In recent days another report emerged about methane emissions from livestock. Cue, a vocal response from the environmental lobby. Before that a more specific report concerning the declining state of Irish rivers. Cue, a vocal response from the environmental lobby. Then we had another about the impact of herbicides used to control rushes on drinking water quality…
If you are a farmer none of this makes great reading or listening. If like so many, you also consider yourself an environmentally-aware farmer, it is worse. Some may portray farmers in general as climate-change deniers, and there may be a few around, but they are probably far from a majority. What is, however, more common place is worried farmers who daily read and hear about others demanding that they change their ways.
Farmers are being told that they are in the wrong but not how they can change for the better. They are also aware that change means extra cost and additional costs do not bare well on an often too fragile bottom line. Very, very few are the profit-driven agribusinesses that some like to portray, they are family farms where the aim is to provide a decent living for the household, nothing more.
Whilst following and communicating with those from the ‘green’ lobby, I also follow many environmentally aware farmers. There are those who recognize the need for change and are actively working out ways to do it. They are changing their farming systems and, often, creating products around those changes and finding ways to deliver the complete package to the aware consumer. It is happening, but it is happening outside the mainstream; and therein lies the problem.
We have reached the point where we need to move on from highlighting the problems, that is the easy part, to identifying solutions and working out how to implement them. We need clear cut planning. And to start with we must clarify what the objectives are.
The environmental lobby are highlighting the big picture; that we need to reduce GHG emissions, albeit too often in the context of gross and not net emissions; largely because the accounting and science has not yet caught up with the reality of carbon cycles and sequestration. To the list we can add; cleaning up our rivers, ditto our water supplies, reversing the dramatic decline in farmland biodiversity and, especially, the vital to our food-security, pollinators. We now need the detailed targets to aim for.
What should those targets encompass. How about, just for starters:
- lowering nitrogen usage to reduce emissions, run-off and fossil-fuel use [in fertilizer production]
- raising sward diversity to maintain productivity with less N and to enhance grassland biodiversity
- improving the farmland environment to help reinstate flora and fauna and, especially, pollinators
- creating income-effective upland farming systems that also effectively manage water catchments
- reducing animal farming’s dependence on liquid-manure housing systems and all that they entail
- developing on-farm energy generation and storage solutions so farms can be energy independent
- finding husbandry-based methods to support solutions where efficacy is threatened by resistance
- minimizing the usage of antibiotics in farming to preserve their availability in human health care
Do not let anyone suggest that dealing with the abundance of problems facing our food production systems, and hence, our farmers is not hugely complex. It is certainly not fully appreciated by those who demand change. Once we have identified and agreed where we all want to go, there is also the equally complicated issue of how to provide transitionary support to the farming sector to encourage and facilitate the necessary change. Objectives, policies and mechanisms are all needed.
And last, but not least, we must work out how to deliver all the above whilst enhancing the future of those who produce our food and manage our landscapes and our rural communities.
This is no small undertaking and it can only be achieved by the farming and food and ‘green’ communities getting onto the same page. We need to have a farming/food/environmental/rural policy for Ireland that begins with an agreed set of objectives. Frankly, what we have at present does not fit the bill. We must start again but that is going to take time, energy and cost. We must stop dissipating our collective resources on fighting with each other, it is a waste. They need to be channelled into finding a way forwards. The unacceptable alternative is to continue to bicker and to regress, remorselessly.