EU funds must be used to protect environment

Q&A: Jack McCarthy & Andrew Jackson
EU funds must be used to protect environment

However, despite €2.18 billion having been paid out to farmers under various agri-environment schemes in Ireland between 1994 and 2006 (and more since), these schemes have failed in their objectives.

That is the view of An Taisce, the national trust. An Taisce believes that the agri-environment schemes have failed to deliver sufficient protection for Ireland’s biodiversity and that they have not ensured that ecosystems can support a vibrant agricultural sector in the long term.

An Taisce cites a 2009 EU-wide assessment, which stated: “The conservation status of all habitat types associated with agriculture is significantly worse than other types of habitat: only 7% of such assessments are favourable, compared to 21% for ‘non- agricultural’ habitats. This is due to shifts towards more intensive agriculture, abandonment of the land and poor land management.”

However, Ireland’s farmers are not the root cause of this problem, say Jack McCarthy and Andrew Jackson, of An Taisce’s natural environment office. Financial incentives which favour intensive farming and encourage conversion of land of natural value (e.g. scrub clearance), poorly designed agri-environment schemes, inadequate targeting and baseline setting and low monitoring of results are largely to blame. The new Rural Development Programme offers a chance to break with this past, they say. We asked them to expand on these views.

* What was the thrust of An Taisce’s submission in response to the recent public consultation on the new Rural Development Programme?

>>“Past agri-environment schemes have tended to favour distributing money to as many farmers as possible in a broad-brush or ‘few strings attached’ manner. Our submission advocates targeted, outcome-based agri-environment schemes which are integrated at a regional scale. This approach is strongly supported by research and practice elsewhere in Europe.

“This would mean putting more time and resources into the development of plans for each individual farm, giving farmers a more active role in planning and monitoring processes, focusing more on outcomes (as opposed to actions), as well as coordinating plans between farms for maximum regional impact. We have a good precedent in the Burren Farming for Conservation Programme (BurrenLIFE), but this is unfortunately an isolated example. Well-designed, agri-environment schemes can help deliver important public goods in the form of clean water, clean air, carbon sequestration, higher biodiversity, and long-term food security.”

* Does An Taisce’s vision resonate with current agricultural policy?

>>“No. The Food Harvest 2020 (FH2020) plan promoted by the Department of Agriculture — based on so-called ‘sustainable intensification’ — will exacerbate the environmental crises we are facing. Of particular concern is the target to increase the volume of dairy output by 50%, much of this to supply a growing international demand for infant formula. The environmental assessment carried out for the Department of Agriculture predicts negative impacts in terms of water quality, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and biodiversity, yet the Government remains wedded to the plan.

“Agriculture was responsible in 2012 for one third (32.1%) of Ireland’s total climate emissions. This is much higher than our transport or energy or industrial sectors. The EPA projects an increase of 12% in agricultural emissions by 2020 as a result of FH2020, so things are set to get worse, not better.

“We believe ‘sustainable intensification’ will not secure the deep absolute GHG reductions that are needed to avoid extreme weather events, flooding, and the ‘cascade of cataclysmic changes’ predicted by the World Bank.”

* Do you feel that the funds being offered as part of the proposed GLAS scheme will have the desired impact?

>>“Evidence suggests that the maximum of €5,000 per farmer under GLAS and the additional €2,000 available under GLAS+ will not be sufficient. The fixed caps placed on these payments do not reflect the farm-to-farm variability of critical environmental work. For this reason, An Taisce is advocating better targeting of funding.

“We acknowledge that there is a limited budget, but that budget could have been significantly higher had the Government chosen to co-fund at a rate of 50% (rather than 46%) and transferred the allowable 15% (roughly €180m/year) from CAP Pillar 1 (direct subsidies) to Pillar 2 to fund agri-environment schemes.

“The Department of Agriculture needs to start taking the environment seriously. It underpins the economy and ultimately our survival. But the Department has poor form in this area: in 2013, it slashed the budget for Ireland’s most important protected areas — 13% of Ireland’s landmass — by over 80%, from €528m to €95m, and reallocated the money. Precisely where it was spent is unclear. We need a new approach.”

* Should the EU develop a new view on the way it identifies and funds groups with a role to play in protecting the continent’s environment?

>>“Yes, 0.2% of the EU’s budget is dedicated to nature conservation and other environmental aims via the LIFE funding instrument. In contrast, CAP took up 34% of the EU’s entire budget in the years 2007-13. The contrast is stark. Irish environmental organisations remain dramatically underfunded. EU funding is available only to NGOs which operate in three or more EU countries, making most ineligible.

“Even with the huge dedication of our staff, interns, volunteers and members, it is very difficult for a charity like ourselves to compete with louder voices like the IFA. The IFA is very well-funded, owing in part to a levy imposed on every animal sold at Irish marts and factories. This is an optional levy but it’s described opaquely as the ‘European involvement fund’, so most farmers don’t realise where it goes or that they can opt out. The levy generates millions each year for the IFA. There’s now a head of steam behind a campaign for smaller farmers — i.e. the vast majority of farmers — to opt out of paying this levy. This might help level the playing field a little, and in turn secure a sustainable future for the true champions of Irish agriculture.”

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