Breda O’Brien: Guilt is no substitute for climate action

Our joy at sunshine must not blind us to lifestyles that cause agricultural disaster

Government policy has two mutually contradictory aims: to increase the output of what might be called industrial-style farming while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Photograph: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg

Government policy has two mutually contradictory aims: to increase the output of what might be called industrial-style farming while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Photograph: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg

 

You only ever hear about two types of guilt in the media – Catholic guilt and white, liberal guilt. I realised I had invented a whole new type of guilt when a friend reacted with amusement when I gave him my reason for not fully enjoying the heatwave. Farmer’s guilt.

Mind you, my friends and family in Co Waterford would have reacted with amusement, too, but more to the “farmer” part.

I have not lived full-time on a farm in decades and I have lost most of any farming knowledge I once had, squinting at crops, wondering whether they are potatoes and realising that I am no longer sure when Irish potatoes are lifted.

Few people will make the connection between the weather and food price rises or shortages

But even I could not fail to notice the cattle in scorched fields being fed with next winter’s fodder.

Hence, farmer’s guilt – or more accurately, the guilt felt by a daughter of farmers while enjoying sunshine that is causing an agricultural disaster.

I am not the only one losing touch with agriculture. Few people will make the connection between the weather and food price rises or shortages. Food is something that comes from the supermarket.

We are adept at creating imaginary bread shortages during the “Beast from the East” but not at realising the impact of drought on wheat.

We can scarcely understand the impact of water shortages on agriculture in Ireland, much less the impact of water shortages in the rest of the world.

For example, soy, rice, sugar cane, cotton, almonds, pistachios and grapes imported to the EU often come from areas with significant or severe levels of water scarcity.

We are divorced from nature in so many ways. Few of us grow any food of our own and we spend more time looking at screens than we spend looking at the sky.

Generational lore

My father could predict the weather with reasonable accuracy from lore handed down through generations. I had little interest as a child and regret it deeply now.

Even when I was growing up, family farms were under pressure and EU grants were pushing people towards agribusiness rather than farming as a way of life.

As a result, most Irish farms stopped producing vegetables and meat for their own and neighbours’ consumption.

I know many farmers snort at what they perceive as sentimental nostalgia regarding farming, given that economies of scale are necessary in order to make a living.

If I suffer from guilt for enjoying the sunshine while family farms face huge losses, I also suffer from another variant of farmer’s daughter’s guilt. I feel guilty about criticising agricultural practices because I know how hard most farmers work and how difficult it is to make a living.

At a time when so many farmers are already in trouble, it feels disloyal to this farmer’s daughter, almost like joining the “townie” brigade, to point out that our agricultural practices are not sustainable.

The fact remains that after EU quotas were removed in 2015, the rush to enter dairy-farming has resulted in higher greenhouse gas emissions at a time when we desperately need to reduce them.

According to the Climate Change Advisory Council’s annual review this week, we are completely off course to meet climate change targets, in part because greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 from agricultural sources increased by 2.8 per cent relative to 2015.

While the agricultural sector is only one strand of the climate change challenge, it is a significant one. Some 68 per cent of national land cover is agricultural, with four-fifths of that in grassland used to feed dairy and beef cattle. As a result, to a large extent, Ireland’s biodiversity is in the hands of farmers.  

Irish food

Agriculture is responsible for 85 per cent of methane emissions in Ireland because of the dominance of dairy and, to a lesser extent, sheep farming.

Ireland faces massive EU fines if we do not meet climate change targets. Part of the appeal of Irish food internationally is a reputation for being green and unspoiled.

Already a class action suit is being taken against Kerrygold about its claim that Irish butter comes from grass-fed cows. Not meeting climate targets will do even more reputational damage.

Government policy is incoherent because two mutually contradictory aims are in play – to increase the output of what might be called industrial-style farming while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Bizarrely, the State virtually ignores organic farmers, even though the fact that it is labour-intensive brings useful employment to rural areas. Similarly, there are no incentives for renewable energy production on farms, such as using shed roofs for solar panels.

There is also not enough encouragement to choose sustainable agro-forestry, which helps both with taking carbon out of the atmosphere and with biodiversity.

But the rest of us cannot get off scot-free.  We waste one million tonnes of food annually, which is shameful. Most of us could stand to eat more vegetables (locally grown, preferably) and less dairy and meat.

We also need to support our farmers in their commitment to change, especially by paying fair prices for food. While sunshine is wonderful, a deranged climate due to human negligence is not. Guilt is no substitute for action.

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