Is there a hint of hypocrisy in the new ‘deal’ for Irish and European farmers?

Is the EU Commission’s plan to simply import from countries in which food is not produced ‘sustainably’ and to turn the European countryside into a glorified park or wildlife reserve?

Perhaps European policy-makers think it’s okay to eat food that’s not produced in a ‘sustainable’ manner as long as we don’t see how or where it’s produced.

It magically arrives on a boat. Ignorance is bliss; hypocrisy is rife.

In many ways, this looks like the end-goal of the EU Commission’s latest Farm to Fork Strategy – a strategy that is part of the much-talked-about Green Deal.

In the meanwhile, the young farmers of today are uncertain of their futures. Those trying to build a viable business now might well be looking at hectares of little more than trees and ‘pollinator fields’ rather than ‘pollinator strips’ by retirement age.

It seems that every time the EU concocts a strategy or a plan for agriculture it is one that results in the further decline of the ‘business of farming’.

The idea of farming sustainably isn’t a new concept. Yet this new strategy makes it sound ground-breaking.

The majority of farmers try to farm as sustainably as possible – day-in day-out. Sustainability, after all, has three pillars: environment; economics; and social.

For example, integrated pest management is part of everyday life on tillage farms; yet the Farm to Fork Strategy reads like it has just invented this.

It mentions crop rotation and mechanical weeders as strategies to reduce pesticide use. Crop rotation has been around for a very long time. Mechanical weeders have come back into fashion in recent years.

Also Read: 2018…when the hoe came back in fashion on the tillage tramlines

The strategy lists ambitious targets for the reduction of fertiliser and pesticide use by 20% and 50% (respectively) by 2030. The majority of farmers would, no doubt, relish the chance to reduce their fertiliser and pesticide bills. They actively strive to reduce inputs on a daily basis, but there’s one important factor that should be considered.

The world’s population is growing and needs to be fed. Modern crop varieties, as well as animal production techniques, have evolved to meet this need.

For example, wheat yields have increased with the arrival of new varieties. This increase in yield may make crops more susceptible to septoria and, therefore, plants need help to reach their potential. In the past, this help came from fungicides, but now there’s an integrated approach that combines cultural, biological and chemical controls.

Farmers, of course, do not want to apply fungicides to their crops for no reason. Many here in Ireland are already mixing varieties. They are feeding crops balanced diets and reducing crop stress in tandem with reduced pesticide applications.

Farms are businesses

Meanwhile, commodity prices are low and volatile. Farmers, as well as wanting more environmentally-sustainable methodologies, want economically-sustainable businesses. Pesticides and other inputs are simply not used unless they are necessary. These inputs cost money.

The document itself concedes that 33 million EU citizens “cannot afford a quality meal every second day”. Yet the strategy’s targets will inevitably limit or even decrease output.

At present, organic food accounts for just a single-digit percentile of consumer demand in the majority of EU countries. Ambitiously, the Farm to Fork Strategy plans to place 25% of the EU’s agricultural land into organic production – by 2030. That’s just over nine years away.

Basic economics tell us that when supply is plentiful the price goes down. Does it not follow that organic farmers are at risk of a severe drop in income if the area to be planted far exceeds demand? A lot of research – in terms of both agronomy and the market – will be needed if this target is to be met.

Reduced yields and food imports

The targeted reduction in pesticide and fertiliser use is also likely to reduce yields. So how will the deficit be made up? Presumably imports will continue to flow in – from countries that do not adhere to the same strict standards that EU farmers must.

Produce enters our ports all year round, some of which that has been sprayed with chemicals that were banned in the EU many years ago. GM (genetically-modified) crops also enter our ports – to form part of our animal feeds.

Yes; the strategy refers to increased surveillance of imports, and a proposal to avoid or minimise the placing of products associated with deforestation on the EU market, but how is this to be enforced?

Will the boats be turned around? Will we be able to feed a growing EU population without those imports?

‘Biggest importer and exporter’

The EU claims to be the biggest importer and exporter of food and drink in the world.

However, there needs to be a level playing field. We cannot simply tell EU farmers to trawl through red tape while competing (on price) with imported products that are not produced to the same standard.

Food must continue to be produced in a thriving rural Europe, where innovative farmers continue to feed the bees and the soil; plant grass margins, wild flowers and bird feed; and, most importantly, produce safe food.

Perhaps the decision makers in the EU should open their eyes and see that good work is already being done by farmers. They should build on this, rather than pursuing a strategy that – quite frankly – looks like it will hinder (and not help) the business of farming…and the business of ‘sustainable’ food production.