Any worthwhile relationship can withstand an honest conversation. The best relationships are empowered when directness replaces fudge; when a spade is called a spade.
The long-awaited report from Teagasc that concedes that it will be “extremely challenging” for the farm sector to meet greenhouse gas emissions obligations makes a warts-and-all conversation more pressing than is comfortable.
That such a failure, according to Department of Finance and Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) may mean fines around €600m — €2.3m every working day — turns a deepening environmental failure into one of great social and economic importance.
Agriculture is not the only source of emissions; transport and home heating are significant contributors and urgent reforms are essential in these areas too. However, agriculture is in a unique position. The sector’s growth plans — the disconnected Food Harvest 2025 — put emission targets further beyond reach. The mitigation measures proposed by Teagasc, genetic improvements in livestock, better nitrogen use, afforestation, improved sequestration in soils and enhanced production of biomass and biogas to cut fossil fuel use seem, to call a spade a spade, implausible. The IIEA suspects as much and has argued that animal numbers and emissions may increase on foot of these proposals.
Farm leaders have asserted that farmers will not be made “whipping boys” on climate change but that Trumpian dismissal underlines the sector’s refusal to engage in any real way on this issue. Neither does it answer obvious questions: Are farm expansion plans, as they are presented, a relic from another time? Are they compatible with climate obligations? Are they, as Trump’s trade wars loom, commercially prudent?
The possibility that a hard Brexit might put Britain beyond the reach of Irish farm produce sharpens that question in a disconcerting way — as most farmers recognise. And, are we really going to pay €600m a year out of the public purse so a very small number of businesses can export baby milk formula to China?
Even raising these questions in a region all but defined by dairy farming is hardly conducive to sweetness or light but it is unavoidable. Last year the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation recorded that there were 367,556 cows in Cork, the highest county total in Ireland.
Tipperary, in second place, did not have even half that number with 161,921. Irish farming was subsidised to the tune of €1.2bn last year — €200m was paid to 13,400 Cork farm businesses — hardly “whipping-boy” treatment. Governments have supported the objective of a decent income for all viable farmers but is modern, intensive dairy farming really environmentally viable?
Is that sector dependent on society paying fines of €600m a year? Those questions make a conversation and probably some change essential if farming is to continue to enjoy the support it needs — support society is happy to extend if a common, sustainable purpose is agreed. Sadly, Food Harvest 2025 and growing farm emissions are not a sustainable common purpose. It’s time to talk so a mutually beneficial solution can be found.