Farm fodder crisis will continue unless we confront climate change

SO WE’VE had a few days of sunshine and we’re telling ourselves the fodder crisis is over.

But one thing is for sure — there’s going to be another fodder crisis and another one after that because the fodder crisis is a symptom of climate change.

It’s been the longest winter on record in this country. Not since the records began 70 years ago has there been a March as cold as this year’s. It’s been followed by the coldest April in 25 years in some areas of the country.

But March 2012 was the warmest March ever. And twice the average amount of rainfall was recorded in many parts of the country during the three summer months of 2012.

This extreme weather variation has not been limited to our shores. In the UK, this March was the coldest in nearly 50 years. Thousands of lambs were born expecting springtime, as evolution had taught them, only to die in snow storms. The eastern US states also had a bitterly cold winter after the warmest spring on record.

The explanation for this extreme unpredictability being tested at the moment is that the loss of nearly half of the summer sea ice in the Arctic is affecting the positioning of a band of high winds 10km above us called the jet stream.

The jet stream works to separate cold, Arctic air from warm, tropical air. It’s normally above northern Europe in March but this year it was over Spain and the Azores, so we had nothing to fight off the Arctic air. As one commentator said, it was as if someone left the fridge door open. By contrast, in March 2012 the jet stream was far enough north to give us unseasonal warmth. A temperature of 22 degrees was recorded in Donegal.

This variation may not seem too serious to urbanites who can still get cheap food in the shops. But if you are a farmer your livelihood depends on the predictability of the weather. If the weather goes crazy so does farming and pretty soon that has to affect everyone.

Ireland’s claim to fame as a food-producing island is entirely based on its superb climate for growing grass. It’s a big, big story when we see a picture of trucks hauling British hay to the Dairygold co-op on the front of the Irish Examiner’s Farming supplement, as we did last week.

The Government’s €1m Imported Fodder Transport Scheme, in place until tomorrow, is importing and distributing 3,500 tons of hay and has sourced 6,000 tons of maize silage. Meanwhile, the Irish Farmers’ Association and a consortium of agri-businesses are spending €1m bringing in 3,000 tonnes of hay from France.

All of this has horrible echoes of the importation of Indian meal at the time of the Famine. About 26% more animals died in the first three months of this year than last year and some vets in the Munster area have been trained to look for suicidal behaviour in farmers.

Where is our food security if the Emerald Isle is importing maize silage to feed her starving cattle? Nowhere. We don’t have food security if our climate doesn’t perform as it’s meant to. And yet there is hardly a mention of climate change in coverage of the fodder crisis.

The main reason for this is that the business of farming is based on the myth of perpetual growth: on yields getting bigger and bigger from the same limited natural resources.

Of course, lots of farmers know this isn’t possible, but the official rhetoric keeps telling them it is. Food Harvest 2020, an industry-led expansion plan for the agricultural sector supported by Government, is looking at a 50% increase in milk production by 2020, for instance. This would require the national herd of dairy cows to increase from 1.1m to 1.4m.

What will happen to that herd if the climate shocks keep coming? A fascinating article by Stephen Cadogan in this newspaper on Apr 25 argued that the land is already overstocked in the lead-up to the abolition of milk quotas in 2015. It’s clear the level of stock envisaged in 2020 will only have enough green grass to eat if the weather always stays fine, which is the kind of delusional planning which gave us the banking crisis.

Our hard-working Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, is trying to rally the troops by pointing to the very high prices being commanded right now for beef and dairy products.

The main reason for this is that New Zealand’s agricultural economy has been destroyed by drought. Parts of the North Island are reported to be drier than they have been in 70 years. The destruction of the world’s climate systems is a presented as a marketing opportunity.

The only realistic mention of climate change limiting productivity I found in industry sources was the projection by IFA president John Bryan, that by 2050 we will have nine billion mouths to feed on the planet and most of the southern hemisphere will be producing less food.

That’s quite some gap in the market for Ireland to fill. If St Patrick stops climate change affecting Ireland.

Which is a pretty vain hope. But even if it happened, where is the morality in exploiting the misery of others? I understand farmers must make a buck and I understand how hard that has been for many. I knew a dairy farmer who lost his life to depression in the lean late Noughties. But there is no hope for any of us if business, and particularly the business of farming, pretends not to know the limits of the planet’s resources. And does not enquire into the morality of its enterprises.

FOR instance, we in Ireland capitalise on our ‘green’ image to produce 15% of the world’s artificial baby milk. Companies such as Nestlé and Abbott, whose efforts to get women in the developing world to replace breast milk with infant formula have caused scandal, export from Limerick and Cavan to so-called ‘emerging economies’.

How many babies die in these countries because their parents substitute Irish formula for breast milk? What is our projected carbon footprint if the world’s babies drink processed, imported, packaged cow’s milk from sterilised, heated plastic bottles instead of what’s going for free from Mam’s breast? How can creating a market where they should be none be considered “sustainable”?

It can’t. As our fodder crisis shows, the way we eat is destroying the climate, which is in turn destroying the way we eat.

A billion are starving and more than a billion are seriously overweight.

We are into extra time with our weather systems. And yet pressure from the farming lobby still managed to persuade the Government not to put any targets for emissions reductions in its Climate Action Bill.

We need to fix the broken food system. We need to factor environmental impact into the cost of food. People like me, with choices, need to eat more locally-produced, unprocessed food and less meat and dairy.

It’s time to get real. The fodder crisis is the climate crisis come home.

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