

In the long run, the Farm to Fork Strategy is about consolidating objectives for agriculture, the environment and health, so that a sustainable food system can be achieved. As McGuinness says herself: “It is a very, very big vision…with clear targets – backed up by legislation.”

With both strategies now moving to the next phase – scrutiny by MEPs in the European Parliament – McGuinness sheds some light on the road ahead and what Irish farmers can expect.

“There is a lot in the strategy that we would agree with – and that, I think, farmers would support.

“For example, farmers want to use less inputs because there is an economic benefit if you can produce with less inputs; that just goes without saying.

“But what we need on that, in my view, is a very coordinated research and advisory system to provide that information to farmers – that is happening in Ireland, but I think it needs to be strengthened.

“We also have good examples of farming for nature in Ireland; we have conservation agriculture, we have different farming practices that are leading on the environment and those are the champions of this transition.”

However, McGuinness unequivocally acknowledges that the targets will be challenging.

The question is how will what’s on paper, and quite bold in terms of a future for farming and food, be delivered?

“When it comes to pesticides we have the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive [SUD], we know that contractors and farmers are trained – but there is a strong push to use less.

“For some of our cereal farmers this is going to be a huge challenge, particularly in Ireland with our weather patterns.

“What we need is an assessment about how realistic the targets are and how achievable they are,” she said.

Turning to farm-gate returns, while the strategy recognises the importance of “ensuring a sustainable livelihood for primary producers” – who, the document says, “still lag behind” in terms of income – McGuinness says farmers remain skeptical.

“On whether this strategy will deliver better incomes, better returns, a lot of farmers I talk to are not convinced. They want to believe that it will; but they are not convinced that the market mechanism will provide for that.

“The strategy talks about some consumers wanting foods of a higher value and ethical standard – it has quite a paragraph on that – and that this is a market opportunity for farmers. Again, how big an opportunity is it? Will it translate to higher returns?”

This, she says, is something the parliament will be scrutinising the commission on in the weeks ahead.

“Because the one issue that is not contained in it is anything on competition law and how that functions in the food-supply chain,” she said.

Commissioner Wojciechowski

Reflecting on last week’s launch, a question was put to McGuinness as to the notable absence of the Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Janusz Wojciechowski.

“Executive Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans is running the show in terms of the EU Green Deal and he is leading on Farm to Fork.

“I’ve had long conversations with the vice president about some of my concerns – and where I see opportunities. I’ve also had similar conversations with the Health and Food Safety Commissioner, Stella Kyriakides.

“To both of them I’ve stressed: ‘How do we balance the vision with affordability?’ Because in this strategy there is, perhaps rightly so, a need for food to be affordable.

“There has been a lot of comments as to why the agriculture commissioner wasn’t present at the launch; but the reality is – even for the agriculture committee in parliament – we know that the environment committee will lead on a number of the elements that are contained in the strategy.

I’ve always felt that the challenge – which has not been met – is how do we have cohesion between environment and agriculture?

“We see it to some level on social media where the farmers and the environmentalists pitch against each other – when in fact, what we need is a cohesive approach – and this is the difficulty for the agriculture committee at parliament.

“We are going through the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the environment committee have a say in that because a lot of it is to do with eco-schemes and the environment. And now it’s the same for the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies. So it’s a very complicated process that is underway.

“At one level we are reforming CAP – and on another train track there are two other strategies that have to merge into the CAP through the [individual member state] strategic plans.

“It is difficult to follow all the twists and turns, but follow it we will have to do, because the direction of travel is very clear,” the MEP said.

Short-supply chains

Another challenge for Irish agriculture posed by Farm to Fork is its recognition of calls for shorter supply chains – an opinion that particularly intensified among some member states (such as Poland) during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski – a native of Poland – has been especially vocal in his support for such a move – in fact, the commissioner urged that the action be included in Farm to Fork.

The strategy states: “With a view to enhance resilience of regional and local food systems, the commission, in order to create shorter supply chains, will support reducing dependence on long-haul transportation (about 1.3 billion tonnes of primary agricultural, forestry and fishery products were transported on roads in 2017).”

McGuinness stresses that greater clarity is needed on this proposition – particularly in the context of EU countries that are agri-food export dependent, such as Ireland.

We are a big trading country and we sell a lot of our produce on the European market and globally, so one of our big challenges will be this focus on ‘local food’ and ‘short-supply chains’.

“I have just written to Commissioner Wojciechowski  to ask him to clarify what he means by ‘local’ and ‘short-supply chains’.

“I put the question to the director general of DG Agri [Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development] in committee this week and he didn’t quite answer – we need to get clear answers.”

For McGuinness, she says “local” has to mean “European” – particularly from an Irish perspective.

“I know in Ireland that we have to buy Irish and support our own; but the absolute reality for Irish farmers is that if every member state in Europe were to say that ‘we will return to national food supply’, to re-nationalise food in other words, then I’m afraid we are knocked out of a massive chunk of our market.

“Because Irish farmers produce much more food than can ever be consumed in Ireland,” McGuinness cautioned.

Plant-based diets

In earlier drafts of Farm to Fork, McGuinness had “great concerns” about overarching themes linking food health, diet and environment to a proposed action to end the promotion of meat and dairy products.

However, she says this proposed move  “has been softened” in the current strategy.

“From a personal and a political point of view, you need balance in all of these things. I don’t think that that is something that is going to happen – but the direction of travel is towards more sustainability.

“For Ireland, large parts of our land doesn’t suit anything other than grazing and livestock – and that has to be acknowledged.

Meat and dairy for many citizens of Europe, and elsewhere, is part of a balanced diet. And I don’t think that will alter significantly.

“But it’s also very difficult to link everything together – obesity, food poverty, under nutrition – there is so much there that it simply cannot be laid at the door of farmers. We need more detail as to what is planned under all of those headings – but again, the [sustainability] link is there.

The strategy states the following: “Reversing the rise in overweight and obesity rates across the EU by 2030 is critical. Moving to a more plant-based diet with less red and processed meat and with more fruits and vegetables will reduce not only risks of life-threatening diseases, but also the environmental impact of the food system.”

Curbing expansion

Delving further on this point, McGuinness says farmers are aware of the trend among some young people, and different sections of society, where they are moving towards more plant-based diets.

But, she says, in the overall context “it shouldn’t be a threat to our agricultural sectors”.

“There is an increase globally in demand for dairy and beef. Nonetheless, it is still a challenge and farmers are aware of it already – so it is how we manage that perspective, without it damaging what we do.

Ireland cannot continue to expand exponentially forever. It cannot continue to produce more, and more, and more – and we won’t because the limitations will be the environment and climate.

“Human beings and labour are also factors that will change the dynamic, so it’s how you approach it.

“Climate is the overarching issue that has to be addressed by all sectors. When we look at agriculture we presume it’s the only sector where there is an ask. But in transport and energy there are huge asks too.”

Ultimately, McGuinness says “we are in a period of transition”.

“The public policy of the past – of the 1970s and 1980s – drove farmers to drain lands, to use lots of inputs, output was the thing, we were encouraged to take out hedgerows to make fields bigger – this was public policy and indeed some of it funded by the public purse.

“That policy is now changing completely in a way to say ‘we have to be mindful of the value on nature, on public goods, on the sustainability of certain practices on farms’ – and that’s right along the chain.

“But to encourage that shift you have to nudge people in that direction – not tell them what to do,” she said.

Carbon trading

One of the areas of Farm to Fork that offers a “really good message” according to the MEP, is the proposed action of paying farmers who engage in farming practices that remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere – either via the next CAP or other public or private initiatives.

“They are looking at a monetary model and, in one sense, I think this is actually a really good message out of this strategy because at the moment there is almost a huge row over the contribution of agriculture.

“You could see a situation where some private enterprises, or companies, with high-carbon footprints are making relationships with farmers that sequester more carbon, so in other words, there is this trade in carbon.

“There is also, potentially, a trade that could be made between farmers, so those farmers who are emitting more carbon than they are sequestering would trade with perhaps a neighbour or somebody else.

“It is a market that hasn’t existed. But, it is one that could very well support rural communities if this comes to fruition.

“It is a very strong point in the paper, and it acknowledges that some farmers make a positive contribution in terms of climate – and that is a very encouraging message too.

“More could be done if we manage land in a certain way to allow it to sequester more – it’s all part of the road to the future,” McGuinness concluded.