Opinion: Farm inspection necessary to maintain quality

It is essential that everyone in farming is seen to be complying with best standards

 

We hate “snoops” in this country and it is no surprise then that farmers detest the regular inspections carried out on them – particularly if financial penalties are the result.

Over recent decades, farmers are increasingly inspected to ensure they are complying with a raft of rules and regulations. They loathe the “army of farm police” who visit them – and especially the spy in the sky which takes computer images of their land.

Farmers are subjected to these inspections for various reasons. Some ensure they are observing the restrictions on the use of fertilisers. Others are to ascertain that information they supplied for EU and national payments is accurate. They are also inspected to see that safety regulations are being observed. Checks are carried out to make sure that feed and food hygiene is being maintained, and that animals are properly identified and registered.

To most outsiders the reasons for these inspections are perfectly sensible. The use of fertilisers has been a controversial issue for decades because of the potential for damage to watercourses in the event of spillages. It’s perfectly reasonable too that the EU and the Government know there is compliance with various subsidy schemes which pay out €1.7 billion to farmers here every year.

With the horrific annual toll of farm fatalities, it is also desirable that the safety authorities seek to reduce the number of accidents. Following the costly outbreaks of BSE and foot and mouth disease, the identity of each animal should, of course, be instantly verifiable.

In total, 13,000 holdings were inspected last year under various schemes. Many of these visits are mandatory under EU rules. Some of the farms are selected on a random basis, others identified on risk analysis criteria.

Now the IFA is calling for the inspection system to be simplified in a more farmer-friendly manner. This follows a report in the Irish Farmers Journal indicating that penalties resulting from inspections have increased by 500 per cent in the last four years. Total penalties jumped from just €780,000 in 2009 to €4.7 million in 2012.

One in three farmers inspected under the nitrates regulations last year received a penalty or deduction to their Single Farm Payment. One in five farmers inspected was penalised under the requirement to keep land in good agricultural and environmental condition. Thirty-five per cent of the 6,500 farmers inspected for “land eligibility” were docked for issues such as over- declaration or the removal of landscape features.

Although the amount of the penalties is small relative to the money paid out to farmers, they would naturally be happier if no deductions were made at all, especially when they often have to work on low incomes and in difficult conditions.

Application forms for payments are extremely detailed, painstaking to complete and errors are easily made.

Farmers view the inspections as extremely bureaucratic, sometimes involving hundreds of questions. Inspectors from different agencies may visit the same farms. While farmers get prior notice for many inspections, some of them are unannounced such as the checks on animal welfare.

The Department of Agriculture agrees that the inspections can be stressful for farmers. But it insists these are carried out in a professional, non-biased manner and that difficulties encountered by farmers – such as adverse weather – are taken into consideration. The department says it tries to integrate inspections to avoid visiting a farm more than once, and that many on-the-ground inspections are not required as the information needed is verified by remote satellite sensing.

However, it is not only the IFA that is complaining. Labour Senator Lorraine Higgins recently said farmers dread these inspections and are sometimes afraid to stand up for their rights for fear of detrimental action being taken against them.


Duplication of inspections
Farm inspection is likely to be a big issue in the IFA presidential election campaign in the autumn. Current leader John Bryan said farmers are incensed at the increase in penalties and he called for fewer inspections, greater tolerance of unintentional errors and reduced penalties.

Some of the proposals are eminently sensible such as the elimination of duplication of inspections by different bodies. But it is difficult to envisage the introduction of a more lax inspection regime as demanded by Mr Bryan. It is widely acknowledged that the lack of appropriate supervisory practices, so-called “light touch” regulation, contributed significantly to Ireland’s economic collapse five years ago.

The EU too is determined to justify its spending and must be seen to eliminate any semblance of financial fraud or malpractice, not to mention any further scandals in the food chain.

The myriad of inspections, however difficult and inconvenient for the farming community, serve as a reassurance to the rest of us that the food we eat is produced safely, and that water quality and the environment are being looked after.

The tight running of agriculture also helps to promote the export of Irish food with the “farm to fork” safety assurances.

Inspectors are not welcomed with open arms anywhere. We always trembled when the cigire visited our school, and the auditor is often despised in business. Checks and balances are required in all systems.

At the same time, nobody should feel intimidated nowadays in the workplace be it office, industry or farm. Certainly procedures for farm inspections must be straightforward and realistic, and farmers should not be penalised disproportionately.

But it is in their long-term interests that everyone in their business is seen to be complying with the best standards of farming and integrity.