Irish agriculture energetically markets its products as ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’, at home and abroad. The reality on the ground, however, often belies these words. Only radical changes would justify such claims, as our recent series on agriculture and conservation suggested.
Agriculture has always been recognised as a core element in Irish life. We are much slower to acknowledge its critical impacts on our environment.The relatively recent shift from traditional farming towards industrial-scale agricultural production has benefited rural Ireland through higher incomes and a better lifestyle for many – but not all – farmers. However, the environmental price for this shift has been high and we have failed to register it in our national accounting.
Wetlands have been drained, hedgerows ploughed under, diverse fallowing field systems replaced by intensive monocultural production. Bird and plant species that depended on these habitats have been brought close to extinction.
Attempts have been made to save samples of our rarest ecosystems through Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas. But our National Parks and Wildlife Service has had little support from successive governments in communicating these policies, and utterly inadequate resources to implement them. The burden of such conservation has fallen inequitably on hard-pressed marginal farmers, often caught between conflicting demands from state agencies.
The Burren Life Programme, and the uplands council movement, which have married farming and conservation in marginal areas, should be emulated as national champions. And Bord Bia’s Origin Green campaign, which has raised awareness of environmental costs and benefits among farmers and food producers, needs to be much more rigorous before it is truly a “new contract with nature”. Above all, the impact on our carbon emissions of the FoodWise 2025 plan, which massively boosts diary production, requires very close scrutiny. Future generations depend on all sectors, including agriculture, engaging with the challenge of climate change today, not tomorrow.