It’s time to plant seeds of change

Farming and climate change

Another report, published yesterday, warns of the calamities that lie ahead if we do not change our ways. Despite the fact that this Royal Society report, the latest in a very long line of chilling warnings about how global warming may increase our exposure to life-threatening heatwaves by a factor of 10, it is unlikely to have anything approaching the impact such a dire warning should have.

We seem, despite scientists’ and environmentalists’ persistent and escalating efforts to get us to change our ways, to imagine that there will always be another last chance, that everything will work out in the end even if we continue to do far less that the bare minimum needed to stave off a manmade catastrophe. We seem to imagine that we need not confront the causes of climate change and that it’s really a problem for someone else.

This dangerous doublethink is nowhere more apparent than in our Government’s successful campaign to get the European Council to refrain from setting targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture despite the fact that a startling 32% of our emissions come from farming. That figure will rise under the ambitious Food Harvest 2020 project, which aims to, among many other things, exploit the opportunities presented by the end of milk quotas in April. The Environmental Protection Agency predicts that emissions from farming will increase by almost 10% before 2020, an rise brought about by a 14% growth in the near 7m-strong national herd in the next five years.

Food security is an imperative for any society but that hardly gives any sector licence to continue to ignore warnings around its contribution to global warming, especially if alternative, less harmful, ways of farming already exist.

That the produce of those other farming methods may even be healthier for us than animal-based foods or dairy products seems to add to the argument; that demand for beef and milk seems likely to fall because of growing ethical, environmental and health arguments, especially in more affluent societies, adds weight to that argument. The fact that, despite annual EU subsidies totalling more than €2bn to Irish farmers, something around 80% of Irish farms lose money every year suggests that we are subsidising a broken industry just to make a huge contribution to increasingly dangerous climate change.

Of course farmers would chaff at such a sweeping suggestion and they may well be right; they are, after all, no more than consumers’ proxies, producing the kind of food we all demand — and very often at a price that does not properly reflect production costs.

Confronting habits that were once considered advances but are now recognised as disproportionate contributors to climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity. It is very difficult to reconcile that necessity with the Irish model of farming. The scale of both problems is enormous but it does seem that pretending that farming can continue as it is may be unwise. This dilemma, after all, involves far more than the farming community.


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