We Need to Talk About (Irish) Agriculture

This morning I listened to a radio clip about the Irish peat industry. Peat harvested from local bogs has been used for centuries for cooking and heating in Ireland. Throughout the 20th century, peat was prized as a source of rural employment and an alternative fuel for heating and electricity generation during disruptions to coal supply in World War I and II. Peat harvesting was viewed as a patriotic endeavour. A way of life rather than a commercial project.

But given well known environmental issues with peat burning, the end down of the peat industry was accelerated last year and the two peat burning power stations shut down at the end of 2020 saving at least 1.25 million tonnes of carbon each year. For the past 80 years the industry has been a major employer in the midlands. Now there is a major effort to rewild the peat bogs and create new forms of environmentally friendly employment and industry. This closure has been a long drawn out, highly emotive process for the entire midland’s community, but it was always inevitable.

The Irish Agriculture industry is in a somewhat similar situation. Whilst the industry accounts for a relatively small (less than 2% and declining) proportion of GDP, it is responsible for over 30% of all Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions and unacceptably high levels of pollution. The industry is of course at the heart of Irish country life. It employs some 110,000 people and is central to local communities countrywide. Whilst closure is not even remotely considered, the agriculture industry will need to accept a similarly dramatic level of change over the next 30 years.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine published a Roadmap towards Climate Neutrality in December. Responding to the report in the Irish Times, sustainability analyst Dr Hannah Daly of UCC commented, “Cows emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas with a very strong global warming impact. Globally, methane from agriculture and fossil fuels has been responsible for the two-fifths of the 1 degree of global temperature rise that has already taken place as a result of human activities.” She continued, “Ireland is the fourth highest per-capita emitter of methane from agriculture in the world, and emissions are 15 per cent higher since 2011, driven by dairy output and abolition of milk quotas. The roadmap does not even reverse this recent rise in emissions”.

Essentially the report has a vision of “stabilising methane emissions and a significant reduction in fertiliser related nitrous oxide emissions, leading to an absolute reduction in the agricultural greenhouse gas inventory by 2030”. The ICMSA “Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association” were scathing about the report saying, “. . . featured page after page of likely new duties, regulations, and costs on farmer primary-producers without even once mentioning the reformation of margins in what he described as “an economically broken and environmentally destructive supply-chain to the consumers”.

The ICMSA have highlighted the biggest problem with Irish agriculture. Ireland exports about 90 per cent of its dairy and beef and half its pig meat. In 2019, dairy exports earned the country €4.9 billion, beef exports were worth €2.24 billion and pig meat exports €514 million. (Irish Times). Essentially, we are exporting cheap meat and dairy and living with the pollution that causes, especially from reactive nitrogen which pollutes water supply, greenhouse gas emissions, ammonia in the air and eutrophication of lakes and rivers. Yet the Irish farmers are not adequately remunerated.

Farm incomes are highly variable and complex. But the average family farm income in 2019 was €23,933 down 24 per cent on the 2017 average of €31,374. The dairy sector does better with an increased milk output, with an average income of €66,570. However, we are all aware that while dairy farmers have significantly increased herd sizes over the past few years, they have also had to invest massively in robotic milking systems, leaving most of them with considerable debt to service.

The Department of Agriculture roadmap for supposedly for the next 30 years is also very inadequate in that a) it assumes there will be a market for its products and b) it assumes productivity and biodiversity will not be impacted by climatic conditions. We all know the weather is changing. Over 15 years ago farmer neighbours explained to me how the changing pattern of prevailing winds (away from South West) caused them huge problems, particularly in timing herd movements or field management activity. Also, the clear shift in rainfall patterns with longer periods of drought followed by short periods of intensive rainfall which respectively require costly irrigation and soil management as rain dilutes nutrients and causes pollution as nitrates are washed into rivers and the sea.

Buried in the Department’s report is reference to organic farming. There is a roadmap action item to increase the current area under organic production to 350,000 hectares by 2030. The total utilised agriculture area in Ireland in 2016 was 4.8m hectares, which suggests the Department are aiming to establish 7% of farming land under organic management. This should be read in context with the EU guidelines of 25% by 2030.

The change to organic farming referred to by the Department doesn’t correlate the action to the other issues to be resolved. Organic farmers all know that the problems faced by most Irish farmers are because of the chemical intensive practices that literally destroy the soil and make use of massive quantities of chemical fertilisers that kill all the micro and macro organisms in the soil, that leaves the crops defenceless against all manner of predators, pests and diseases, and therefore requires that the farmer use chemical pesticides. Organic farming is not a fad for the trendy; it’s a complete system that creates living soil that facilitates and enables healthy crops and animals and produces the highest quality, pollution free products.

We need to stimulate and encourage a conversation about where farming needs to go. This shouldn’t be about keeping as close to the status quo as possible, rather about how to establish genuinely high-quality farming that is inherently pollution free. The big roadmap questions to be asked are:

  1. Why wouldn’t we aim to make Ireland self-sufficient in food?
  2. What model would allow a self-sufficient Ireland to remunerate its farmers properly?
  3. Would incentives for localisation of food supply, (farmers markets, local produce to supermarkets) provide better income to farmers and reduce overall emissions.
  4. What percentage of existing farmland is necessary to support a self-sufficient Ireland?
  5. What proportion of the 4.8m hectares could we rewild? What level of sequestration and emission reduction would this provide?
  6. Why export food? If we had to pay (2050) carbon tax on the export supply chain, would it still be economic?
  7. Why shouldn’t producers be localised as Co-ops? Give control back to farmers?
  8. Should we not limit output to maintain or increase rewilded areas?
  9. As consumers transition away from meat and dairy, and as rainfall and drought periods both increase, how should we plan to evolve our farming systems?

    Irish agriculture is at a crossroads. The Department of Agriculture is locked in the past and manifestly cannot see beyond the status quo. If it tinkers around the edges of the existing model the industry will emulate the peat industry, shrink and largely die. However, we do have a great resource in the large number of younger farmers who have excellent qualifications and understanding of the science, in ways their fathers never could. They are more than capable of transitioning to a radically different future. It’s vital that leaders are allowed to emerge that can see a roadmap not just to 2030, but to 2050 and beyond. And the EU is encouraging that radical path.

EU Organic guidelines https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_20_1548

About davidsprott

Artist, writer, veteran IT professional
This entry was posted in Carbon Footprint, Climate Change, Economic Model, Organic Farming and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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