THE Irish Farmers’ Association elected Joe Healy, a dairy farmer from Galway, as its president yesterday. He assumes the mantle at a time of huge challenge.
Further, radical change in how Ireland’s 140,000 farmers — 380,000 people work for the State — produce food seems unavoidable and desirable. If farm viability, and thousands of downstream jobs, are to be secured, brave planning is essential.
It is not an exaggeration to suggest that farming has gone through greater change since Alan Gillis was elected IFA president in 1990 than the sector went through since the Co-operative Movement, established by Unionist MP Horace Curzon Plunkett, opened the first dairy co-op in Doneraile, Co Cork, in 1889. Accelerating advances in technology — chemical, veterinary, animal food sciences and reproduction, mechanical, and computing, not to mention 12-month housing of livestock — have utterly changed the business. Europe’s €55bn-plus a year in subsidies, the ability of retail giants to set farmgate prices, and the cold consequences of unsustainable debt are reshaping the industry and will continue to do so. However, it seems likely changing consumer tastes and the urgent need to cut greenhouse gases might have an even greater impact.
Last month the Environmental Protection Agency warned that we will miss our 2020 greenhouse gas emission reduction targets of 20% on 2005 levels. We can expect, the EPA suggests, a fall of 6%-11%. Transport and farming account for 75% of those gases so it may be foolish to imagine the EU will always subsidise an industry struggling to deliver environmental reform. 2020 is a significant year in another way. The sector’s grand plan — Food Harvest 2020 — is to come to fruition. This scheme (it’s not a “plan” so it was not subject to an EU environmental impact assessment) envisages a huge increase in production. The project’s mission statement ticks all the usual boxes about a green future, but the composition of the 30-person plus committee at the head of the organisation is revealing. It is almost exclusively corporate or farming . The lone voice that might offer a counter view — Birdwatch Ireland — seems a token appointment. The EPA, our official watchdog, is not represented.
The ambition, driven by Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, to increase the national dairy herd by around 300,000, despite the negative impact that would have on greenhouse gases and farmyard effluent levels, feeds into that narrative. It also ignores a truth of our time — the need to decouple economic growth from emissions growth. Research published by Oxford University shows world farming is generating a glut of cheap processed meats that drives climate change and a pandemic of diet-related ill health that costs up to €900bn a year in healthcare and related costs. These all challenge traditional farming ambitions.
Ireland needs a vibrant, strong, and profitable farming and food sector but it also needs a cohesive society facing up to its environmental responsibilities. Let us hope that Mr Healy can lead this backbone industry into a bright and profitable future where it recognises all its social responsibilities.
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