1. Ireland has one of the least diverse landscapes in Europe. How did Ireland become so lacking in landscape diversity?
Like everywhere else, Ireland’s landscape has been shaped by political and social forces through its history. I’ve always said that Ireland has a very unique land history in Europe. Ireland was a colony in a Europe of empires - and was treated just as colonies were treated in other parts of the world; ruling forces prioritised extraction of raw materials and resources - be they agricultural, mineral, petrochemical, even labour or whatever. We also had a land reform which has no equivalent in any other European country. So even though we’re geographically in Europe, our land history is radically different.
That extractive system was supported by the land ownership model; the huge landowners, many of them absentees, whose only interest was maximising value. The first barrier to maximising value was that there were simply too many people on the land - the Irish famine (s) provided a great opportunity for landowners to depopulate the countryside through mass starvation/emigration and replace people with sheep and cattle.
Unfortunately we can’t just blame the mistakes of the past - since independence there have been a lot of missed opportunities to develop a real indignous farming system which incorporates the best aspects of our climate and the potential of farming communities to build long term livelihoods from the production of food, fuel and fibre for use and processing here. Instead the focus has always been on a continuation of the old extractivist model - maximising production and selling milk or beef wholesale at the expense of all else. Maximising production will always mean the wild areas are pushed to the edges and there is less and less space for diversity.
Farmers have lost more and more power in this system and many find themselves in a very weak bargaining position. They have also been locked into a production system which serves agribusinesses rather than the community or Irish citizens. At the same time, this history has left us with a very skewed understanding of our role in the landscape and in the natural world. In Ireland for a long time the land has only been used for base survival or maximum exploitation for profit. It’s partly the fault of our history that we haven’t seen a third way, one where we nurture the landscape and develop and embrace diversity. For us in Talamh Beo that’s what we’re trying to do - show that there is another way, and that in spite of all our history there are still lots of farmers doing great work who understand and embrace that.
2. What needs to be done to rebuild our landscape and ecological diversity?
We need to move away from the obsession with production. That’s not straightforward - the agricultural system and agribusiness lobbies are deeply integrated into the Irish state and have been since its formation. At the same time it should be said that we still have a lot of small to medium sized farms, which is largely thanks to successful lobbying and agitation from farmers unions over the years. Unfortunately many of those unions are also locked into that productivist mindset and are missing a real opportunity to transition Irish farms and communities into a new model. They don’t seem to be responding to the needs of most of their members, and are failing to see where the potential lies - which is in an agro ecological transition in food and farming.
The only way we can shift the strategy - and reshape the landscape and ecological diversity is by engaging citizens to think critically about our food systems, and show that we all have the right to have access to high quality food, that we all have the right to swim in rivers and lakes that are not polluted, that the landscape belongs to future generations and is not ours to exploit in the present.
We need to make food a social justice issue, and ensure that people living in cities are engaged in the debate about why the Irish state is failing to provide them with high quality, locally produced agroecological food which is grown/raised/picked/baked/slaughtered/made by farmers in fair conditions working for a good wage.
An agroecological transition would take years, and would include programmes for access to land for new entrants, new institutional criteria, income supports and training for local producers, expansion of organic production systems and programmes, retraining, diversification and restructuring of deeply indebted farms for example, and a long term investment strategy for diversification in areas where Ireland could be adding value - wool, hardwoods, hemp, energy production etc which can be produced on farms across the country.
3. Talamh Beo campaigns for Ireland to aim for food sovereignty. What does food sovereignty mean and what could it be like? What do we need to do to start moving in that direction?
Food Sovereignty is our right to define our own food and agricultural systems. It’s one of the most powerful and subversive ideas to come in generations - we need to recognise that the idea of food sovereignty comes out of peasant culture and is a response to neo-liberalism and the globalisation of capitalism - and in particular its impact on peasants - people who up until now have been disregarded in history. Now they are offering us a way out - a new way of looking at how we interact with the land and our environment and the food we produce to put into our bodies...questions so fundamental and important that they have been in the hands of states, private industries and other powers for a long, long time. The old saying is that civilization is only three meals deep; well imagine if suddenly citizens took it upon themselves to control and democratise our food production - we are really taking control of the basis of our civilisation. The basic needs; food, shelter, community - they need to be the focus. How can we challenge corporate power when so many of our basic needs are met by systems beyond our control? Food is an entry point to understanding what we are locked into, Food Sovereignty is the key to getting us out.
What would it look like? Well for citizens it would mean good quality, healthy, affordable food produced as locally as possible, and an end to the scandals that accompany the industrial food model. It would mean food production and consumption being understood as key to societal and environmental health - using farming systems which regenerate ecosystems and producing highly nutritious food to feed our population. It would also mean a change in the landscape - the bucolic ideal of the grassy field with the fat cow in the middle which has been peddled to us for years by the likes of Bord Bia and agribusinesses instead would shift to a diverse landscape of agroforestry, fibre crops, small scale horticulture and native diverse grasslands feeding our cattle. It would mean a new forestry model which focuses on native woodland establishment and establishment of old growth forests.
In order to move in that direction, the first thing we need to do is start planning on a new time scale - we need to start planning, changing and transitioning our society for where it needs to be in 50 years time. That’s difficult in today's world where everything needs to be instantaneous and everyone is looking for an easy fix. We need to build a new culture around our food and agricultural systems and around our land use. It will take time. In the short term we need young people to get involved in the political debate around agriculture. We need to listen to and support the work of progressive farmers. And we need to bring together the different actors - environmental groups, citizens organisations, farmers, social justice groups - and build the Food Sovereignty movement here.
4. Talamh Beo has spoken about the need for a social movement to achieve the landscape diversity and sustainability changes that are needed, what would that social movement be like?
We set up Talamh Beo because there was a gap in the discussions - many farmers felt they were not being heard. The debates were going in circles without questioning the overall model. We think Talamh Beo can open up the political space for a broader discussion, and can help citizens begin to engage in systems which also affect them. Firstly though, we want Talamh Beo to represent farmers who are doing things on the ground - producing food for their communities, farming with nature, who are challenging the preconceived notions of how we manage the land and how farming should work. We think we should be able to make a living from producing food for people, not for global agribusiness corporations. Some of our work should also be ensuring that we restore our degraded ecosystems. That’s in all our interests.
We need to find the resources to help organise ourselves, and build the organisation. We know it will take time but we are used to things taking time because nature takes time and we are patient. We know that we are stronger together and we want to see how we can work with other groups to amplify the voices for change, to show that there are other ways of doing things, to help educate and articulate the alternatives.
5. Talamh Beo marked International Day of Peasant Struggle in April. What is the importance to Talamh Beo of connecting with international struggles and movements?
Talamh Beo is the only Irish member of La Via Campesina, the world’s largest social movement. La Via Campesina is made up of farming and peasant organisations all over the world who are united in their defense of peasant culture and struggle for Food Sovereignty. For us it’s hugely important to link with groups in other countries to remind us that we’re not ploughing a lonely furrow and that there are other people out there on the land in every country working for similar goals.
We are not the only place where there are problems with the democractic functioning of our food and agricultural systems - it’s an issue almost everywhere, and almost everywhere there are citizens and farmers coming together and working for change. They’re talking about Food Sovereignty, about climate change, about solidarity, about sustainable livelihoods, agroecology, regenerative farming. The same discussions we are starting to have here in Ireland. And there are great examples where they have brought about real change. That’s what we want to see here in Ireland.
This interview was first published in the magazine "Rupture" www.rupture.ie
Talamh Beo Press Statement: 17th April, International Day of Peasant Struggle
¬ Opportunity to transform our food and agriculture systems
¬ Develop local food systems, regenerative farming and agroecology in Ireland
¬ Farming and citizen movement to build engagement on food and agriculture issues
The 17th of April is the International Day of Peasant Struggle, and across the world farmers and peasants continue their vital work in feeding people and communities. At the same time as much as half the world’s population finds their lives transformed as the seemingly unstoppable rush of capitalist growth rumbles to a halt, and nature has time to catch breath.
The threat of an impending collapse in biodiversity and ecosystems could not achieve this pause, nor the threat of climate change, nor wars, nor the myriad of daily deaths from preventable diseases or indeed starvation that occur on our planet daily.
For the first time in living memory the economy has been put in second place behind peoples’ lives – Covid 19 does not differentiate between us. All of a sudden we are remembering that we are all the same, and in our consumer society understanding again the real value of our basic needs. At the same time inequality is more visible than ever, as some suffer more hardship while others relax in luxury.
There are many lessons to be learned from what we see happening now, and many more to be learned from what the future brings. We, as farmers and citizens of Talamh Beo, can only say our piece and point to how we see in this moment of great trauma and transformation a remarkable opportunity to take a deep breath and emerge with the capacity to shape something better.
The most important lesson we have learned so far is that the greatest lie of all; “that’s just the way things are” now lies in tatters. That means that if we want local, agroecological food production, everyone on this island eating food grown and raised in dignity and with care for the planet, if we want to restore degraded ecosystems and regenerate habitats, farms and communities, if we want to be able to drink from every river and stream on the island, hear the song of birds in the fields that have not been heard in many years, watch native woodlands replace spruce plantations, we can. The better world we dreamed was possible is in fact possible.
We have heard much talk of a return to “normality” when the crisis abates - we do not want to return to “normality”. “Normality” is a heavily subsidized food system increasingly controlled by transnational corporations, which fails to provide local nutritious food for the majority of the population as it damages our environment and eradicates vulnerable ecosystems, all the while failing to ensure fair incomes for the most important people in that chain, the farmers themselves.
“Normality” is an Irish food and agriculture system run by a cabal of vested interests, whose only aim is profit at the expense of the land and people’s health. No government since independence and precious few of the current political parties acknowledge or are willing to challenge this control. “Normality” is an endless busy rush, where more and more time is spent fulfilling our basic needs and less time for the land, people and community. That is not a normality we wish to return to.
We want to create a new “normality” for our food and farming systems here in Ireland, a new paradigm for land use. We know that we can create land use systems that are biodiverse and centred on their ecosystems that allow farmers to work in dignity while regenerating our land, people and communities through the production of food, fuel and fibre. We have received a clear global message from nature herself – she needs more space.
That space is also in our minds. We need to recognize that the rhythms of our society were far out of sync with the rhythms of nature. We need to work with nature and nurture the environment through a completely different economic and social engagement with it. Human beings have the capacity to have a hugely positive impact on their environment and the natural world if they are given the time and space to do so. This is visible on many farms around Ireland that are living examples of how we can farm with nature using agriculture and ecology together.
At the same time Ireland imports food to provide for our own population – fruit, vegetables, nuts and grains that could be grown here if we developed diversified farm economies and more resilient, local and community organised food systems. These diversified farms provide more spaces for nature to flourish, and for more rural livelihoods to be built.
Diversity exists not just above ground but below it – the health of the soil will be reflected in the health of our communities and society, more important now than ever.
We need a new generation of farmers and people to return to the land – to move to the countryside and start to put their hands on the land, in the soil, and participate in the revival of the living world. We need this new generation to be helped by an older generation who sees the land emptying around them, and rows of sitka spruce or giant cattle sheds and dairy farms replacing their neighbours and friends.
The only way we can make change happen is by building a citizen led social movement which can create a counterweight to the vested interests and corporations which will also use this moment of change and crisis to consolidate their position, and ensure we tilt the balance of power towards a better future, and not a dystopian one.
¬ We need develop a strong organisation – we are Talamh Beo, farmers and citizens and we are calling on you to join us – become a member for only 30 euros a year and work with us to build a new food, agriculture, forestry, farming and land use system here in Ireland and around the world based on Food Sovereignty.
¬ We need to develop a multi-stakeholder platform between farming organizations, environmental groups and citizens, with the right to food and Food Sovereignty at the centre, in order to hold the government to account and demand change.
¬ We need to demand engagement from our government and politicians – Where are the policies to directly support local food systems in Ireland? Where are the supports for organic farming, for biodiversity enhancement? Why does every citizen not have access to the best quality, locally produced food available? Why do many farmers struggle to make a living even as their jobs are touted as vital and essential?
A farming revolution could help farmers, consumers and environment, says new grassroots organisation
Talamh Beo to launch with 'Soil in the City' demonstration outside Dept of Agriculture, 12:30-2:30pm, Wednesday, October 16th
A revolution in Irish agriculture could result in farmers earning a decent living, producing affordable, nutritious food for people in Ireland and also protecting the environment against the looming climate and biodiversity crises. That's according to Talamh Beo, a new grassroots farming organisation that will launch later this month.
Talamh Beo – an alliance of farmers, growers and landworkers – will hold its launch outside the Department of Agriculture in Dublin on October 16th. Members of Talamh Beo will bring buckets of valuable soil from their farms around Ireland to demonstrate their commitment to caring for the land, their communities and the environment.
The launch will coincide with an 'Open Policy Debate' on the future of Irish farming at the Aviva stadium, hosted by Agriculture Minister Michael Creed, which Talamh Beo members will also attend.
The organisation says it wants to bring a new narrative to the debate about food and farming. Fergal Anderson, a Galway fruit and vegetable farmer and a founding member of Talamh Beo, said: “Farmers have become locked in a system where they are producing commodities for global markets instead of food, fuel and fibre for their communities. They have very little power in this system and have lost almost all their autonomy and links with their localities. We do not have a diverse, integrated production system in Ireland – we have a monoculture of grass, huge fertiliser and feed imports and an almost exclusive focus on the export market”.
Tipperary dairy farmer Mimi Crawford added: “We’re building a farmer-led organisation which shows the real alternatives on offer in terms of production, distribution and ecological farming and land use – where farmers earn a livelihood, people get high quality nutritious food and the ecosystems we depend on are regenerated and restored.”
The group will be bringing buckets of soil from around the country to show and share – building soil is the basis of good farming, and a priority for Talamh Beo members.
Many members are already engaged in biological farming, organics, agro-ecological production, regenerative agriculture, agroforestry, direct sales and marketing and other production systems that offer an alternative to the status quo. They want to bring those alternatives into the mainstream – and are looking for policies from government which support local food production and distribution as well as regenerative, organic and agroecological land use systems.
“We have so many solutions to offer for land use – in practice, on our farms. We need to make some of these examples the norm, and bring about a huge change in how people approach and think about land use and food production in Ireland” says Fergal Smith from Moyhill Farm in County Clare.
Talamh Beo wants people to think about the big picture, about “Food Sovereignty” – how decisions are made, where Ireland’s agricultural economy fits into global markets, how we can use the land around us to meet more of our direct needs and how we can build a more resilient, fair and long-term model for how we use the land in Ireland.
Talamh Beo has joined the international movement of peasant farmers La Via Campesina, becoming Ireland's only member through its European branch, the European Coordination Via Campesina (www.eurovia.org). This will give the group representation in consultative groups of the EU Commission and network opportunities with other European farmers groups with similar goals. Talamh Beo was partly inspired by the success of the Landworkers' Alliance in the UK.
Talamh Beo has timed its launch with the call for action from Good Food Good Farming, a European network of organisations working for a “fair, healthy and green” Common Agricultural Policy.
Not the what, but the how and who for
The last six months have seen huge shifts in the discussions in Ireland about climate change and what kind of solutions we need in order to resolve the increasingly obvious problems with our agriculture systems.
The reality is Ireland’s agricultural sector is responsible for high levels of emissions. The Department of Agriculture have defended this with the argument that Irish production is more efficient, that our grass based systems gives us an advantage over other areas and that we should continue to produce here as overall that will be better for the climate, in a global context.
Unfortunately, there are major issues with this argument and it is high time it was dismantled. Firstly, the pros or cons of a farming model cannot solely be measured in their carbon footprint. This is part of the picture but in Ireland farmers are part of rural communities, are caretakers of the natural world and so have a huge social, economic and environmental role – this cannot be reduced to numbers and figures on a page.
Yes, we must recognize that there are plenty of negative impacts in Ireland of the push to increase production – this model has eroded biodiversity as habitats have been reduced, including wildflower meadows, hedgerows and scrub. The use of energy intensive synthetic fertilizers has caused nitrate pollution in rivers and streams, and prevented measures to stimulate long-term soil fertility building. Agriculture is increasingly mechanized, using larger machines with high fuel requirements. Ireland has many more animals to feed than it can support – hence we import more than 80,000 tonnes of animal feeds a week to supplement our “grass-based” system. The last irony is the huge pressure it places on farmers who work hard and then sell their product at cost price or below, dealing with high debts and increasing input costs. Smaller farms and more marginal lands feel this most keenly, but the problems are everywhere. There is little here to attract new entrants. With the government’s Foodwise 2025 plan, farm sizes will increase, pressure on the environment and input costs will continue to increase, and rural areas will suffer.
The next place we see impacts of our model here is further afield – where the inputs are produced. Animal feeds provide a good example. Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina are more commonly associated with threats to the beef sector but they are also producers of genetically-modified soya, one of the mainstays in many feed mixes. GM soya is grown in enormous monocultures, many thousands of hectares in size, is often sprayed form the air with Glyphospahate (as GM soya is “Roundup-ready” or Glyphosphate resistant) to eliminate weed competition. Soya plantations have displaced communities, polluted watercourses and caused huge problems for local areas. Local producers have sold up and moved on or found themselves trapped between enormous fields of crops on all sides being sprayed and harvested by huge machines. The same model – and rural areas suffer.
The last place that we see the impacts of Ireland’s production model are in the countries where our products arrive. If you’re selling your product to a big agri-corporation, you don’t really know where it’s going to end up. The same way that Irish farmers fear an influx of Brazilian Beef, imagine how farmers in Burkina Faso or Ghana fear an influx of dried milk powder. Dairy companies from Europe export into Western African markets and undercut producers there. Local farmers cannot compete. Those farmers are forced to abandon their production and often their land and move to cities where they may find themselves living in poverty. The diverse agricultural systems that support rural communities in those countries collapse, and again, land is often turned over to monoculture plantations or other productions. Once again – rural areas suffer.
We cannot look at our farming in isolation. If you supply a global market, you need to take responsibility for all aspects and impacts of the supply chain. We have made our farming model dependent on the suffering of rural communities in other parts of the world. We have exported much of the energy use and environmental impact to far off places, where they cannot be seen. But in our global world, people can also share their stories, and those stories can no longer be ignored.
What we urgently need is a new model of production here in Ireland. Undoubtedly animals are part of our agriculture – they have been for thousands of years. The question is not whether we produce beef or dairy – but how, and who for. These two questions are closely linked.
If Ireland is truly producing sustainably, it is reducing the level of inputs, increasing animal welfare – and producing less, but to an even higher standard. The easiest way to do this is for the entire island to convert to agroecological production principles over the next five to ten years. Eliminate synthetic fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, use only feeds grown in Ireland. This would require an unprecedented mobilization by government, farming groups and in particular semi-state organisations like Teagasc. Ireland could position itself as a global brand for unparalleled quality in Beef and Dairy production, a truly grass-fed model – quality over quantity. This quality should also be extended to the domestic market so that the best food we have is eaten by the people who live here – by the farmers who farm it and the population of this island, not expensive delis in London and New York. There is huge growth in organic markets and Ireland is also well placed to take advantage of that growth.
In parallel, we should be eliminating the dependence on imports for all produce we can grow here – onions, potatoes, cabbage, lettuce, apples – staggering quantities are imported annually and this needs to change. We need to rebuild the domestic economy, local production and small-scale distribution. This means new opportunities for farmers to diversify production and develop direct sales. More diversity in production means more biodiversity too as multiple production types compliment each other on-farm. Providing our entire population with fresh, locally produced food would have huge potential knock on benefits in terms of community health and wellbeing. Again, Ireland can become a leader in showing how agriculture can contribute positively as opposed to negatively to climate change, while repairing damaged communities and stimulating the rural economy.
There is no doubt that climate change will transform our lives in the next 50 years, in ways we do not yet recognize or understand. We can lead the way in making changes that can positively contribute to an ecological civilization, which is the only way in which humans will be able to continue to live happily on our planet. The slogan “Think Global. Act Local” is almost twenty years old, but it has never been more appropriate to apply than today, when in the face of all the evidence, the government continues to keep our ship facing the wind, sails flapping, even as the storm approaches. It’s time to turn it around.