Farmers seek common ground on environment

Macra Conference gives some food for thought

Mairead McGuinness MEP.
Mairead McGuinness MEP.
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Given the intriguing title of the Macra annual conference, "Young Farmers - the New Environmentalists", and the speakers, which included representatives of An Taisce and Friends of the Earth, I had expected a hot debate.

But, while a few missiles were lobbed from one side to the other, the discussion simmered without ever boiling over and I was left a bit confused as to the outcome. So are we all on the same side after all? And, if so, what is the problem? Or was it just a case that everyone was setting out their own narrative and the sides are still so far apart that there wasn't much common ground to argue about.

The omens were good at the outset. The environmentalists looked like, well, stereotypical environmentalists with open-necked shirts and jumpers, while the farmer speakers wore suits.

Mayo farmer Sean Coughlan started farming in 2007 with 48ha, ranging widely in elevation, and was faced with the option to "farm snipe or use the mountain". He chose the latter and today, having hit all the gross margin targets in beef, still has nothing left in his poca, so is in the process of converting it to a low-cost dairy operation.

Sean is now producing three times as much grass as when he started without using any extra inputs. Instead he spoke of things like better genetics and better grass varieties. Sean pointed out that there are very few places in the world that can grow grass like we can in Ireland.

But, unless we lived in some place like North Korea, we humans don't eat grass. Our animals do. If we have more grass, that means we can have more animals, each with a carbon footprint.

So while being more efficient means that the carbon cost of producing a kg of meat or milk or whatever is reduced, the carbon footprint per unit of land may is not necessarily so.

James Nix of An Taisce said there had been a bit of false tension between farmers and environmentalists in the past but that is behind us now.

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In a business-as-usual scenario, James said we are looking at a 4°C average temperature increase by 2100.

At the moment, he said Irish farmers are not exploiting the relatively low emissions from grass-based production and are instead chasing volume, selling into the global market without differentiation. It is not working for farmers as well as not working for the environment.

He went on to point out that the UK has brought out legislation aimed at tackling the power of the supermarkets and said they had met Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney on the issue.

Oisin Coghlan from Friends of the Earth also emphasised that there is a lot of common ground between environmentalists and farmers, saying that NGOs are more than happy to "co-own" issues surrounding the environment.

Regarding the 4°C rise in temperature previously referenced in relation to climate change, Oisin said this might not seem so bad because it will help grass growth but this is same difference as the last Ice Age and would be catastrophic for individual populations.

Sean Coughlan tried to stir things up a bit when he said farmers are painted as the bad boys. He pointed out that 32pc of carbon emissions are attributed to agriculture but we produce enough food to feed eight times the population of Ireland.

Oisin refused to rise to the bait and instead said he backed the call for farmers to get more support. Ireland is not going to feed the world, he said. If we were, it would not be in beef or dairy.

It was also interesting to hear the view of the EU thinking on this, as outlined by MEP Mairéad McGuiness. She said the link between the environment and farmer payments was written into CAP during the last round of negotiations and that these links will become even closer in the future.

But proof that there still is a large gap between all sides, farmers, environmentalists and legislators, was provided by Kieran McEvoy, former chair of Macra's agricultural affairs committee, speaking from the floor.

Referring to the farm visits which had taken place earlier in the day, he said that one of those at most had participated in an environmental scheme. The people who need environmental support are those who are increasing production.

"The majority of people in the room who are expanding or developing will not join GLAS," he said.

We don't need to look past Food Harvest 2020 to know that Ireland as an agricultural country has bought totally into the concept of producing more and more. So who or what will benefit from these rising volumes and associated improvements in efficiency?

The environment? Even when the concept of sustainable intensification is taken into account, it's hard to see that the environment will emerge better off, especially when biodiversity is taken into account.

The farmer? Yes they are producing more grass but if product prices are continually being pushed downwards, then they will be working ever harder for ever smaller margins.

The consumer? Possibly in the short-term. But, if more and more smaller farmers are pushed out of business, then production will be become focussed in a reduced number of larger units with, seemingly inevitably, closer ties to large multiples.

So who then? It seems to me that it is those who collect a unit handling fee, whether in the processing of the primary product or its sale onwards to consumers.

This was a useful airing of views and Macra are to be commended for fostering the conversation. The world's burgeoning population needs more food and obviously more efficient production makes sound environmental as well as economic sense.

The differences between environmentalists and farmers are obviously a lot more than sartorial but it was good to see the two sides sit down together and perhaps they have come away with a better understanding of the other's point of view and will find ways of working together for the common good of the planet and its inhabitants.

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