Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Saturday 19 August 2017

Time to split issues of food production and environment

Farming in environmentally sensitive areas has to be supported

Maybe it is time to think about dealing separately with the production of food and the protection of the
environment. This idea has already been put forward as being a potential means of managing our woodland resources
Maybe it is time to think about dealing separately with the production of food and the protection of the environment. This idea has already been put forward as being a potential means of managing our woodland resources
Joe Barry

Joe Barry

Farming can be a complex and difficult business. Most years we manage to produce more and yet, somehow, often seem to end up earning less.

There is no doubt that, without the various support schemes and subsidies, many farms would not be viable and it is often said that the bigger the farm, the greater the debt.

It's not surprising that Irish farmers find it hard to make ends meet when we are competing in a world market while operating under welfare and environmental constraints that do not apply to many of our competitors.

Maybe it is time to think about dealing separately with the production of food and the protection of the environment. This idea has already been put forward as being a potential means of managing our woodland resources.

The theory is that we could make the best possible commercial use of our woodland without compromising on environmental protection. To do this we could separate selected areas in order to concentrate on production in one and protection of the environment in the other. The beauty of the concept is that the productive area can still bestow environmental benefits, while the protected area can also contribute in a smaller way to our timber needs while ensuring the creation and retention of further diverse wildlife habitats.

Both can be managed to maximum efficiency instead of working, as now happens, under a complex and often misunderstood set of ever-changing rules.

This idea could also perhaps be usefully applied to farming in general, where some farmers would be paid to farm solely for the environmental benefits of their systems of land management while others could focus on maximising output and profits. This does not, of course, mean that productive commercial farming would be in any way harmful, simply that one would concentrate fully on profitable production and the other on protection of wildlife and habitats.

The Heritage Council is examining the link between traditional, less intensive methods of farming and bio-diversity. These systems of farming are rapidly becoming marginalised and they feel that they should be subsidised in selected areas to ensure that the old knowledge survives along with the benefits of old practices.


They wish to see High Nature Value (HNV) farming supported and are concerned that some farms in marginal areas have already been abandoned and returned to scrub.

Seaweed is no longer used as a fertiliser and the days when every farm had a plot of vegetables and a pig are dying fast. The link between low stocking rates, low fertiliser inputs and high nature value are well proven. The overgrazing by sheep on mountains in the west created an environmental disaster that is only now being remedied. From the 1960s on, we destroyed many hedgerows, wetland and copses -- and now we are spending heavily to restore them.

But it is obvious that in the present climate, farmers cannot survive and compete commercially under a HNV farming regime so, in addition to REPS, further assistance must be made available if we are to see its widespread introduction.

It is also hoped to aggressively market the produce from HNV-farmed areas and cash in on the consumer preference for food that is produced in a 'close to nature' manner.

A start would be to re-open our local abattoirs and reduce the current need to travel great distances with small numbers of cattle and sheep. We must also curtail the power of the large supermarket chains and allow the local sale of produce, such as eggs, from small flocks.

Silly regulations are placing huge impediments in the way of small producers who are asked to spend fortunes on meeting stringent and inappropriate health and safety requirements.

Desert

A recent TV documentary showed how seed potatoes grown in Scotland are flown to Egypt and planted there in heavily irrigated desert. The crop is then harvested and packed in peat imported from Ireland, which keeps the potatoes moist and undamaged in transit. Finally, they are flown back to supermarkets in Britain and Ireland where they are sold as 'organic earlies'.

It is easy to condemn the waste of scarce water in arid regions, the misuse of valuable peat and the effects on global warming of all those air miles, but should we ignore the needs of the workers in Egypt, many of whom are poor and need our custom? These spuds are comparatively cheap but we must then ask: are the public ready to pay a farmer in, say, Kerry to fertilise them with seaweed and grow them using a HNV system at a greater cost?

Perhaps there is a place for both but there are no easy answers.

Irish Independent