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.