Opinion: We aspire to own land, but what does ‘ownership’ now mean…as farming itself may be ‘for sale’?

A draft document – titled: ‘EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030’ – is circulating at present. The strapline beneath the document’s title reads: ‘Bringing nature back into our lives’.

2030 sounds relatively far off, especially now – with the skewed passage of time, as the country slowly raises its head from a pandemic-induced ‘lock-down’.

But 2030 is surprisingly close; it’s less than 10 years away. So what’s all the fuss about?

This strategy – were it to be enacted as an ‘on-the-ground’ policy – would have undeniable implications for the business of farming here in Ireland.

The document kicks off with a narrative, whereby it suggests that the risk of disease outbreaks, including pandemics such as Covid-19, has “raised awareness of the interrelations between our health, food, supply chains, consumption patterns and planetary boundaries”.

It says that scientists “link the increasing frequency of [the] emergence of infectious disease outbreaks, including Covid-19, SARS, avian influenza and Ebola, to interference with wildlife due to biodiversity loss”.

It also asserts that “around two-thirds of known human infectious diseases are zoonotic” – i.e. they normally exist in animals before being transmitted to humans.

The authors contend that the emergence of many of these diseases results from “human encroachment into previously untouched nature”. It goes on to say that “protecting and restoring biodiversity and well-functioning ecosystems is, therefore, key in helping to prevent the spread of infectious diseases”.

In so doing, the document sets out a timely (and arguably an emotive) rationale for its eventual recommendations. Moreover, it states that the “biodiversity crisis is intrinsically linked to the climate crisis”.

Rhetoric to worry farmers

In a bid to counter the “loss of biodiversity”, the authors pronounce that the “EU is ready to show ambition and blaze the trail globally” – deploying a “transformative plan…and taking the lead in the world”. It is this very rhetoric that will worry many EU (and Irish) farmers.

To stop the “alarming decline” of birds and insects (especially pollinators) the document says that the EU Commission will take actions to reduce the use of chemical pesticides by 50% by 2030.

It also cites an “urgent need to bring back at least 10% of utilised agricultural area under high-diversity landscapes, like: buffer strips; rotational or non-rotational fallow land; or landscape”.

Moreover, the document says, “at least 25% of the EU’s agricultural land must be under organic farming by 2030”.

Forced reduction in fertiliser use

Even more broadly, the strategy outlines a target that will “result in the reduction of use of [nitrogen] fertilisers by at least 20% [by 2030].”

While all of this is – at this point – still just a draft ‘strategy document’ one is tempted to think that much of it might well be adopted by the ‘powers that be’.

The authors say that the strategy will “work in tandem with the new Farm-to-Fork Strategy and the revised Common Agricultural Policy”. That suggests that the advent of this document is not just an ‘aspirational’, box-ticking endeavour; much of it could underpin future policy (and legislation) in this area.

While some environmentalists will welcome its recommendations, many farmers will be unsettled.

Many of the aforementioned measures will serve to make the ‘business’ of commercially-viable farming – as we know it today – more difficult.

If increasingly-stringent measures are to be imposed on EU and, by inclusion, Irish farmers, this will inevitably drive up the cost of production, limit potential output or – more likely than not – do both.

‘Realpolitik’

Meanwhile, will our respective governments and commissioners continue to negotiate ‘realpolitik’ deals with other trading blocks – whereby those countries and continents (not bound by such stringent rules) can ship food into the EU?

This ‘cuts the legs out’ from Irish farmers – slowly but surely diverting ‘primary production’ elsewhere. The very business of indigenous farming is being sold down the proverbial river – under the auspices of ‘delivering environmental goods’ or ‘doing the right thing’.

Guilt-free strategy

Delivering these so-called ‘environmental goods’ makes for happy, guilt-free chatter for well-suited politicians, legislators and policy-makers (while sipping well-earned ‘Frappuccinos’). But such talk is of little consolation to farmers. Indeed, farmers might wonder how and why they are simply being legislated out of existence – for the ‘greater good’ or, dare we say it, the national interest.

Farmers might well question their relationship with the land on which they live and scythe out a living. For those lucky enough to own land, what does the concept of ‘ownership’ even mean? Now, it seems, it implies the ‘freedom’ to farm that land in an increasingly-restricted way.

If restrictions dictate that – in a country like Ireland – each acre of land can no longer be farmed in a way that leaves any meaningful money in a farmer’s pocket (with dairy farming serving as an exception) then what’s the point?

Potential ‘land-grab’

Interestingly, the concept of land ‘ownership’ (from a farmer’s perspective) was also brought into sharp focus after – what farming leaders described as – a recent suggestion of a potential “land grab”.

What gave rise to those worries was a framework document that outlined policies for a coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

Specifically, that document – mooted some months ago – listed steps to: “reduce the cost of land to improve the affordability of housing, employing all measures up to and including referenda”; and also “to empower and fund the Land Development Agency to build homes on public and private land…”.

Those ‘steps’ were borne out of recommendations from a 1973 report – by Judge John Kenny – that included the notion that local authorities or Government agencies should be able to ‘CPO’ farmland for house building – by paying the landowner no more than agricultural value plus a 25% top-up.

At issue was not the Government’s right to acquire land ‘for the greater good’, but rather its remit to do so while paying the landowner (what farm organisations would describe as) a very tightly-capped sum of money.

In many ways, the idea of a state-imposed cap on the value of a farmer’s land is not that far removed from the advent of state-sponsored legislation that severely restricts what a farmer can actually do on that land – while he or she owns it.

In any event, it begs the question: What does it mean to actually own Irish agricultural land – as we look ahead (with hope and worry – in equal measure) to the precipice of 2030?

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