Darragh McCullough: IFA candidates' head-in-the-sand populism on eco issues will turn farmers into social pariahs
Do farmers really want good leadership? This was the question in my head leaving an IFA presidential debate last week.
While the candidates are all articulate and well able to tell farmers what they think they want to hear, I was dismayed by the general thrust of their promises and claims at Tullamore last week.
While an hour-long documentary on RTÉ was clearly outlining the huge dilemma facing Irish farming in complying with Ireland's emissions requirements, the men hoping to be the face of Irish farming for the next four years were on stage telling farmers that they need to fight back against the "bad science" that is "blaming" agriculture for Ireland's predicament.
They are peddling the idea that farmers deserve carbon credits for all the carbon that is being sucked up by our grassland, hedges and crops.
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This ignores the simple fact that the same land would still be soaking up carbon if there was no stock on it.
Regardless of whether the animal is recycling carbon or not, the carbon sink of land will always be there. But it is a farmer's decision as to whether there is an animal generating emissions.
The other notion being promoted by the IFA is that farmers shouldn't be saddled with all the emissions from product that is consumed all over the world.
That's a bit like saying that BMW shouldn't require carbon credits because the cars are used in every other part of the world.
The fact is that there is an internationally agreed system of calculating emissions, teased out not by a handful of sandal-wearing eco-warriors, but hundreds of internationally recognised scientists and politicians.
It's the best we have at the moment, and for Irish farm leaders to dismiss it will only serve to lower the wider public's opinion of farming in general.
The real issue that farm leaders are desperately trying to avoid is the conversation about why supports for farmers should be coupled to stock numbers rather than allowing farmers to reduce herd or flock sizes where it makes economic sense.
There are thousands of Irish farmers who love keeping their farms going but are struggling to hold on to their existing supports because of the losses that they incur on their stock.
In an era when we need every option possible to reduce emissions, it makes no sense to shape supports in a way that incentivises farmers to maximise stock numbers.
In other words, if the market doesn't justify the animal's existence, farmers should be facilitated in taking out those animals.
I'm not sure why the IFA has set its face against even debate on this logic.
Perhaps they see it as weakening their income from levies?
More likely it is that dialling back stock goes against the grain for any farmer who has spent a lifetime trying to maximise production.
It may also be a case of farm leaders assuming that this is what farmers want to hear.
Presumably this is also why all three IFA presidential candidates are sticking rigidly to the fantasy that they can achieve 'upwards-only convergence' in the next CAP reform.
In real English, that is having your cake and eating it.
There is a fixed pot of taxpayers' money available from the EU to subsidise farming. In Ireland's case it is close to €2bn all in.
If anything, this amount is more likely to fall than increase, with all the pressures mounting on EU budgets.
The loss of the UK as a net contributor is the first squeeze, followed by huge issues such as the migrant crisis on Europe's southern and eastern borders, along with efforts to harmonise the standards of living for people in the newer member states with the rest of the EU.
In the face of all this, is it realistic that the IFA will win a case for hundreds of millions of euro in extra subsidies to be paid to Irish farmers to bring them all up to a payment of €250/ha? I don't think so Ted.
IFA leaders will claim that they have to put up a fight. But this is just tokenism to play to the galleries of the almost universally grey-haired men who have been turning up at IFA meetings for the last 40 years.
To me it seems like populist politics - the same kind of dangerous nonsense that delivered the likes of Trump and Brexit.
If farmers aren't provided with some honest leadership on the big issues shaping their world over the next four years, I worry that they will find themselves becoming social pariahs.
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