It's been a big year for news hounds with many dramatic stories. From wars in Syria to the unexpected outcomes of ballots in Britain and America, 2016 will be remembered as a turning point in history. Human rights took a battering all around the world with Assad and his Russian allies systematically targeting hospitals and schools, while refugees again died in their thousands trying to cross the Mediterranean. For those who made it, their arrival stoked ugly reactions amongst people who allowed fear and distrust to dominate even-handed rationale. This has fuelled an outpouring of intolerance not seen in Europe since the 1930s.
On the up-side, the world's leaders came together in Marrakesh and agreed to tackle climate change. This deal is a delicate silver lining to all the doom and gloom, but the election of climate-sceptic Donald Trump places US participation in jeopardy. Ireland's commitment to reduce emissions is still not being manifested, unless you count the ham-fisted imposition of wind farms. The single most obvious thing to do in the short term is to build bio-digesters that would convert much of our current methane emissions into electricity, while solving the problem of slurry run-off polluting rivers and lakes. Whether or not this happens will depend on how seriously our politicians take the threat of climate change. Perhaps farmers can lead the charge themselves, as some are doing already.
Many people still scoff, but climate change is a threat to the survival of life on earth as we know it. Global average temperatures have already risen 1ºC over the past century (3ºC is seen as a tipping point), while 15 of the warmest years on record all occurred since 2001. The last 35 years have seen a rapid rise in the rate of global average temperature increases. Temperatures are expected to continue rising well beyond any reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions, if this is ever achieved. This means that melting of glaciers and ice caps is taking place much faster than expected and sea levels, which have gained an inch already, are likely to rise rapidly in the coming decades. The combined effects are already being witnessed in unusually mild winters (the North Pole climbed above freezing last week) combined with more destructive storms and other freak weather events, like extended droughts.
2016 provided evidence of the many challenges to come. Farmers had to deal with appalling weather to start the year, with flooding that persisted in some areas into summer. This was followed by flat-lining prices in beef, dairy and tillage. Milk quotas were abolished and European dairy farmers found themselves exposed to world market jitters for the first time through over-supply. Low prices are becoming the norm with small farmers being forced to consider their future in agriculture, while large Single Farm Payments continue to boost the financial dominance of land barons. As farm sales are forced on one end, the land is gobbled up at the other. The result is a growing disparity between rich and poor. That this situation is replicated across the world in every walk of life does not make it right.
One of the major investment trends of 2016 was companies buying land holdings of their own. Technological innovations have made it possible to monitor every aspect of food production. Agri-businesses are less interested in dealing with small farmers and would prefer to deal with large producers. With massive holdings these operators certainly stand a better chance of riding out low prices, but what of interruptions caused by outbreaks of disease, or natural disasters like floods and drought? It seems they have forgotten the old adage about eggs in a basket. By pushing down the number of farmers they risk losing local knowledge that would be required to get through hard times.
Farming has seen other major shifts. The proposed mergers of the world's six largest agri-giants could concentrate most agricultural seeds and pesticides into a few hands. There have been similar mergers in the fertilizer industry, particularly that of Canadian Potash Corp and Agrium Inc., which will create the world's largest crop nutrient supplier. With massive companies making billions apiece every year, who can foresee a break for farmers? Continued rationalisation of the world's agricultural innovators will inevitably result in less innovation. Why strive for better, when you're already sitting pretty at the top of the heap? It cannot be good for farmers either, to have these behemoths in charge. They will only use their power to increase their power over the industry, and in turn their profits. Similarly, in Ireland we have seen consolidation in the beef industry which is negatively affecting prices. It is the elimination of choice and the constant ratcheting that makes it harder and harder to see a positive outcome, if we follow our current trajectory.
Farmers are always optimistic and every year they bounce back with renewed hope. But there is a point at which you have to question yourself. We are mere caretakers of the land, hoping to preserve something for the next generation. For this reason it is important to remember in these uncertain times that what we do is important not just for ourselves and our communities, but for the whole country. Decisions we make will affect rural life for generations to come.
The business model we have been following has much sound reasoning, especially in terms of scientific monitoring like soil testing and aiming for maximum efficiency in terms of land use. However, maximising efficiency is one thing but it could easily be confused with destroying the fabric of life. If everybody removed their hedgerows and drained every bit of bog, it would unbalance the natural systems on which healthy soil relies. By rigidly sticking with traditional, conventional farming enterprises we ask the same question repeatedly and somehow expect a different answer. The answer will always be the same, because prices will not recover significantly as long as just a handful of international conglomerates control feed supplies, inputs and processing power.
The questions we must ask then are, what direction are we headed and where do we want to go? As it stands, Irish farmers have an ageing profile, and many lack successors. The industry is poised for a massive shake-up one way or the other. It would certainly be preferable to us all if the changes to come benefit rural communities and incorporate future planning that will defend and protect small farmers. It seems like the choices we are set to make in the coming months and years will have great resonance.
Our industry guides, Teagasc, Bord Bia and the Department of Agriculture have failed to protect farmers from the vagaries of the international market. Nor can they, for they themselves are already in thrall to large companies whose power is too great. Research funding, employment opportunities, promises of large investment...these are the baited hooks with which our institutions have been taken. They fear too much, stand to lose too much, or perhaps care too little, to defend small farmers. We must stand up for ourselves.
The way of the future is not to be found on world stock markets. The future is your local town and shop. Farmers, especially struggling small farmers, need to turn away from the traditional outlets that have let them down time and again. People nowadays are more willing to pay for local food, with quality assurances. Irish farmers have fallen far short of public demand for organic produce. While only 1.6% of our farmers are organic, the sector is worth 20% of market share. In addition, alternative products like herbs, medicinal plants, speciality cheeses and meat products have all been neglected by the majority of small farmers.
Those who love farming but cannot survive much more of the open market need to get together and form alternative farming groups, for the promotion of small-scale high-end produce. When we show what we can do, the rest will take notice. Ireland has the potential to live up to the unfounded boasts of Origin Green, but we do not have much time to waste. Every year that passes, the rich will get richer still, the greenhouse gases will spew forth, sea levels will rise and more refugees than ever will knock at our doors.
Small-scale organic or minimum-input farming has the potential to employ many people around the world. It is a return to a system of old, a system that sustained humanity for millennia. It will not lead to water shortages or soil depletion, rather it will increase water retention and soil health. By applying scientific advances a sustainable model of farming is now possible, that is more productive per acre than conventional farming and much less labour intensive than it was in times gone by. It is the perfect response to our current crisis and the only one that can succeed.