Future of Irish farming lies in healthier vegetables
Amid both local and global concerns, Frank Armstrong considers Irish farming's emerging obsolescence
MOST economic commentators and politicians regard Irish agriculture as a successful sector with considerable scope for expansion. But examining the economics of farming in the round reveals a very different picture: looking into the future, our production appears increasingly irresponsible, and perhaps obsolete.
We currently export €9bn worth of food, but import €5bn. Bearing in mind CAP subsidies of €2.339bn, it is clear that agriculture is not delivering such significant returns in one of Europe's most rural societies as the marketing of Ireland as 'the food island' would have us believe.
Despite the CAP, a mere 37 per cent of Irish farms are economically viable, with 58 per cent of their incomes derived from the Single Farm Payment last year. For dry cattle farmers, this amounted to a worrying 80 per cent of income, and it was 33 per cent of dairy farmers' income.
We maintain livestock products, especially meat, at artificially low prices that keeps consumption high across Europe and in Ireland, and it is large companies rather than farmers that profit.
Cracks in this system became apparent during the fodder crisis when a cold spring revealed the fragility of an unstable ecosystem supporting 6.8 million cattle. That was amplified by a drought in North America in 2012 that affected the price of corn, the leading feed commodity.
The horsemeat crisis revealed how the cost of beef production was prompting serious illegality.
The foot and mouth crisis of 2001 showed how a lack of agricultural diversity constitutes a threat to economic sovereignty: a miniscule 8 per cent of our farmland is in more labour-intensive tillage, most of that used for animal feed. The health of the national herd is maintained by excessive use of antibiotics, detrimental to human health, and the eradication of badgers which are considered, controversially, vectors of bovine TB.
There are also important global concerns to bear in mind. Nowadays, apart from Tea Party fanatics, the human role in climate change is not widely denied. But the understanding of responsibility by sector is under-appreciated. The 2006 UN report Livestock's Long Shadow attributed 18 per cent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to livestock production. But even this figure is dwarfed by the estimate of Robert Goodland (formerly the lead environmental adviser at the World Bank) and Jeff Anhang in 2009 who concluded that 51 per cent of human GHG emissions come from the raising of animals for food. If they are proved correct then the EU will surely seek to curb livestock production.