Opinion

Jack Russell: The whole model of ‘expansion’ was actually an admission of defeat

Another day, another problem for farmers.

Just once the Terrier for the Truth would like to learn of a problem or development that wasn’t caused by us and didn’t involve a lot of head-shaking, form-filling and finger-pointing – all underpinned by the very distinct threat of some hefty fine-paying.

According to Dr. Alan Reilly, advisor to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and former CEO of the Food Safety Authority, Ireland has the highest rate of (take a breath here) verotoxigenic escherichia coli (VTEC).

This lives in the gut of cattle and can be transferred to humans through their faeces by either direct contact or food consumption.

A European Food Safety Authority Report shows the 2015 European average of VTEC is 1.27 per 100,000 people.

Ireland’s rate? Our incidence is 12.92 per 100,000.

Our occurrences are therefore over 10 times that of the European average.

The rational, deductive scientist

Dr. Reilly is unambiguous about the cause for this alarming statistic. It is our expanding cattle density with their increased faeces recycled back into the system through slurry spreading and thence into our food system and our guts.

In fairness to Dr. Reilly he seems the very personification of the rational, deductive scientist in Jack’s view.

He’s putting forward an explanation for this alarming finding and – for a change – he’s not using it as a stick to beat farmers for ‘non-compliance’ or any of the other weasel words that we have come to recognise as code for ‘regulate them to ruin’.

He’s not commenting on policy – good, bad or indifferent.

He’s saying that the significant increase in cattle numbers has significantly increased the occurrences of this highly dangerous E. coli strain.

He’s also saying there are natural barriers like reed beds that can manage slurry run-off into rivers and anaerobic digestion facilities can be rolled out to detoxify slurry.

But his bigger point remains and it is this question of numbers – of expansion – that actually gives the Terrier for the Truth a surge of optimism.

Because we are now at the question that too many of us – and way too many farmer representatives – have been dodging and studiously avoiding for far too long.

‘Defeat’

The whole model of ‘expansion’ was actually an admission of defeat; of submission.

Let Jack explain.

When we accepted the idea that in order to have a reasonable income we had to expand – what we actually did was concede on our right to a fair margin.

This was a stupendous and decisive concession that has put us in the very unenviable bind we are in right now in terms of environment, changing consumer tastes and perception of animal welfare.

The slippery meaning of ‘expand’ – that way too few pointed out at the time – was that we were going to have to massively increase volumes to make up for what was not going to be given to us by way of fair margin.

What they told us was that they wouldn’t raise our milk or beef price in line with input inflation or their margins – but if we wanted to produce more so as to make up that difference then we could go right ahead!

If we wanted to run faster, work longer hours, own more cattle, lease more land, burn ourselves out, borrow more money to buy stock, borrow more money for new plant and parlours, keep chasing on volume what we had given up on margin, then they wouldn’t stand in our way!

Wasn’t that very decent of them?

‘A fundamental, catastrophic mistake’

The more Jack Russell thinks about it – and in common with every mentally and physically exhausted farmer he knows – and he thinks about it a lot, the more convinced he is that it was this concession:

The acceptance of the idea that we could make up on volume what we had lost on margin was a fundamental, catastrophic mistake.

It is one from which we have been trying to extricate ourselves from ever since.

The good news is that, as the full and unintended consequences of the volume-over-margin con job work their way through and into the environment and public health, we now have a one and final chance to overturn this lie.

This lie has left farmers burnt out, very nearly broke and the object of black stares from everyone else as the buck for climate damage, some sadistic goon beating calves and everything else under an ever-heating sky is passed back to us.

Accepting the volume-over-margin lie put us on a running machine years ago, and we’ve been running ever since, in Jack’s view.

We need someone to hit the big, red ‘OFF’ button right in the middle of the panel. And Dr. Reilly’s finding represents another step towards just that happening.

It can’t come fast enough.