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.