Farmers make great advances in protecting environment

 

THE Environmental Protection Agency's "State of the Environment" study has focused a lot of attention on the impact of modern Irish agriculture on the environment.

The description of agricultural activities as "the chief threat to landscape and wildlife" totally overstated the case and ignores great strides in environmental protection that have been made in our industry.

The EPA report is an impressive and valuable document which resents a picture of a high quality Irish environment which must be protected and cherished. As a farmer I understand more than most that the future of my business and my industry depends on a clean, healthy environment.

Despite some negative comment, the report does acknowledge the positive action that has been taken by farmers.

Indeed the overall conclusion off the report is: "The quality of the Irish environment is good and compares favourably with other States in the EU."

An upsurge in fish kills in the 1980s was substantially reduced, which reflected the "vigorous response by relevant authorities and by farmers."

Gross investment totalling over £500 million was made in pollution control facilities on Irish farms in, the period up to 1993. Much of the investment under the current Structural Funds Programme for agriculture is in pollution control.

Over 18,500 farmers have applied to participate in the scheme, which indicates their commitment to environmental protection.

And the scheme has been suspended for new applicants since April 1995 due to this unprecedented farmer demand.

As a key export driven sector, Irish agriculture and the Irish food industry have transformed themselves over the last 40 years, but particularly since Ireland's entry into the EEC.

This has been achieved by farmers adopting the best technologies of the time as recommended by the farm advisory service (now Teagasc), and through massive capital investment in land reclamation and improvement, in buildings and machinery and in our national breeding herd, which is now at an all time high.

Some 40 years ago this country was barely able to feed its population. Farmers consumed 30 per cent of their output feeding their own families.

In the early 1950s Irish milk production was 240 million gallons, or about the same as one of our major co ops today. We imported nearly 5,000 tonnes of butter, and also bacon and other products.

Forty years ago an Irish firmer produced sufficient food for seven people. Today a modern Irish farmer is feeding 40 to 50 people - a sevenfold increase in productivity.

The report highlights eutrophication, or enrichment, of lakes and streams, and targets agricultural wastes and local authority sewage as the main culprits.

It is inaccurate to describe animal manure merely as waste. It provides a valuable source of nutrients for crops which is recycled by farmers each year back into the soil.

Nitrogen and phosphorus in "artificial" fertiliser and animal manures are cited as major causes of eutrophication. Farmers have built up the nutrient status of Irish soils from very low levels in the early 1960s to levels which should now be seen as a valuable national asset.

Irish farming is changing from concentrating solely on higher output to achieving optimum efficiency of production while protecting the environment. Advice from State agencies giving farmers revised fertiliser recommendations are only now coming on stream.

Nutrient management planning, where the nutrient content of animal manures is fully taken into account in meeting crop growth requirements, will also play an important role in achieving greater efficiencies and environmental protection.

Farmers, and the IFA, are committed to this approach as demonstrated by the participation of 13,000 farmers in the Rural Environmental Protection Scheme (REPS), which has been in place for just under two years - far too early to assess fairly its impact on the rural environment.

Overgrazing of limited areas of mountains in the west of Ireland is a very serious issue. The REPS scheme has been further adjusted to tackle the worst affected areas.

However, additional special measures are required and the IFA has led the way in putting forward proposals to resolve the problem.

Indeed, the association is now in discussions with the Departments of Agriculture and Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht to achieve a solution.