'Farmers will do what they are paid to do' in fight against climate change, says public health expert

Farmers will need financial incentives to play a part in tackling climate change, according to an expert in public health medicine.

Dr Ina Kelly, chair of the Public Health Medicine Environment and Health Group, has warned that Ireland is “tight on time” in terms of making the changes needed to mitigate the effects of climate change.

“Five years ago I developed a draft plan for the health sector with my colleagues in the Department of Health. Nothing has happened with it yet because we haven’t had the mandate from the department... but I think that’s starting to change now.

“We’ll be tight on time, but I think we have to recognise a certain point when the momentum starts and when it starts, we have to use it.”

Addressing the Irish Medical Organisation’s (IMO) AGM in Co Kerry, Dr Kelly said mitigation would not be enough, that adaptation would be required across many sectors such as transport, engineering and farming.

She said farmers “have been focused down particular routes like building cattle density” on the basis of ideal conditions “but it’s a big reservoir for infection, it’s a big carbon emitter”.

“And then you can see during drought periods the farmers are struggling because of feedstock issues.

So I am not sure that the cattle and dairy industries are nirvana for agriculture. I think we do need to have big conversations in our society.

Dr Kelly, health member of the Climate Change Advisory Council Adaptation Committee, said farmers’ economic development could not be overlooked in the battle against climate change.

“When we are not listening to their needs there is going to be a fight potentially.” She said it was her belief from talking to colleagues who work in agriculture that “farmers will do what they are paid to do”.

“And if they were paid to look after the environment really well, they would do it,” she said.

Ireland’s susceptibility to water-borne disease from severe rainfall events “is very high” Dr Kelly said, with 170,000 private wells providing untreated and sometimes contaminated drinking water.

She said drinking water was the probable cause of a substantial amount of VTEC infection in Ireland, a type of ecoli which can cause kidney failure and even death. The incidence of VTEC in Ireland is far higher than the rest of Europe.

Dr Kelly said people with private wells were “often reassured by a single test that their water was grand” whereas a hydrogeologist had told her it took “about 35 tests to say your water is grand”.

She said a wide-ranging, integrated approach was needed to deal with climate change.

“With smart solutions in transport, farming, engineering and other areas, we will have a chance of reversing some of the adverse effects threatened by climate change. But urgent action is needed.”

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