The piece below ran in the Farming Independent in early September. It started out life as a rebuttal of a recent piece by a Findo columnist and dairy farmer, which did a lot of indignant huffing and puffing about an An Taisce press release highlighting escalating levels of dangerous ammonia air pollution as a result of Irish dairy herd expansion and intensification. I opted instead to pitch a (short) piece to the regular farmers out there, many of whom no doubt do genuinely care about pollution, climate change, sustainability and the collapse of biodiversity, and who must wonder why those claiming to speak for farmers so often carry on as if nature were the enemy, rather than the most vital ally of farming.
A LINE IN THE musical Oklahoma! posed the thorny question: could the farmer and the cow-man ever get along? ‘One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow, but that’s no reason why they can’t be friends’.
These days, you could ask the same question about farmers and environmentalists. Behind the constant sniping, I believe we all want the same thing: a thriving, sustainable agri sector, where farmers get a fair price for healthy, low carbon produce and where nature also wins.
Can we also agree it’s not ok for billionaire agri food and meat conglomerates to destroy the living planet for so-called cheap food.
As a farmer’s son, it was drilled into me from an early age that it’s us farmers against the world. That was then. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, nobody imagined the climate system itself could one day fail, and that Irish farmers might be helping drive this disaster.
While I truly wish it weren’t the case, climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse are now almost upon us. On current emissions trajectory, up to three billion humans may be forced to abandon their homelands due to extreme heat by 2070. Where will all these people go?
This is the terrifying near-future our kids and grandkids will inherit. Like it or not, how we farm in Ireland is a part of the problem.
Our oversized beef and dairy sectors produce as much emissions as 20 million Africans. As for ‘Origin Green’, that’s pure marketing guff; there is nothing magically efficient or clean about Irish agriculture.
Nor is it just greenhouse gases. Huge increases in fertilizer usage in the last decade have seen emissions rise, and Irish water and air quality plummet. And, rather than feeding the world, Ireland is a major net importer of food calories, according to the UN FAO.
We import huge amounts of essential foods, such as potatoes, onions, carrots, cabbages, tomatoes and apples. We also import millions of tonnes of animal feeds and chemical fertilizers, and much of the grain we do grow is fed to animals.
As in our past, what will matter most in the future is having enough food to fill our bellies. After all, the ultimate purpose of agriculture was always to feed people, not farm animals.
As the insects and birds disappear, rivers die, icecaps melt and our seas are choked in plastic, so the ecological crisis deepens every day. By dint of the land they occupy, farmers have a massive influence on the natural world, for good or for ill.
So, can the farmer and the environmentalist be friends? I’d like to think so. It starts with mutual understanding – and respect. Environmentalists need to better grasp the challenges farmers face and to be strong champions for diverse, locally produced, organic food.
And crucially, farmers increasingly recognise that the last decade’s strategy of agri-intensification benefits big businesses but at a terrible price to nature and climate, and to many farm livelihoods. We can and we must do better. Let’s do it together.
John Gibbons is volunteer PRO for An Taisce’s Climate Committee and writes here in a personal capacity.