Climate change looms for Irish farmers and food

Climate change looms for Irish farmers and food

The challenges facing society in responding to climate change were brought into sharp relief by the focus on Brazil last week.

Forest fires in the sensitive Amazon region are being linked to ongoing industrialisation of farming in that critical part of the globe.

Clear felling trees, nature’s lungs, to make way for large beef producing landholdings and sheds seems in direct conflict with the zeitgeist of sustainability and responsible farming that makes the headlines in our market.

It is odd to watch the repeated demonisation of Irish farming with respect to managing the climate in this context. It seems as if some commentators would like to blame Irish farming for the climate crisis despite the clear evidence that grass-based production of milk and meat on relatively small holdings is a superior means of producing food compared to gigantic feed lots in the US, Brazil and Saudi Arabia.

Nonetheless, change is looming for all food producers and ways to deliver food while combating the negative consequences of climate change will define the next generation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Instead of policies designed to maximise food output I think this will strive to balance the production of food with deliberate actions designed to reverse the damage to the environment caused by intensive farming practices.

In this context, a remarkable pilot scheme is taking place in Co Waterford. The Biodiversity Regeneration In A Dairying Environment (BRIDE) project is in operation between 2018 and 2023 with the backing of the EU Commission and the Irish Government.

Farmers are being advised on and rewarded for a broad set of activities that explicitly enrich the environment for biodiversity purposes. Instead of payments being linked directly to farm outputs - like milk or cattle numbers - payments are connected to evidence-based mini projects like pond creation, mini woodlands, biodiversity plots, and invasive species control.

The BRIDE project provides education material and guidance to farmers in how they should work their way through a year of farming in ways that actively assist the health of their farms, soils and natural environment. Newsletters, talks and meetings are used to encourage a community spirit that produces commercial volumes of food while respecting and nourishing the environment in which it is taken.

If this project proves definitively that a combination of financial incentives and education can be tapped to have dramatic effects on the environment within farms it will, undoubtedly, be incorporated into the next version of the CAP.

Imagine if that was rolled out to farmers across Europe and led to scaling up of the impacts being created in the Bride Valley. Moreover, I suspect European taxpayers, who ultimately fund CAP, will respond enthusiastically to the policies implicit in the BRIDE project.

Instead of an incessant reliance on subsidies and intervention around food volumes, CAP can become a vocal advocate and champion of measures targeting the health and wellbeing of our environment.

The BRIDE project is another reminder, too, of the power of the EU. By deploying resources on a pilot project such as this the EU Commission is showing its power to reach into small communities and help them provide models that can be deployed across a large geography for the betterment of all.

Amid the ongoing splintering of political and economic resources that lies at the heart of the Brexit campaign it is encouraging to see examples of how institutions that work collectively can have an outsized impact for the common good.

If the BRIDE project delivers insights and pathfinders that help the Irish Government and the EU to tackle environmental damage and waste it will be unequivocally good for all.

Compare that with the catfighting and finger pointing that defines the Brexit circus over the coming weeks.

- Joe Gill is director of origination and corporate broking with Goodbody. His views are personal.

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