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Thursday 26 April 2018

Opinion: Are we about to experience another flight from the land?

1,000 farms a day are being lost in the European Union. Photo: Reuters
1,000 farms a day are being lost in the European Union. Photo: Reuters
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Sir Thomas More was born this week 540 years ago. He went on to become one of Henry VIII's most trusted civil servants but was strongly opposed to the King's split from the Catholic Church and ended up being beheaded for treason.

More also wrote Utopia, a socio-political novel depicting the religious, social and political customs on an imaginary island off the coast of the Americas where life was apparently idyllic.

Each city has no more than 6,000 households, each family consisting of 10-16 adults. People are redistributed between households and towns to keep numbers even. Houses are rotated between the citizens every 10 years.

I have only read snippets of Utopia and some aspects of it have not stood the test of time - the existence of slavery for example - but a few recent happenings brought the book to mind.

One was the coverage of what have now become the terrible twin challenges of life in our capital city, traffic and housing.

There is also a lot of talk about the upcoming publication of Ireland 2040, the new national planning framework which looks set to see investment and growth targeted at just five centres, Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford.

In a different vein, last week brought a pair of presentations by members of the European Court of Auditors to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture.

One highlighted that 1,000 farms a day are being lost in the European Union. Farm numbers have dropped from 14.7m in 2005 to about 10m today.

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This is flight from the land, 21st century style.

Other figures presented are that 80pc of European farmers are aged over 45, 33pc over 65. Only in Austria and Poland were the percentage of youngest farmers, under 35, greater than 10pc.

The other presentation dealt with the rural affairs programmes and one comment of the Court's Janusz Wojciechowski that jumped out at me was,

"We discussed the issue of simplification at length, but we did not reach it. We have a more bureaucratic Common Agricultural Policy. We counted the number of pages involved in the 118 rural development programmes and ... there were approximately 100,000."

Moreover, bureaucracy is actually increasing, not falling.

It is no wonder Irish farmers and rural dwellers are keeping a close eye on how our British counterparts will fare after Brexit.

Our positions are different though not unfamiliar and we are eager to see if there is a simpler, and thus, what will be regarded as a better, approach to today's challenges in agriculture and rural living. The EU will obviously be hoping that is not seen to be the case.

Of course, its much easier to dream up a perfect world rather than actually build one.

Industrial farming

But surely the first step in achieving it is to develop a long-term view of what's wanted.

As Mr Wojciechowski said, the CAP is planned in seven-year-cycles but we really need a vision up to say 2040 or 2050.

Among the issues which he believes need to be considered are how many farms there should be in Europe in the long-term? How big should they be? Should we have industrial farming or organic farming?

Others I would like to see in the mix are the current EU view on its original objective of food security, its position on the role of farming and farmers in relation to areas such as tourism, meeting environmental targets, rural population retention?

But, rather than just seeing agriculture and rural life mainly through the prism of CAP, surely the time has come for their greater inclusion in the national debate, given the challenges, and opportunities, in the broader economy and society.

One person's problem is another's solution.

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