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Darragh McCullough: Farmers are spooked because they don't know who or what to believe on environmental issues

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Darragh McCullough pictured on his farm in Stamullen, Co. Meath. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / INM

Darragh McCullough pictured on his farm in Stamullen, Co. Meath. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / INM

Paying the price: The over-use of fertilisers has created pollution on a global scale with research showing that as little as 60pc of the fertiliser applied over the last 60 years has been assimilated by plants

Paying the price: The over-use of fertilisers has created pollution on a global scale with research showing that as little as 60pc of the fertiliser applied over the last 60 years has been assimilated by plants

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Darragh McCullough pictured on his farm in Stamullen, Co. Meath. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / INM

Can humans save themselves from self-destruction and potential extinction? It's a question that has become pertinent again as the planet grapples with climate change and how to fix it.

Sceptics will claim that we've been here before. Older readers will remember the day that their teachers sent them home early in October 1962.

It was the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world teetered on the brink of a nuclear war. Children were literally sent home to spend their last few hours with their loved ones before the end.

In the 1800s England's finest economic scholar Thomas Malthus assured all thinking men (men were the only ones thinking back then, apparently) that humanity was doomed to mass starvation as population continued to out-strip any increase in food production.

Diseases such as Spanish Flu and the Black Death all should have sunk the human species several times over.

The problem, perversely, is our success in sticking around. Worse still, there's more of us than ever, all wanting to earn more, travel more and consume more.

Despite being descendants of apes, our species has become the undisputed champions of the world, with a bigger impact on the planet than any other species.

Religious types will insist that we are more than just advanced monkeys, because of our awareness, our souls.

Science nuts consider this concept positively old-fashioned these days.

But if we aren't anything more than the latest version of an ape, then we must accept that we are highly unlikely to be able to resist our biological urge to keep multiplying and consuming until there is no more to consume.

In laboratory terms, we will reach the edge of our Petri dish, and experience a population collapse due to lack of nutrients.

Listening to Donald Trump sneering at environmentalists at Davos, you can see how some of us are hell-bent on ignoring the warning signals.

The idea that Homo sapiens will be the first species in the earth's 4.5bn-year history to successfully regulate itself makes a massive assumption that we can rise above our biological programming. It assumes that we do actually have some special quality that sets us apart.

What has any of this to do with farming?

Most farmers come from the point of view that technology will always find a way to allow us to 'progress' - that is produce more with less.

The Green Revolution that started in the 1960s cemented this notion in the agricultural industry. Pairing improved varieties of crop staples like wheat, maize and rice with newly developed synthetic fertilisers and pesticides generated astounding results.

Global food output doubled from 1960-2000, lifting entire regions out of famine and poverty, and allowing the world population to rocket from 3bn in 1960 to the current figure of 7.8bn.

But the planet is paying a hefty price for this explosion of production and population. Research shows that as little as 60pc of the fertiliser applied over the last 60 years has been assimilated by plants. The rest ends up creating pollution on a global scale. Textbook examples are the dead zones where the world's biggest rivers enter the sea.

The big political parties are courting the farmer vote, telling them that there will be no cuts to the national herd.

But the only reason they're doling out reassurances like this is because they know that farmers are running scared.

Farmers are spooked because they don't know what to think or who to believe when it comes to doing the right thing for the environment.

Vested interests

Vegans tell us to get rid of all our livestock. Others would have us abandon all chemical inputs. Some would prefer if we just quit farming full-stop. Anyone who pipes up a dissenting view is dismissed as a vested interest.

It's all pretty disheartening for us farmers who take a lot of pride in the enterprises that we have built up over the decades.

I'm sure I'm not alone when I admit that it has knocked my confidence in what I do, and how I do it. Is sending a calf to slaughter at three weeks less ethical than killing it at three months?

Is ploughing and tilling a field releasing unnecessary amounts of carbon?

Is it possible to prevent a derogation for 250kg of nitrogen per hectare affecting water quality in the surrounding streams and wells?

Is it wrong to double the size of your herd because of the emissions that it will generate?

Most farmers still believe that they have a key role to play in food production. But more than ever, farmers need help. Not spin, not promises and definitely not hand-outs. Give us facts, answers and direction.

Indo Farming