Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.

How Green is Ireland's Farming?

by Frank Schnittger Sun Mar 21st, 2021 at 09:45:16 PM EST

In 2019 the Irish Government announced the formation of a "stakeholder committee" to develop Ireland's Agri-Food Strategy to 2030. This included the great and the good in the agribusiness community plus some public service agency heads and representatives of the Farmers and Fishermen's associations. Representatives of the "environmental and food safety perspectives" were only appointed afterwards and their contributions studiously ignored to the point where the environmental representative felt obliged to resign.  Hence my letter to the editor below:

A Chara, - the public should be aware that they are in the process of being stitched up by the industry lobbyists who are driving the development of the government's Agri-Food 2030 strategy.

Those drafting the strategy have ignored environmental and societal considerations to such an extent that they have forced the resignation of Karen Ciesielski, co-ordinator of the Environmental Pillar (EP), who represents 33 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), as well as the Sustainable Water Network (an umbrella group of 24 NGOs) and the Stop Climate Chaos collective, whose members include Trócaire, Concern, and Irish Doctors for the Environment. (Ella McSweeney, Has the agri-food sector responded sufficiently to climate science indicators? Science, 18th. March).

All these organisations were given just one representative on the 32-person committee and were only included as an afterthought. The committee is dominated by commercial interests, industry lobbyists, and large farming organisations who, not surprisingly, are primarily interested in the short-term profitability of their industries and the incomes accruing to their more powerful and established members. Small farmers, environmentalists, and representatives of rural communities hardly got a look in.

As a result, Ireland's gross over-intensification and over production of dairy products is being left unchallenged. Our farmers are being subjected to ever more frequent animal feedstuff shortages, and their lands subjected to ever more severe flooding due to climate change induced in part by our over-production and associated greenhouse gases. We are also becoming ever more dependent on animal feedstuffs imported from countries like Brazil, which are clearing their rainforests to produce more animal feedstuffs to satisfy our insatiable demands. Indeed the 30% of food which is ultimately wasted results in greater global warming than the entire airline industry.

But above all, the taxpayer interest has been totally ignored. Ireland will become liable for huge fines for breaching its environmental targets if the strategy, as written, is implemented. But it is the taxpayer who will bear this burden, not the CEO's or shareholders of the commercial interests represented on the Committee. Can I suggest that the government, in considering the strategy, should make it clear that any fines resulting from the under-achievement of environmental targets will be made payable by the industry itself, by way of an industry wide levy predominantly targeting the larger players?

Some of the committee members may want to reconsider some aspects of their proposed strategy if this is made clear to them in advance.

Farming in Ireland, like in much of the rest of the world, has been undergoing something of a revolution. The number of farms decreased by over 60% between 1915 and 2010, with the average farm size increasing from 14 to 33 hectares despite a 7% reduction in the total amount of land devoted to agriculture. The proportion of farm land devoted to grassland has increased from 86% to 92% over the same period, with Barley and Wheat growing while there has been a major decline in Potatoes, Oats and other crops. Yields per hectare have typically increased 3 fold over that period. Approximately two thirds of farmland is owner occupied and worked, a figure which hasn't changed much in the last century.

The total number of cattle on Irish farmers has increased from 4.2 million to 6.6 million (+58%) between 1915 and 2010 during which period the human population increased from c. 3 Million to 5 Million. (All figures relate to the Republic of Ireland and exclude N. Ireland). Within that, dairy cattle numbers decreased by 13%. Since EU quotas were removed in 2015, however, dairy farming has expanded rapidly, with milk production increasing by 50%, and exports doubling by value from €2 to €4 Billion. 90% of total Irish dairy production is now exported to 120 countries around the world.

Irish agriculture is responsible for 35% of our total greenhouse gas emissions and were about 10% above 1990 levels in 2019. The reduction in nitrogen fertiliser use and liming has been more than offset by the increase in dairy cow numbers. 58% of all agriculture Greenhouse Gas emissions are caused by enteric fermentation in animal digestive systems which is basically proportionate to the number of animals in the national herd. As a result agriculture greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase by a further 3.5% from 2021 to 2030 with existing measures. It will be impossible for Ireland to meet it's emissions target reductions if the dairy herd continues to expand - hence the hook in my letter emphasising the fact that it is the general taxpayer who will have to pay the resulting fines.

The dairy industry makes much of Irish grasslands acting as a carbon sink storing up to 30 million tonnes of CO2 every year and that 90% of its inputs and raw materials are sourced within the Irish economy. Less prominence is given to the fact that the increased intensification of farming is having a negative impact on bio-diversity and that almost every other winter there is now an animal fodder shortage crisis. Ireland now imports, on average 3 million tonnes of animal feedstuffs every year from countries like the UK, USA, Argentina, France, Canada and Brazil, which rather makes a mockery of our green grass fed farming image.

It hardly makes much environmental sense for us to be encouraging the clearing of Brazilian rainforests to grow animal feedstuffs, shipping it from there halfway across the world, feeding it to Irish cattle only to export it again in the form of meat and dairy produce to 120 countries around the world.

The Irish agricultural industry is an important part of our economy, providing much needed employment in rural areas, with the dairy industry alone claiming to account for 10% of spending by all industry in the Irish economy in 2018. It is a much more integrated part of our economy and society than much of the multi-national sector which is only located in Ireland to obtain access to the EU market and take advantage of our low corporate tax rates.

Nevertheless Irish agriculture needs to be put on a more sustainable basis, respecting our biodiversity and the carrying capacity of our agricultural land so that we do not have to endure annual winter feedstuff shortage crises and transport animal feedstuffs half way across the world. Government policy should focus more on de-intensifying Irish agriculture within indigenous capacities and resources, and ensuring our reputation for a green agricultural industry is not compromised.

3% of total Irish dairy output goes into the production and export of Bailey's Irish Cream Liqueur alone, not to mention the plethora of Irish cream liqueur brands now on the market. We need to protect our green image if we are going to continue to compete at the premium end of the market for dairy products, and that means moving away from the intensification of Irish agriculture which has been at the heart of government strategy up until now.

It is interesting to see that the population density of the Republic is only about twice that of the US of A. Plenty of much larger countries have higher densities, and some of them are also burdened by large areas of unproductive land. About half of the US gets less than 500 mm of precipitation per year, for example.

So exactly what is the definition of "intensive" agriculture? Seems to me that the importation of livestock feed is a policy choice. Eat more tofu?

by asdf on Mon Mar 22nd, 2021 at 10:30:46 PM EST
May I assume that 'intensification of farming' is the equivalent of CAFO (confined animal feeding operations) in the U.S.? That would explain the imported feedstocks - which is truly a terrible method of agriculture from an environmental standpoint. It's also terrible from the standpoint of domestic agriculture, because it's the opening wedge for 1) development of corporate control of your local agriculture by 'bottom-lining' the lower costs associated with their control of cheap-labor farming land in their client states (e.g., Brazil); and 2) the introduction of their chemical cocktails into your food chain. The lower costs, of course, become higher costs to the consumer when the local competition is essentially reduced to those farmers who don't mind gouging their neighbors in step with the corporations. The chemicals need no further explanation; the data is known.

The only benefit of CAFO that I can accept is that collection of the manure makes anaerobic digestion for production of a useful methane energy source relatively efficient. The rejoinder to that is that, given some central planning with respect to market and dietary needs of a population, sufficient grazing land can be allocated and sustained by systems of rotational grazing. Then the manure becomes a managed component of an essentially natural cycle.

paul spencer

by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Tue Mar 23rd, 2021 at 04:03:22 AM EST
I used the term "intensification" somewhat loosely to mean increasing the herd size above the carrying capacity of the land, resulting in regular winter feed shortages and the importation of large quantities of animal feedstuffs. This is over and above the use of fertilisers to increase the feed production per hectare.

In Ireland  CAFO, as you describe it, is largely confined to pigs and poultry, and cattle during the winter when the land is too wet to graze and when there is too little growth in the first place. The manure collected is generally spread on the land as fertiliser which can result in watercourse pollution, but is generally being done in a more efficient manner with improved technology.

There is considerable interest in anaerobic digestion but I haven't been able to find figures on how widespread its use is. Another idea I find fascinating is feeding seaweed to cows which can apparently reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 82%. (It is a regular part of my sushi diet!).

No less than other industries, the economics of scale are driving agricultural change. The use of robots in milking has huge advantages but requires a herd of at least 70 cows, a large initial capital outlay, and a larger than average landholding. The Common Agricultural Policy is increasingly geared to environmental standards, but again requires a professionalisation of the industry beyond the capacity of some small or part time farmers.

The importance of traceability and quality controls at all links in the food chain is increasingly recognised by regulators and consumers, with organic produce commanding a premium price. This is another reason why I am anxious that Irish food does not compromise its quality image through imported feed stuffs and environmentally destructive practices.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Mar 23rd, 2021 at 11:53:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Hmm, now I must no longer buy the premium Irish butter (with the green cloverleaf on it, 2x the price) when it is on sale. I should switch to  premium Italian buffalo butter. 4x the price but worth it. The discount homegrown stuff will also do.

Schengen is toast!
by epochepoque on Wed Mar 24th, 2021 at 03:12:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The number of farms decreased by over 60% between 1915 and 2010, with the average farm size increasing from 14 to 33 hectares despite a 7% reduction in the total amount of land devoted to agriculture.

I think the numbers for Sweden are even more extreme. Since entering the EU thirty years ago, the number of active farmers has decreased a lot. I've heard 10% of the pre-EU numbers on some documentary bt when I now try to confirm I get bogged down in definitions. All sources agree on a rapid decline though.

There is probably many factors involved, but the big one is CAP bureaucracy. The framework is percieved as go big or lease out your land to someone who will. Something I find interesting is that 15% of land leased for farming in Sweden is leased for free, 44% in northern Sweden.

by fjallstrom on Tue Mar 23rd, 2021 at 09:35:01 AM EST
Anecdatum :
When I moved to a French valley in 1990, there were about 10 active peasant farmers, doing dairy and polyculture. When I left there was basically one, who leased most of the pastures of his retired neighbours.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II
by eurogreen on Tue Mar 23rd, 2021 at 11:36:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
As a New Zealander, Frank, I find your analysis of Irish agriculture depressingly familiar. Similar climates; similar green image camoflaging slack environmental practices. Similar industry-driven policy formation.

Whereas in France, for example, agricultural practice is evolving favorably under consumer pressure, such feedback is less of a factor in predominantly export-oriented production. Strong government/community leadership is required to get on a better trajectory.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Tue Mar 23rd, 2021 at 11:33:03 AM EST
I think it might also be worth separating the question of green farming from the related questions of small family farms, pleasant rural landscape, industrialized farming, and political representation of land. There might not be any inherent value to family farms, for example, if gigantic corporate operations with robotic implements and few personnel are able to minimize food cost and carbon dioxide emissions.
by asdf on Wed Mar 24th, 2021 at 05:55:07 PM EST
True that is not a necessary condition, but I think there is a relationship. Industrial farming tends to try to decrease natural variation in order to create monocultures that can be standardised to a higher degree.

Family farms tends to vary in size over time, depending on large an area and number of animals a family can handle. So I think it might very well be family farms with robotic implements and few personnel that will be able to minimize food cost and carbon dioxide emissions.

by fjallstrom on Wed Mar 24th, 2021 at 06:35:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The logic of industrialised farming with automation and economies of scale is inexorable if you are not concerned with:
  1. Employment creation
  2. Monocultures and the chemicals used to keep them stable combined with periodic chemical/effluent disasters
  3. Routine use of antibiotics and associated development resistant superbugs
  4. Gross economic and political inequality
  5. Loss of biodiversity and rural natural and cultural heritage which is part of Ireland's tourist offering
  6. Rural depopulation and growth of cities
  7. Price reductions for small independent producers and price rises for consumers due to rise of monopoly power

Somebody has to eat all the food you are producing, but how will they afford it if there are less and less jobs available?

In practice there has been a steady decline in the number of farms, and the number of people employed on them. Robotic milking has many advantages for yields, cows, quality control and farm labour.  70 cows and 30 hectares may be the minimum economic size for an automated dairy farm in the future. Some further economies of scale are possible beyond this, but I'm not sure there is a great benefit to scaling this up to 700 cows and 300 hectares beyond destroying the social and environmental fabric of rural Ireland.

We do not have the endless prairies of the mid-west or the South African veld, and we do not want their social and economic structures either.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Mar 24th, 2021 at 11:45:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Forty years ago my grandfather, who ran our family farm through the Depression, said to me that we were headed for a far worse crash and that he was glad he wouldn't live to see it.  His reasoning was simple.  During the Depression most people, even in urban areas, had direct or nearly direct access to food production.  Now nearly everyone, even those living on farms, is wholly dependent on the retail food supply.  Recent comebacks such as gmoke periodically chronicles notwithstanding, it is no longer standard to have a garden or to help the country cousins with their extended family garden.  The US is now a net food importer, which is absurd and obscene.  Last year we were treated with images of cars backed up for miles waiting for food handouts.  The continued advance of industrial agriculture will just make this worse.
by rifek on Mon Mar 29th, 2021 at 08:42:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I've read several articles claiming that only truly sustainable form of agriculture is one with medium size farms rotating fields and young forests in a slow cycle. And using crop rotations on the fields too. This is to naturally renew the capacity of the earth t grow stuff.
A big part of this system would be cattle, swine and poultry free roaming in the forest part of the farm.

Might have been called iron-age farming. Which brings to mind that I quite recently learned that the slash and burn agriculture was actually sophisticated and efficient form when there was more land than people. Once slashed and burned, the field gave three harvests per year: spring rye, summer barley and autumn turnip. The yield was also much better (at least at the time).
Of course, after three years, you had to start all over again. Which was fine until people realized timber is valuable and turnips are not.

by pelgus on Thu Mar 25th, 2021 at 07:12:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What does the size of the farm have to do with it? A gigantic factory farm could follow the same crop rotation scheme. Robot shepherds could keep the stock under control.

The arguments for small farms seem to me to be mostly based on arguments about jobs and nostalgia for bucolic rural landscapes. Which is fine, but those argument should be placed front and center.

by asdf on Thu Mar 25th, 2021 at 09:56:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Holistic management, moving grazing herd animals frequently with portable fencing or kraals, so that animals do not overgraze the land seems to improve the grazing land and allows more animals on the land.  It would be useful to determine whether this system could help with Ireland's agriculture.  

Soil 4 Climate (https://www.soil4climate.org) is one organization which promotes this idea.  My notes on Holistic Management are available at http://hubeventsnotes.blogspot.com/2014/03/holistic-management-new-framework-for.html

Solar IS Civil Defense

by gmoke on Fri Mar 26th, 2021 at 06:48:48 PM EST
Dividing a field into daily strips with portable fencing is normal in Ireland so that the cattle graze one strip per day. Part of the problem with wet soils in Ireland is that the Cattle can destroy more grass with their hooves than they actually eat. So preventing them roaming far and wide is important.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Mar 26th, 2021 at 07:20:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Chronic problem with cattle is their size and numbers, and their consequent ability to churn whatever they traverse.  In the western US, the problem is destruction of riparian habitat.
by rifek on Mon Mar 29th, 2021 at 08:47:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]

This was a fascinating interview about this very issue.

A man on a mission with plenty to say...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Mar 26th, 2021 at 07:48:11 PM EST
Farmers in smart farming project identified 9% cut in carbon emissions
Link between animal numbers, fertiliser use and deteriorating water `must be broken' - EPA
Farmers who participated in the Smart Farming initiative in 2020 identified average greenhouse gas emission reductions of 9 per cent and cost savings of €5,600, according to the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA).

Smart Farming is a voluntary resource efficiency programme led by the IFA in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency.

IFA president Tim Cullinan said programmes like Smart Farming that work with farmers to deliver change at farm level had never been so important. "Smart Farming demonstrates that improving efficiency can deliver significant cost savings as well as emission reductions, without negatively impacting productivity on farms," he said.

"Smart Farming connects farmers with professional agronomists who provide the latest advice under the eight thematic areas, including grassland management, soil fertility, energy use and feed management."

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Mar 30th, 2021 at 09:09:35 PM EST

Go to: [ European Tribune Homepage : Top of page : Top of comments ]