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With the right planning, our climate action plan can be a boon for rural areas

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Cash crop:  the Irish forestry and timber sector has an annual economic output valued at circa €2.3 billion

Cash crop: the Irish forestry and timber sector has an annual economic output valued at circa €2.3 billion

Alf Harvey

Cash crop: the Irish forestry and timber sector has an annual economic output valued at circa €2.3 billion

Ireland has the third highest quality of life in the world just behind Norway and Switzerland, according to a recent United Nations study.

The annual Human Development Index rankings are calculated employing health, education and income statistics.

This is a significant achievement given Norway's and Switzerland's financial resources. Norway's Sovereign Wealth Fund for example is the largest in the world - its Government Pension Fund now exceeds $1 trillion dollars in assets.

Our agri-food sector is a particularly important indigenous industry, playing a vital role in Ireland's economy and exports.

However, many in our farming community may question Ireland's ranking given that income statistics are a key input in determining our position in the index.

We currently have one of the widest differentials in the EU between farmers' incomes and gross wages/salaries in the wider economy. This is something that should and can be addressed.

Farming systems have developed over time, but consumer tastes are changing and are likely to evolve at an increasing pace.

Information technology is often the vehicle for this change.

Mary Shelman, a thought leader in global food and agribusiness, spoke at last year's Ireland's Agri-Food Strategy open policy debate.

She explained that younger consumers actively seek information and trust "friends" more than advertisements when making value-based decisions on products and lifestyle.

The younger generation are seeking solutions to climate change issues and, according to psychologists, children are increasingly suffering anxiety about climate change and often feel abandoned by older generations over their lack of action on the issue.

The wider farming sector has a pivotal role to play and can become a core part in addressing climate change.

Farming communities throughout the Western world are struggling to retain young people on the land, with the number of active farmers and rural populations falling at alarming levels throughout Europe.

Ireland is no different, and with 55pc of our farmers over 55 years of age, succession is a real issue.

New creative ways of farming that address the climate change issue will engage younger generations.

Given Ireland's success in other areas of innovation we can, by embracing new farming systems and employing best practice and recent research, become world leaders in this arena.

Initiatives such as the Lighthouse Farms Project should be looked at. This is a network of farms across the world which are developing customised sustainable farming systems for contrasting environments, climates, farmers and cultures.

The Irish initiative involves a collaboration between the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, UCD and Devenish, the owners of Dowth Farm.

Carbon sequestration by additional planting of trees and well-planned woodland creation - which would also take in complementary farming activities - can generate a cash flow and keep farm families on the land is a real option.

Several trends are emerging in silvo-pastural farming, for example, that can assist the agriculture sector in the future.

Income

Woodland income can also play an important role in bridging the gap between farmers' incomes and incomes in the wider economy. Forestry income is direct market income and is a source of long-term sustainable revenue for farmers and landowners.

Such direct market income will also ensure a better balance between the operating subsidies and market income per farm.

Given forestry's well studied climate change mitigation benefits, its contribution to renewable energy, biodiversity, flood control, wellness and recreation - and its increasingly recognised economic benefits - there is scope for additional State supports for the sector.

The recent Fact Sheet on Irish Agriculture for 2019 said "total public expenditure by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine was over €3 billion in 2018".

Of this, forestry received less than €98 million or circa 3pc of the total Department budget.

However, the Irish forestry and timber sector has an annual economic output valued at circa €2.3 billion - and that's without considering its climate change and carbon sequestration benefits which are considerable and could save the exchequer in significant carbon fines into the future and post-2030.

With a well-implemented agricultural programme which recognises the needs of farmers and the potential for trees and woodlands, our Climate Change Plan can prove a boon for our rural areas.

Donal Whelan is the technical director of the Irish Timber Growers Association

Indo Farming