Stirring up tensions between farmers and environmentalists

This piece appears  in the current edition of Village magazine. As a rule, I steer clear of articles focusing on individuals, preferring when possible to stick to the issues rather than personalities. Given the central role of RTÉ presenter Damien O’Reilly in this story, I’ve had to bend that rule somewhat, but the issues involved have nothing whatever to do with him as an individual; rather, they involve the commercial and editorial nexus between our national broadcaster and lobbying organisations.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT in October that RTÉ’s radio programme ‘Countrywide’ had entered into a 12-month sponsorship deal with the Irish Farmers Journal (IFJ) represents an unusual, arguably unprecedented departure.

The IFJ is bound at the hip with Ireland’s most powerful agricultural lobbying group, the Irish Farmers Association (IFA). The two organisations share the same premises in Bluebell, Dublin and are historically intertwined.

The IFJ pays the IFA annual fees running into tens of thousands of euros for what it says are access to the Association’s resources. That’s how close the relationship is. Essentially, therefore, RTÉ has entered a sponsorship deal for its flagship agricultural current affairs programme with the publishing wing of agri industry lobbyists.

The fact that both the IFA and IFJ have actively promoted climate denial and, more recently, used almost identical selective information to play down the role of methane as a powerful greenhouse gas underlines their unity of purpose.

Given that emissions reduction is the number one challenge facing the agricultural sector, it no surprise this is also a major source of conflict.

In recent years, the expansionary ambitions of the dairy sector in particular have drawn it into ever greater conflict with environmental and ecological limits, from emissions to air and water pollution.

For instance, since 2015, overall agricultural emissions have risen by around 8%, at a time when they were legally mandated to fall. In the same period, marked decreases in air and water quality have been largely attributed to aggressive dairy sector expansion and dramatic increases in the tonnage of nitrogen being spread on Irish grasslands.

Overall, Ireland’s agricultural sector accounts for around 34% of national emissions, a share wholly disproportionate either to the size or economic value of the industry. The problem overwhelmingly relates to methane emissions from ruminant agriculture, principally dairy and beef cattle.

The relative contribution of Ireland’s tillage and horticulture sectors to pollution is, in contrast, negligible. Pollution therefore is tied closely to the type of agriculture a country chooses to concentrate on, and Ireland has gone squarely for the most emissions-intensive form of agriculture (intensive dairying) at the worst possible time from the point of view of our national efforts to cut emissions.

Despite spending tens of millions of taxpayers’ money on PR strategies such as Bord Bia’s ‘Origin Green’ programme portraying Ireland as a producer of clean, ecologically low-impact food, the spin has been at variance with the facts.

EPA director general, Laura Burke recently confirmed that Irish farming’s “green” reputation is simply not supported by evidence. “Taking the (agri) sector as a whole, the economic growth in recent years is happening at the expense of the environment, as witnessed by the trends in water quality, emissions and biodiversity all going in the wrong direction”.

Burke wrote this in the EPA submission to a new agri-food strategy that is being driven by a 31-person committee made up almost entirely of industry players and agri-food lobbyists, with one solitary seat at the table for the entire environmental sector.

In recent years, the agri-industrial sector’s expansionary plans have been challenged by a loose but determined coalition of environmental NGOs*, activists and scientists. This in turn has led to tensions and accusations on both sides of bad faith as well as some name-calling.

Conflict of this kind, given the diametrically differing perspectives of the two sides, is inevitable. I also believe that it’s a sign of a healthy democracy that powerful commercial interests can be called to account for their actions and inactions by concerned citizens, journalists and activists.

It’s worth considering the astonishingly asymmetrical nature of the conflict. On the one side are ranged multinational PLCs, billionaire meat barons and powerful, politically connected lobbyists.

These groups hold deep sway over a host of state and semi-state bodies, from Teagasc to Bord Bia, the Department of Agriculture and the National Dairy Council as well as university agriculture faculties. They also enjoy almost revolving-door media access to promote their messaging.

On the other side are a handful of mostly volunteers, sparsely funded and largely reliant on people donating their time in the public interest.

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RTÉ Radio’s flagship agri show, Countrywide airs every Saturday morning, and enjoys a solid audience of predominantly rural and agricultural listeners. Its magazine format gives it appeal to a wider audience.

The formula works. This year, Countrywide won a prize from the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists for a segment titled: ‘Climate change and Irish farming’. As the RTÉ report on the event stated, the judges noted the challenge of bridging the topic of climate change for an audience of both farmers and non-farmers, with one judge adding: “I always appreciate Damien O’Reilly’s knowledge and willingness to ask difficult questions”.

Climate change is the political hot potato for the entire agricultural sector, and Countrywide makes some useful contributions towards bridging the divide. The show’s host, Damien O’Reilly is also a long-standing columnist with the IFJ, the new sponsors of his show.

O’Reilly’s column, titled ‘Backchat’ is ostensibly a light round-up of his weekly musings. However, he does appear to have a particular agenda in mind, as I discovered on examining the IFJ archives.

For instance, in the September 29 edition of the IFJ he wrote: “As we grapple to tackle climate chaos, the incessant attacks on farmers border on the absurd. In the same way alcohol contributes to alcoholism, food production contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, yes. But we don’t say ban alcohol to stop alcoholism, but we do say ban beef and dairy to stop climate change”.

He doesn’t identify the exact source of these incessant attacks, other than to pin them on “some environmentalists” who he believes are keen on “sullying ordinary farmers with sweeping broadsides against what they do under the guise of being caring for the environment”.

Quite how O’Reilly is able to mind-read the precise singular intent of these nameless environmentalists is unclear, but he continues: “Like getting in a sly kick in a stampede, the mask often slips and they can’t hide their contempt, using climate change as a handy vehicle on which to push their real agenda which is to rid the planet of animal farming altogether”.

He concludes the column by explaining that those who “peddle the waffle that veganism is the solution to climate destruction antagonise farmers, and understandably so”.

The waffle that globally a major shift away from meat-based diets is essential is also being peddled by almost every major scientific institution globally, as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Last year an IPCC special report on climate change and land described plant-based diets as a “major opportunity for mitigating and adapting to climate change” and the report included a policy recommendation to reduce meat consumption.

And also last year, the influential EAT-Lancet Commission urged a dramatic reduction in the consumption of meat and dairy and a sharp increase in plant-based foods, including the virtual elimination of red meat, both for health and planetary resource reasons.

Two months earlier, in late July, O’Reilly was once again facing down what he calls the “pointed anti-farming sentiment online, which does constructive environmentalists a complete disservice”. As he makes it clear here and elsewhere, what O’Reilly is defending is not agriculture per se, but livestock and dairy farming.

What he identifies as the “core ideology” of the “fiercest critics of livestock farming” is, he argues, clearly irrational. “Place all the complexities involved in the global food chain on a spreadsheet and draw Venn diagrams and you’ll discover that replacing animal production with grain and vegetables to meet a growing global demand for food from a dwindling arable land area is full of contradictions if protecting biodiversity is the goal”. This view is, to say the least, highly debatable.

A month earlier, in late June, O’Reilly argued that “farming is to Ireland what car manufacturing is to Germany”, adding that we need to “pull up our socks in terms of transport, industry and yes, farming”. So far, so reasonable. From here, he digresses into “anecdotes” of children apparently being ashamed to admit they come from farms, adding darkly about “easily impressionable young people… being fed anti-farming propaganda”.

O’Reilly acknowledges that it is possible to have genuine concerns about agri intensification and its impacts on biodiversity, air, soil and water quality. Rather than leave it there, he immediately qualifies it by adding: “But it moves to a more sinister level when it’s used as a cover for hidden agendas or campaigns about animal welfare or big agribusiness. On some of these profiles, peel away a layer and you’ll find profound hatred for everything conventional livestock stands for. It’s dangerous, unsubstantiated and an anathema to what genuine environmentalists and scientists stand for”.

It is characteristic of O’Reilly that he makes concessions but not when he is attacking what he defines as extreme environmentalists, campaigners or journalists.  He almost never actually names them so it is not unfair to infer he is engaging in ‘straw man’ criticisms.

O’Reilly then calls on environmental stakeholders to “shoo away the urban dog whistlers with their self serving anti-ruminant bile”. It might, at this point, be worth reminding readers that these are the considered opinions of RTÉ’s main agricultural presenter. In a column in May 2020, he observed, apparently without irony: “It’s no time for finger pointing”.

Last March, he noted: “There is a dangerous communication vacuum between agriculture and society which is being filled with misinformation and anti-farming sentiment that does nothing for the viability of food production or the environment”. Filling this vacuum with anti-environmental sentiment is probably not helping either.

These outbursts occur again and again in O’Reilly’s column. Going further back, to February 18, he acknowledges that more efforts are needed by farmers on emissions cuts, adding that “any contribution which careless farming makes which negatively impacts on water quality, wildlife and biodiversity can no longer be tolerated”. These are all reasonable points.

From here, it again degenerates quickly. Apparently the message of how hard farmers are working to improve environmental performance is not getting through and as a result, “farmer bashing by trolls and extremists is rampant. The bashing is not so much to criticise farmers regarding climate change but rather to get the hell off the land altogether”.

He pauses briefly to acknowledge the existence of “logical and sensible” environmental campaigners and scientists, before returning with gusto to his theme: “anti-farming extremists are conveniently using the climate emergency to push through their own real agenda which is to rid the world of livestock farming. Peel away the outer layer and you will find that some of those pointing the finger at farming for climate destruction just hate farmers and would otherwise be campaigning on some extreme animal welfare platform”.

Once again, O’Reilly displays an uncanny ability to gaze into the very souls of those with whom he disagrees, to reveal the red-hot core of their irrational, burning hatred for farmers. As an environmentalist and frequent outspoken critic of the negative environmental impacts of the rush to expand the dairy sector in particular, it’s hard not to feel personally affronted by O’Reilly’s rhetoric.

Unlike O’Reilly, I actually grew up on a farm. My late father was a prominent NFA/IFA activist back in the 1960s, at a time when such activism carried real risks: the government was openly threatening to criminalise NFA members by declaring it a proscribed organisation. Probably my earliest childhood memory was the trauma of our family home being raided at dawn by the Special Branch in April 1967.

Just as farmers were marginalised, demonised and pilloried back in the 1960s, in certain quarters some environmentalists are apparently now fair game.

It is hard to imagine that O’Reilly would ever consider making statements like these on his RTÉ radio programme, yet, in the confines of the Farmers Journal he feels able to ventilate at length his apparent loathing for certain environmentalists, vegans, animal rights activists etc.

As previously reported by Village, the IFJ has degraded its hard-won reputation by promoting climate denial in recent years, giving editorial oxygen to crackpot theories and platforming the lunatic fringe of science denial.

In a column last January musing on the role of agricultural journalism, O’Reilly noted: “The discussion about the role of agriculture in global warming is quite adversarial. It is divisive and bitter and on more than one occasion in recent times, I’ve found that the messenger is being shot”.

It does not seem to have occurred to O’Reilly that his constant use of incendiary language and inflammatory allegations may perhaps be in some way contributing to this divisiveness and bitterness.

What people who O’Reilly disagree with, he suggests, “really need is a crash course in diplomacy. I know from whenever we discuss the issue on radio that there is an unseemly and unlikeable underbelly of anger and aggression among a minority who literally – let’s call a spade a spade – detest livestock farming and detest farmers with withering diatribes”.

Diplomacy does indeed seem to be a commodity in preciously short supply here. Returning to his agri-journalism observations, O’Reilly talks about people like himself at the “coalface of agri journalism (having) an important challenge to do our best to present the facts and dispel with the myths and spin as best we can. But it is worrying when campaigners ignore the balance in favour of the narrative which best suits their agenda”.

In the almost two years of O’Reilly columns I read in preparing this article, there was scant evidence of him balancing his concerns about the obvious irrationality, agendas, etc. of environmental activists with any similar concern about spin and nonsense from the agri-industrial sector in playing down year after year of egregious failure on emissions and pollution.

This pattern of demonising one side continues right back into 2019. Three days after the massive children’s climate strikes on March 15 of that year, O’Reilly announced to his readers that: “there’s a new stick in town and it has climate change written down the side”.

Spiralling methane emissions from Ireland’s rapidly expanding dairy herd, it turns out, is merely “conveniently providing campaigners and movements who profoundly dislike the way of Irish farming with amble (sic) opportunity to deride them”. After all, “It plays beautifully into the barrow of key ideological and political influencers who’ve long held anti-farming agendas”.

And in January last, he railed against the “aggressive thugs and anti-farmer zealots shouting down the rest of us with their confirmation bias and offensive language”. Thugs – seriously? Do exchanges between the sides on Twitter sometimes get heated? Yes, after all, there is a lot at stake. But, contrary to O’Reilly’s analysis, I have found there are at least as many trolls, bully boys and zealots on either side of the argument.

The recent online demonization of respected agri-journalist, Ella McSweeney for having the temerity to run a carefully researched and balanced article in the Guardian pointing to deep problems in Irish agriculture is a case in point.

On Twitter, Matt O’Keeffe, a farmer and editor of Irish Farmers Monthly, called her article an “ill-considered diatribe”, adding that it “must bring into question her objectivity or lack of it” on RTÉ’s ‘Ear To The Ground’. These are serious, potentially career-ending, allegations.

This attack was supported on Twitter by former IFA president, Joe Healy among others, as well as the (anonymous) ‘The Dealer’ column in the IFJ, whose headline screeched: ‘Ella’s inside job deeply damaging’.

Again back in January, O’Reilly was decrying the decline in standards: “They (activists) can just spew it all out unfiltered on Twitter. It may have always been thus but the undermining of traditional journalism – by influential politicians and campaigners in the climate debate in particular is leaving ordinary citizens…quite confused”.

Having witnessed plenty of spats on Twitter, few of the online exchanges I’ve seen can match the level of name-calling and vitriol of any of half a dozen or more recent Damien O’Reilly columns in the Irish Farmers Journal.

Ahead of publication of this article I sent O’Reilly a detailed letter setting out 10 questions arising from both the IFJ sponsorship deal and O’Reilly’s own columns in the Journal. Among other things, I asked if, as presenter of Countrywide, he had “any concerns about having a publication so closely aligned to a major agriculture lobbying organisation sponsoring Countrywide”.

I also pointed out that his weekly IFJ column put him in the “unusual situation of working for and being paid by the company sponsoring Countrywide, the show you present.”

While we are not in any way suggesting that O’Reilly is involved in promoting the IFJ on Countrywide itself, Section 5.2 of the 2020 RTÉ Guidelines for Journalists states: “Our audiences should not be able to tell from our output the private, personal views of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area”.

I asked O’Reilly whether he had any concerns about so publicly airing his “private, personal views” in an area directly relating to his on-air work in RTÉ, via his IFJ column. My final question was: “how do you feel as an RTÉ presenter about stirring up animosity between farmers and environmentalists by repeatedly demonising the latter and claiming to understand their deepest motives and intentions, which are, in your view, apparently invariably malign?”

At the time of going to press, O’Reilly had not responded.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and is a volunteer* with An Taisce’s climate change committee, but writes here in a personal capacity

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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