No farmer will be told to stop farming or to reduce the number of animals they have, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has reaffirmed.
As the industry awaits an emissions reduction target of between 22% and 30% to be set in the near future, Mr Varadkar said that “everything that’s sensible” must be done to achieve what is set.
“We’ll do everything we can achieve them – but not to the extent that it results in reduction in the amount of food we produce,” he told reporters at the Fine Gael special conference on agriculture and rural development in Tullamore on Saturday.
“That would make no sense at all in a world where there are more people that need to be fed every day.
“And not in a way that causes people to lose their jobs or causes poverty increase, that’s not what we want to achieve at all.
“Nobody is going to be told their car is going to be confiscated; Nobody is going to be told their factory is going to be shut down; no inward investor that wants to invest in Ireland is going to be told they’re not welcome; and no farmer is going to be told to stop farming or to reduce the number of cattle they have or animals they have.”
He told the conference that a lot of farmers “feel that they’re being climate-shamed and being made to feel bad for the work that they do and the job that they have”.
“That’s totally wrong. Nobody should be climate-shamed, and we’re not going to get anything done in climate action if people feel that way,” Mr Varadkar said.
However, he added: “The sector being asked for the lowest reduction in emissions is the agriculture sector, not the highest.
“We need to be honest with ourselves about that, and the reason why we’re asking for the lowest contribution from the agriculture sector is for a very good reason – because it is so important, it is about food production, it is essential to rural Ireland.
“It’s going to be hard for everyone. I don’t how we’re going to get a 50% reduction from industry and if we can’t get a 50% reduction from industry, we’re not going to be shutting down pharmaceutical plants or we’re not going to be telling businesses to shut their doors.
“The same applies to agriculture.”
Eddie Punch of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association told Mr Varadkar that while a party in Government has a lot of obligations on a global level, “sometimes that can lead to a party becoming detached from the feeling and interests of people on the ground “.
“I think that when it comes to climate change, there’s a sense in rural Ireland that too much is about the shortcomings, too much is about penalising, too much is anti-livestock agriculture,” Mr Punch said.
“The reality is that there are many solutions that rural Ireland can supply. But we’re not feeling that and we’re not hearing it on the ground. We have a sense that while big business is important for Ireland, foreign direct investment is important for Ireland, smaller businesses are not given the same concern.”
He added that the message farmers are getting from Europe is “livestock bad, plant-based good”, which is “toxic to rural Ireland”.
Mr Varadkar responded: “We believe in climate action, we know that the planet is sick and suffering, and we need to act but we want to be the party that is not ideological about it.
“We want to be the party that brings people with us, including farmers and rural communities, and we want to be the party that takes practical action and makes a difference that reduces our emissions, but not in a way that causes job losses or increases poverty or damages people’s standard of living or causes division in our country.”
He also told the conference that Government must examine the prospect of introducing a pension for women who work on farms, and to ensure “their work is properly recognised”.
“One of my proudest moments as minister for social protection was bringing in paternity benefit and paid paternity leave for men, and I still get letters and DMs and Tweets today from people thanking us for that special time off that dads now get with their kids when they’re born,” Mr Varadkar said.
“We extended maternity leave and maternity benefit as well. We do reasonably well in Ireland when you look at the number of months that you get paid, we don’t do so well in terms of the amount you get.
“We just pay a flat amount per week, whereas in other countries a bit like the PUP it’s linked to how much you earned before and I’d be in favor of moving towards that model.”
However, he said, for women on farms, “what’s slightly more tricky is that all these things are linked to PRSI”.
“We had this issue before as well with the contributing pension and the traditional breadwinner model was even though the woman might be doing much of the work, the income was put through the man’s account and it was the man who paid PRSI and the woman who didn’t and I think we need to look at that and try and change that as well.
“We have made some changes to properly recognise women who were in a caring role so that they get a contributing pension and I think we need to examine that as well for women on the farm to make sure that they get it too and their work is properly recognised.”
Mr Varadkar told the conference that a “real priority” for the party ahead of the next election will be to gain back seats that were lost in rural constituencies.
Meanwhile, Martin Heydon told the conference that a “viable future” must be delivered on for farmers and the wider rural community.
“We’ve always recognised and valued the role of food in society – we’ve become world-renowned as a food-producing island,” he said.
“Our agricultural industry is capable of feeding a population many multiples of our own.
“Every day, millions of people around the world consume food produced on these shores.
“That is something we should be immensely proud of.
“The world population is continuing to grow, and world food production will have to follow suit. We will have to find ways to feed more people with even more limited resources.”
He told the conference that in grass, Ireland has a “natural competitive advantage in producing a low-cost inedible feed and converting that to some of the highest quality and nutrient-dense food in the world”.
“This is further complemented by the diverse range of agricultural sectors we have here in Ireland,” he continued.
“If we are to further enhance food security, we must produce food in parts of the world where it is most suitable.
“But we must also do so within planetary boundaries.
“Farmers are more connected to the environment and the land than anyone else – they are the solution, not the problem.
“People speak about a transformation of the agricultural sector as if it is something that farmers will do in the near future or when they are pushed to do so.
“What they fail to realise is that farmers are already on that journey, we are seeing the adoption of new practices and techniques across hundreds and thousands of farms the length and breadth of this country on a daily basis.”
He said, however, that each change “takes time” to implement at farm level, along with “time to demonstrate an impact at a national level as they spread to more and more farms”.
“I am a firm believer in the power of one, and that we can achieve so much more working together for a common goal than by setting people against each other and finger-pointing,” Mr Heydon added.