Agriculture is now the whipping boy in debate on climate change

Our beef and dairy farmers are among the most efficient in EU when it comes to emissions

Despite average farm incomes being just over €31,000, we are prepared to continue to invest to safeguard the environmental integrity of our farm businesses

Despite average farm incomes being just over €31,000, we are prepared to continue to invest to safeguard the environmental integrity of our farm businesses

 

Significant decisions about the future of farming and food in this country are about to be made. It may be two years away, but the budget for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) after 2020 will be set next month. The outcome will define what our rural economy can achieve out to 2027.

Since 2014, CAP has been responsible for the injection of €12 billion into this country. The most recent Eurobarometer survey indicates a high level of support among the Irish public for CAP in supporting farmers. It reveals that 80 per cent of Irish people, the highest share in the EU, agree that CAP is fulfilling its role in providing safe, healthy food of high quality.

Last November, the EU commissioner for agriculture Phil Hogan published the Food & Farming paper. The document was more about evolution than revolution. While there are concepts to be discussed, the key issue is the budget.

There is a strong argument for a strong CAP budget, with direct payments supporting active farmers, and a well-funded Rural Development Programme. The economic landscape across Europe is far more buoyant compared to 2012 and an increase is justified.

With the shadow of Brexit hanging over the sector, I want to warn against any reduction in the CAP budget as a result of the UK leaving. We’ve heard plenty about a vision for the future of Europe. The rhetoric has to be matched by substance – our European leaders have to step up and provide a strong budget.

They will deliver

During its near 70-year existence CAP has evolved in significant ways, and farmers have adapted with it. The message from farmers at a civil dialogue with Hogan in Kilkenny on Friday will be simple: back farmers and they will deliver a return.

It will happen on a number of fronts, which reflects the multi-functional role of agriculture. Safe, traceable and affordable food produced in a way that respects the environment. And the engine of the economy outside the capital will keep working.

The ongoing weather problems have placed a focus on the way we farm in this country. Some of the commentary has been misplaced and displays a lack of understanding of how food production works.

There’s no doubt that challenges lie ahead, and farmers will not shirk from them. Big questions are being asked of the sector. On climate, a National Policy Position sets out “an approach to carbon neutrality in the agriculture and land-use sector, including forestry, which does not compromise capacity for sustainable food production”.

On water quality, agriculture is also highlighted as being the sector which most often causes pressures to “at-risk” river and lake water bodies.

Farming will always have the largest environmental impact given that we farm over 70 per cent of the land area of Ireland. However, in some respects agriculture has become the whipping boy in the debate on climate change. EPA figures show that the agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 3.5 per cent since 1990, while our overall emissions have increased 10.4 per cent, driven mainly by increases in the transport sector of 139 per cent.

Environmental aspects

Carbon emissions from households here are the highest in Europe. By contrast, our beef and dairy farmers are among the most efficient in the EU when it comes to emissions.

There is a solid basis to build upon. Nine out of 10 measures which are part of our Rural Development Plan contain environmental aspects. However, we are committed to further action. A sustainable future is about aligning environmental responsibility with economic and social sustainability.

This is what resource efficiency means and what smart farming is all about – making a difference to the bottom line, which then leads to positive impacts on the wider countryside.

Despite average farm incomes being just over €31,000, we are prepared to continue to invest to safeguard the environmental integrity of our farm businesses.

The outputs of the 2017 Smart Farming Programme are impressive, exceeding the target reduction in emissions and achieving higher returns for farmers.

While CAP continues to deliver for European citizens, who enjoy safe, high-quality and affordable food, it also continues to deliver for the environment. Enhanced environmental protection and investment on farms is contingent on a fairer return from the market place and an agriculture sector that is economically sustainable.

Agriculture has ambitions, not just to produce food, but to do so in a sustainable manner. The CAP framework can point the way, and farmers are determined to make it happen.

Joe Healy is president of the Irish Farmers Association

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