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Ireland’s cheap food policy has left farmers dependent on imported fertiliser and animal feedstuff — INHFA

The “cheap food policy” that much of agriculture’s economic activity is built on is “no longer fit for purpose”, and has “driven specialisation over diversification” because of low returns, according to the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA).

In its contribution to a recently-published report — ‘Rural Ireland on the move: farm diversification and just transition’ — the INHFA said that when assessing proposals around a ‘just transition’ with regard to climate change and biodiversity loss, it is “vital “ that it is balanced with the need to ensure sufficient food supply.

The INHFA said that on the establishment of the common market, food security was a “major factor”, and that farmers were supported through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to produce food.

“However, as time passed, the emphasis of this focus initially changed to produce cheap food and from the mid-1990s on we saw an increasing emphasis on protecting our environment.”

With regard to the “cheap food policy” that has been pursued from the mid-1970s, the “thinking, and indeed policy was the production of cheap food which helps create more disposable income for the general population”.

The INHFA said that we are now “at a crossroads”.

“While many have pointed to the need to address climate change and biodiversity loss as key priorities, we must recognise that there is a cost to deliver on these,” the INHFA said.

This cost must be properly assessed, and just as important we must establish how we pay for it.

“While most people accept the fact that there is a cost to addressing climate change and biodiversity loss, what most don’t want to accept is that they will have to pay for it.”

The organization said that “unfortunately”, European and Irish public representatives have “failed in their responsibilities to explain to their people that they will have to do with less” and that it is “much easier to blame someone else”.

“Over the last number of years, many have pointed to the role of agriculture in our overall emissions, however, the crisis in Ukraine has brought home to everyone the importance of food production,” the INHFA said.

“What it has also revealed is that the cheap food policy that much of our economic activity is built on is no longer fit for purpose.

“This policy has driven specialisation over diversification because the returns are too low.

“It has left us dependent on imported fertiliser and animal feedstuff, and for farmers, it has taken a heavy toll in terms of farm accidents and deaths.”

Time to change

Because of all this, the INHFA said it is “time to change”, and that this change will “involve a significant increase in the price of food and a new land-use policy”.

“A higher food price will more people to consider farming as a viable option while also providing them with the opportunity to diversify and ensure adequate resources to protect the environment,” the INHFA encourage added.

“This can also help deliver on food security across Ireland and the EU, and reduce the dependency on imported feedstuffs by creating markets at home.”

The INHFA added that it must be ensured that policy concerning CAP “doesn’t see more land taken out of food production”.

Meanwhile, in its contribution to the report, the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association (ICMSA) said that it has “serious concerns” in relation to the implementation of a ‘just transition’ in agriculture, saying that it has “not worked to date , the midlands being a good example”.

“The reality is that communities in the midlands have been left behind with no alternative sources of employment put in place,” the ICMSA said.

“In relation to agriculture, it has to be recognised the key role played by farming in terms of food production, with the Ukrainian crisis bringing this fact into sharp focus.”

Irish farmers are food producers, amongst the most sustainable in the world, and climate policy will simply have to recognise the unique position of food producers in this regard.

The ICMSA said it believes that a just transition should focus on incentivising the sector to improve its carbon efficiency through such measures of the Teagasc Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (MACC), and that “due recognition” must be given to the issue of carbon leakage, “which continues to be ignored by policymakers but is a very real reality in terms of climate change”.

In relation to diversification, the ICMSA said that since the MacSharry reform in 1992, diversification has been “promoted and debated”.

However, the ICMSA said: “The reality that while niche diversification options have been successful for a small number of farmers, there are no diversification options that will deliver an income to a large number of farmers comparable with incomes in other sectors of the economy , and comparable with current farm production systems in Ireland.”

“With the removal of CAP incentives, farmers responded to world market prices by becoming efficient in their decided enterprise, this meant specialisation and grown of scale,” the ICMSA said.

“Ireland has sensibly specialized in ruminant production due to our advantage in grass-based systems.

“If’s agriculture is to diversify, resources must be Ireland to ensure viability of farming production in Ireland.”

Retail price must reflect cost

Central to this, the ICMSA argued, would be a retail price that would reflect the cost of production.

“Current policies on diversification are doomed to fail, for example, organic farming is currently being supported strongly but the reality is that there is not a market for organics that will consistently return a sustainable price to the farmer,” the ICMSA said.

“In fact, the current policy could do enormous damage to existing organic farmers and the returns they receive from the marketplace.

“Diversification options that will deliver a viable income from farming are extremely limited.”

The ICMSA added that there is no farming sector that “can generate the same return” as dairy farming.

“Land type and climate dictates that grass-based systems are the most efficient economic and environmental farming models in Ireland and this needs to be recognised,” the organization added.

Bridget Murphy of farming organization Talamh Beo said in the report that for a just transition to be a just transition in agriculture, “we need the foundation upon which it is built to be just”.

That means equality. Equality in access to resources, equality in distribution of CAP direct payments,” Ms Murphy said.

The system we are transitioning away from is inherently unjust and this needs to be remedied.

She said that equality is also relevant to the contribution of those “currently excluded from the table of stakeholders”.

“The transition of our food and farming system is being discussed in the absence of farming women, and in the absence of agroecological farmers,” she added.

“Given agroecology and women have a role to play in a future with food and seed sovereignty, they must be part of the process to define that role.”

Ms Murphy said that within the discussion on food security, “we need to start with the question of what food we are producing, and how we are producing it”.

“We also need to talk about the quality of the food we produce,” she said.

“It makes no sense to vast quantities of nutrient-deficient food and then waste half of it, while we produce the natural resource base we depend on to produce the food — namely the soil,” she said.

Soil security

“A key to maintaining global food security is fixing regenerating and then nurturing our soils.

“Soil security is food security.”

She said that with the current focus on the war in Ukraine and the shortage and high cost of chemical fertilisers, “now it would be the right time to transition away” from chemical fertilisers, and “towards regenerating soils — breaking the addiction”.

The report was published by ARC2020, the Center for Co-operative Studies at University College Cork (UCC), Cultivate, and the Cloughjordan Ecovillage.

The report looks at how a just transition is progressing so far in rural Ireland, and reviews the potential for agricultural and rural diversification in a just transition to a carbon-neutral society.

The report says that “constantly assessing and reassessing” elements of Ireland’s agri-food system will be “critical” as Ireland’s “exposure to fertiliser and feed markets bites”, along with climate targets becoming “harder to achieve”.

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