THE focus on rural Ireland over recent weeks related to blood sports.
The challenge of the unspeakable chasing the uneatable has been depicted as wealthy Castle Catholics and traditional West Brits seeking to retain their past traditions. Beyond the Ward Union, the crunch issue is foxhunting. The ban in Britain has alerted hunts here. While this Dáil circus has been playing, nobody is minding the shop of rural Ireland. The future of farming has never faced greater challenges than in this decade.
The decline in the importance of agriculture to politicians has been acute. Long gone are the days when farmers’ marches absorbed the nation, as when Charlie Haughey was Minister for Agriculture. Now they must take their turn with taxi drivers, nurses, teachers, pensioners and assorted health groups outside the Dáil. Media coverage of agriculture has been relegated to niche print supplements, segmented broadcasts and the Farmers’ Journal – no longer mainstream.
The urban migration of voters has heralded marginalisation of the farming vote. The characterisation of them is akin to the soccer terrace chant “same old Arsenal, always cheating” can be heard as “same old farmers, always moaning”. Having cried wolf in good times, nobody listens. Townies can’t understand cows don’t do five-day weeks.
This is to belie a real pending economic crisis that will impact severely on the overall economy. Ireland’s food production accounts for €20bn of our GNP and €8bn of exports. The most recent CSO statistics pinpointed a balance of trade surplus for the first quarter of 2010 of €9.4bn.
Multinationals’ manufacturing output benefits employment and creates local sub-supply opportunities. In the same period €10bn was repatriated out of the country in profits. All the revenue from food exports is retained in Fermoy or Castlebar, instead of Basle or New York. The net benefit and value of food produced from our natural resources is 100%.
Employment in agriculture and food processing currently stands at 48,000. The drop in employment has been almost one-third over the past decade. Average farm sizes are increasing as farm incomes dwindle to less than €12,000 per annum. Family farms are utterly reliant on off-farm income from part-time work or a spouse having an outside job.
When we joined the EEC in 1973, there were 170,000 full-time farmers, now it’s around 30,000. The Common Agricultural Policy has defined the market for agriculture. EU subsidies, rather than livestock, have been farmed for the past two decades. The cornerstone of Brussels politics has been the CAP. Food security was the origin of policy. This led to massive surpluses with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of beef in intervention, butter mountains and wine lakes. Resultant milk quotas sought to curb production. Subsequent reforms sought to decouple EU subsidies from farm output. Intervention was abandoned and export subsidies whittled away.
As Minister for Agriculture, in the mid-1990s I was flogging our beef to Russia, Egypt and Libya. Eurocrats were seeking to pay third country markets to take our surplus stock. These reforms culminated in a single farm payment (SFP) based on historic farm production and paid irrespective of production levels.
The enlargement of the EU means our €1.8bn SFP payments are due for curbs in 2013. The CAP accounts for 40% of the EU budget. A majority of member states want budget reform – more money spent on R&D, social funds, cohesion, transport and education. Nobody is prepared to pay extra.
Meanwhile, a strong political lobby exists to convert the CAP into a CEP – Common Environmental Policy. They see rural Europe as an issue of sustainability and environmental protection. Every facet of Ireland’s perspective is weaker at the Council of Ministers.
The other impetus for change arises out of the world trade talks. The last Dhoha round of GATT negotiations collapsed in disagreement. The pressure for liberalisation of European agriculture is relentless. The USA and China are prepared to protect their farm policies. The EU is prepared to sacrifice protected markets in favour of a cheap food policy.
This agenda is to open up US and other markets for the export of international services, which are currently restricted. Irish politicians are asleep at the wheel within Europe while our vital national interest is being incrementally diminished.
The Celtic Tiger era introduced a new pseudo sophistication to our policymakers. We discarded wellington boots, manure and our country cousins. We’ve focused on the ‘smart economy’. The potential of ICT, pharma and telecommunications has been amply articulated. Food production has also been subject to dramatic research and development changes. The growth in global population, particularly in India and China, has created a fundamental demand for more food production worldwide. We run the risk of being left behind.
The commercial application of the laboratory is opposed here. The genetically modified agenda is taboo because of Green politics. Tillage production accounts for 400,000 of our 4.26 million hectares of land. Technical progress of our cereal production has yielded the highest crop performance in the EU. Disease-resistance seed, along with new herbicides and pesticides, can improve net margins. We have banned the GM agenda, despite importing millions of tonnes of GM soya feed.
New crops (eg, maize) and biofuels can be grown here with scientific innovation. Teagasc is disallowed opportunities for bio-technology. It is wrong to assume we must outlaw GM issues in order to meet consumer expectations of safety, quality, protecting the environment and ensuring sustainability.
LAST week’s Eurostat figures reported we have the second highest food prices amongst 27 EU states. Prices paid to farmers are similar to those of 20 years ago. Yet, bread, cereals, meat, milk and cheese are up to one-third more expensive here than the EU average. Farmers are at the mercy of ever more powerful retail giants such as Tesco and Dunnes Stores.
Who cares? Not our politicians. No vision for Irish agriculture or concern for farming livelihoods. Stag hunting and dog breeding are the extent of rural debate. There is no Irish strategic plan for the future of the CAP. A few days of photo opportunities at the National Ploughing Championships will suffice for our party leaders.
Farm organisation politics needs radical consolidation. The IFA, ICMSA and ICSA need to amalgamate into one powerful single lobby. The future cannot be a prisoner of the past. This lobby should organise and articulate a future agenda for Irish agriculture, based on a professional cohort of cost-effective producers embracing the best technology.
A market-led approach should develop new brands beyond Kerrygold and Baileys – less commodity, more consumer focus. All output restrictions should be set aside. The SFP must be based on a flat area payment system to support farm families.
The politics of the begging bowl needs to be replaced by a dynamic hi-tech, clean, market-orientated sector. We don’t need multinationals to achieve.
At the highest level the Government needs to establish a 2020 forum to oversee and implement this export-led growth narrative. The time for lip service must end. Our mission must be a subsidy-free, cost-effective, increased share of world food markets from indigenous production.