Farm Ireland

Sunday 18 February 2018

Ireland is better equipped than most to deal with the impending food crisis

Paul Roberts says the future of food production lies in the medium 50-500ac farms, which are common in Ireland
Paul Roberts says the future of food production lies in the medium 50-500ac farms, which are common in Ireland

John Heney

Farming in the western world is a redundant industry -- we do not need it!" This was the pronouncement made by a prominent former newsreader when she spoke to Damien O'Reilly on RTE's Farmweek programme just three years ago.

She then went on to compound the issue by saying that farm supports were "obscene", that farmers were "blackmailing" their fellow citizens, "the taxpayers", while "being paid to sit on their backsides".

These comments, although hurtful, cannot be simply dismissed as 'farming bashing', something which many journalists like to indulge in. Around the same time, Irish MEPs informed me that farming in Ireland would have to be sacrificed to facilitate European trade with developing countries. They argued that this increased trade would provide farmers' children with much better jobs in the financial services sector than they could ever hope to get in farming.

How things have changed! Even though farm incomes remain low, farming is once again being recognised for what it is -- an integral and important part of the Irish economy. Instead of redundant farmers, we are now hearing about an impending global food supply crisis. Current figures support the contention that with an increasing global population and a finite supply of agricultural land, the time is drawing near when global demand for food will outstrip supply.


Adding to these concerns is the high dependence of modern 'industrialised agriculture' on cheap oil. This factor has prompted many commentators to claim that modern 'industrialised agriculture' is unsustainable as it is little more than a system of using land to change oil into food.

Of greater concern is the fact that oil shortages have already caused problems for food production in the 'developing world' where farm output in many areas has already fallen back to levels before the 'Green Revolution'.

Encouragingly, it appears that farmers in Ireland may be in a much better position than others to cope with this upcoming food crisis. In his book, The End Of Food, author Paul Roberts argues that the future of food production does not lie in the unsustainable, large industrialised model of farming. Neither does it lie in small subsistence farming: but rather in the medium 50-500ac farms such as we have in Ireland.

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At this level he argues farmers would still 'know' their land and provide an environment where good farming practice and animal husbandry can be efficiently carried out in a sustainable and economically viable manner.


Back on my own farm I have sold the last of last year's cattle. In hindsight buying such tall, poor cattle last year was a gamble which by and large did not pay off.

Kill-out appeared to have improved with the arrival of the late surge in grass growth but regretfully this improvement was not sustained. My real mistake was probably not starting to feed the cattle on grass in time. However, the group of young spring-bought cattle I am feeding at the moment are doing well.

There are some positives in all of this. Firstly, because of the relatively low cost of store cattle last autumn my cattle did eventually succeed in returning a fairly decent margin. The second positive is that with the improved quality of store cattle available this autumn, I will have much better animals to work with next summer.

At the same time it is disappointing that the price of beef has remained so stubbornly low while the price of replacements have risen steeply in anticipation of an expected price rise. Somethings never seem to change in the beef business!

Referring back to my last article, it appears that the use of the initials QAS (Quality Assurance Scheme) in the headline was mistaken by some people for the QPS (Quality Payment Scheme) initials. I would like to reiterate that, in spite of the fact that it tends to return a lower price to people such as me who feed Friesian cattle, I remain convinced that the QPS is the fairest way of paying farmers for their cattle as it is simply based on the amount of saleable meat produced from the carcass, no more or no less.

John Heney is a beef farmer in Kilfeakle, Co Tipperary

Irish Independent