By Caroline Hurley.
This Sunday 21 November, the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) is spearheading another grinding Dublin city rally with tractors and machinery, one of a series to spotlight inadequate funding, and lack of government engagement with farmers’ leaders about changes in the Common Agricultural Policy. Farmers are a diverse bunch though, not uniformly represented by one voice, with a growing number welcoming measures they feel should have pertained all along.
‘Around ten million farms employing about twenty-two million workers make the EU one of the world’s leading agri-food producers and net exporters’
The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is undergoing another round of reforms.
The EU budget agreement has provided for a total CAP funding for Ireland of €7.4 billion over the 5-year period from 2023 to 2027. The funding is split between Pillar 1 (direct payments and sectoral interventions including 25% for eco-schemes – €5.9 billion) and Pillar II (Rural Development including LEADER programmes – €1.56 billion).
The Department of Agriculture (DAFM) has been translating the latest EU schemes into Ireland’s own CAP Strategic Plan 2023-2027 (CSP) for Irish farmers, still in its stranglehold despite environmental and climate measures gaining more purchase, especially with the passing of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2021 and Plan. Climate budgets for the period up to 2030 have just been allocated by the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC), seeking a paltry 21% to 30% reduction in emissions for the agriculture sector.
‘Professor John Sweeney of Maynooth University warns that expecting other sectors of society to make up for agriculture’s future deficit in curbing carbon could become an unbearable burden especially given the key impact of lifestock-created methane’
Professor John Sweeney of Maynooth University warns that expecting other sectors of society to make up for agriculture’s future deficit in curbing carbon could become an unbearable burden especially given the key impact of lifestock-created methane. Ireland’s alleged superior efficiency in dairy and beef production and agriculture’s unique economic place, are among counter-arguments cited. CCAC recommended cuts of between 11% to 19% cannot happen without mass mobilisation and conscious behaviour changes.
Meanwhile at COP26 have just pledged to cut emissions 30% by 2030.
On 20 October, after negotiations, analyses and public consultations, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue T.D. announced almost 30% increases in overall CSP funding, to rise to €9.8 billion in the 2023-2027 period, along with indicative allocations that would increase funding for Pillar II issues to €3.86 billion with €2.3 billion extra national funding provided. €723m of carbon tax funding has been earmarked for sustainable farming practices through a flagship agri-environment climate measure.
Donning the CAP
The CAP evolved from the European Recovery Plan (ERP), lasting from 1948-1952 in Ireland and bankrolled through the American Marshall Plan during the precarious post-World War Two era. Eamon de Valera’s economic policy had stressed self-sufficiency using indigenous resources, in opposition to the globalising vision of larger world powers.
During the precarious post-World War Two era. Eamon de Valera’s economic policy had stressed self-sufficiency using indigenous resources, in opposition to the globalised vision of larger world powers. Discouraging insularity, the Keynesian Marshall Plan Plan unevenly funded sixteen European countries with the proviso they would take the technical and economic advice given. According to Professor Bernadette Whelan “the Marshall Plan’s focus on public-private partnership, trade liberalisation, freeing up intra-European payments and trade, market organisation and financial stability were its most enduring legacy reinforcing to-day’s dominant neo-liberal economic ideology”.
A seminal essay by Professor JL Sadie, ‘The Social Anthropology of Economic Development’ published in the 1960 Economic Journal, noted:
“Economic development of an undeveloped people by themselves is not compatible with the maintenance of their traditional customs and mores. A break with the latter is prerequisite to economic progress…What is, therefore, required amounts to social disorganisation. Unhappiness and discontentment in the sense of wanting more than is obtainable at any moment is to be generated. The suffering and dislocation that may be caused in the process may be objectionable, but it appears to be the price that has to be paid for economic development: the condition of economic progress”.
‘When high wages and time-shortages prevail, the economic advantages of engaging in sustainable local practices are reduced’
When energy is scarce but time and labour abundant, people readily employ Schumacherian ‘small is beautiful’ methods, cultivating organically for local markets, building with earth and natural materials, and rejecting industrial campaigns. When high wages and time-shortages prevail, the economic advantages of engaging in sustainable local practices are reduced.
The communal, physical work involved in land-care is usually inaccurately disparaged as unskilled labour but can be highly dignified and creative. Despite the health, social and self-actualisation gains associated with rural occupations, the proportion of a population engaged in agriculture has come to be taken as a measure of how underdeveloped a country is. The CAP has played a big part in fostering this perspective.
CAP’s Warp and Woof
After the Treaty of Rome established the EEC in 1957, the CAP was launched in 1962 to ensure food continuity under uncertainty and to address rural poverty. Managed by the European Commission’s Department for Agriculture and Rural Development, it became the EU’s biggest and most costly programme. Intended for farmers in all EU countries, the CAP cost €58 billion in 2019. The CAP’s two budget funds are the European agricultural guarantee fund (EAGF) for direct and market payments, and the European agricultural fund for rural development (EAFRD).
‘The CAP cost €58 billion in 2019. The CAP’s two budget funds are the European agricultural guarantee fund (EAGF) for direct and market payments, and the European agricultural fund for rural development (EAFRD)’
The CAP allocates direct income support for wage regulation, intervenes in markets to address situations such as price drops due to temporary oversupply, and funds rural development. Payments are managed at national level.
Around ten million farms employing about twenty-two million workers make the EU one of the world’s leading agri-food producers and net exporters.
The farming and food sectors together account for nearly forty million EU jobs. While environmentally sustainable farming has entered the CAP narrative, permitted persistence of land abuse demolishes this message.
Though agriculture emits 34% of Ireland’s greenhouse gases, Ireland’s greenwashing policy, Food Vision 2030, is plugging a hefty 50% increase in livestock and dairy exports.
Stated CAP aims are to:
• support farmers and improve agricultural productivity, ensuring a stable supply of affordable food;
• safeguard a reasonable living for European Union farmers;
• help tackle climate change and the sustainable management of natural resources;
• maintain rural areas and landscapes across the EU, and
• keep the rural economy alive by promoting jobs in farming, agri-foods industries and associated sectors.
The European Court of Auditors’ report of June 2021 concluded that €100 billion of CAP climate action funds were spent on low-potential mitigation measures that made “little impact” on greenhouse gas emissions, and it made elementary recommendations. Drastic changes are needed so that, as, Holly Cairns advocated in her astute July 2021 Village article, “all schemes and payments [are] meaningfully focused on promoting practices that address the climate and biodiversity crises”. Otherwise, the revised vision, in its totality, may be no better than its predecessor.
The CAP has undergone significant reforms every decade from the 1990s. The EU’s 2018 legislative proposals for the future of the CAP attempted to simplify processes while embracing sustainability indicators to comply with the European Green Deal. More attention was to be paid to performance and delivery, and to Phil Hogan’s new Green Architecture supporting environmental improvements, under one plan uniting Pillar I (direct payments and sectoral interventions) and Pillar II (rural development), as referenced in CSP.
The new eco-scheme is replacing the green low-carbon agri-environment schemes (GLAS) and the results-based agri-environment pilot schemes (REAPS) to run alongside the basic income support for sustainability (BISS), the complementary redistributive income support for sustainability (CRISS) and other elements. 50,000 farmers could earn up to €10,000 each during this five-year programme.
All farmers must theoretically apply statutory management requirements (SMRS) set out in EU directives on habitat standards e.g. sustainable use of pesticides, crop rotation and preservation of sensitive grassland, watercourse protection and pollinator care. Considered results-based payments, agri-environmental and climate measures (AECM) refer to multi-annual, fixed rates for prescribed measures including agroforestry, riparian care and tree-planting. Intensive farmers tend to resent any outlay for imputed ‘armchair’ farmers sitting on ‘high nature value’ land. But as the fossil fuel sector enjoys beefy EU subsidies, why not GhG-mitigating land-workers? Scope to reduce the eco-scheme budget, low level of take-up, and possible clawbacks for two-year derogation options, concern the Irish Environmental Network (IEN) who strongly prefers optimum signup for climate funds.
To address entitlement and other inequalities, the CSP Regulation assures payment redistribution to boost smaller holdings, provides €35 million annually to support young farmers (cut-off at forty), and confronts the protein deficit. CRISS direct payments will be front-loaded for each farm’s first 30ha, to benefit more smaller farmers as urged by the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA), who had already been calling for a basic income for farmers.
CSP includes multi-stakeholder measures such as more sequestration and carbon removal to improve biodiversity and water quality, and meet national and EU climate and environmental targets.
Three main elements undergird the new “Green Architecture” – a conditional baseline level of climate ambition for all farmers receiving direct CAP payments; non-productive features to account for at least 4% of qualifying area, and a new Eco-Scheme open to all active farmers and attracting 25% of direct payment funding (approximately €297 million per annum).
Eco-schemes are applied for along with BISS and CRISS. Considering farmers often got green certificates and payments for extractive toxic practices and rarely for resilient rewilding and regenerative practices, as long warned about by nature-identified groups like Birdwatch, progress cannot be taken for granted. Pillar II interventions guide farmers toward climate-friendly behaviour too as modelled by locally-led European innovation partnerships (EIPs), which have been awarded €36.1 million.
The suckler carbon efficiency scheme, the new dairy beef welfare and suckler calf efficiency/welfare programmes may improve breeds and prevent unhealthy practices, but they have farmers up in arms, so much so these schemes are being reviewed. Hardly eco-schemes, many farmers denounce them as stunts. With about 900,000 suckler cattle on Irish farms, a number steadily falling, the need to limit those herds would be easier to accept if also applied to the 1.6 million dairy cows, a number instead in process of being substantially increased.
Mitigation technologies such as breeding gains, earlier slaughter, feed additives, protected urea, low-emission slurry spreading (LESS), better storage and machinery, as Teagasc’s marginal abatement cost curve (MACC) programme proposes, may not be enough. Some suspect the dairy sector is deliberately breeding more calves for the dry-stock beef sector, using sexed semen and enhanced genetics, thereby threatening the progressively under-compensated suckler business. Eligibility requirements for the sheep improvement schemes, such as Ram level 4-5 genotyping, are meant to improve flock welfare and raise meat quality. Payments across five years of €180m for sucklers, €100m for sheep, and €50m for straw incorporation, intended to improve organic soil quality, look after the immediate future. Dissatisfaction remains regarding low product prices.
The protein aid scheme addresses rising imports of high-protein feed, including genetically-modified soya from the Amazon Rainforest, by incentivising farmers to produce their own animal foodstuffs, which also builds carbon back into soil for holistic farming. Annual funding is being increased from €4m to €7m. Well-designed animal-based systems can function much better than badly-designed plant systems which inflict environmental harm through heavy ploughing, fertiliser use, long-distance transport and distribution.
‘A fivefold funding increase for organic farming, to €256 million, was announced, along with an ambition for 7.5 % farmland to be organically farmed. Irish people have been consuming less than 2% food labelled organic compared with the European organic average of 35%’
A fivefold funding increase for organic farming, to €256 million, was announced, along with an ambition for 7.5 % farmland to be organically farmed. Irish people have been consuming less than 2% food labelled organic compared with the European organic average of 35%. Prices are also low by European standards. This CAP offers a good opportunity for catching up in line with the Farm to Fork Strategy. Most organic farmers are currently registered with the DAFM and an approved Organic Control Body, and qualify for Eco-Schemes. A five-year formula for new organic farmers is being assumed: two years to convert land for certification and three years of full payments. Among issues to be weighed up are chemical-free value, exports spoiling organic credentials, and carbon and regenerative potentials.
Long-awaited plans to expand the national apiculture programmes are now possible with €600,000 dedicated. Additional funding for areas of natural constraint (ANCs) total €1,250 million and will benefit almost 100,000 farmers, subject to minimum stocking and keeping land in good agricultural and environmental condition. An initiative supporting better gender balance, backed by IEN and about half of farmers, seems shelved for now, mirrored by farming board imbalances. Knowledge transfer schemes received €71.1 million. There’s €100 million for on-farm investment items (previously TAMS), to be amplified by rural development plan monies. Overall, the focus is turning to environmental elements. Implementation will be the real test.
‘The European Court of Auditors report of June 2021 concluded that €100 billion of CAP climate action funds were spent on low-potential mitigation measures that made “little impact” on greenhouse gas emissions’
All CAP and No Cattle?
‘IEN supports long-promised income-convergence measures, whereby smaller and younger farmers are paid more, mainly through upfront payments under CRISS, until they converge by 2026’
IEN supports long-promised income-convergence measures, whereby smaller and younger farmers are paid more, mainly through upfront payments under CRISS, until they converge by 2026. The EU deducts 10% from everyone to achieve this redistribution. Convergence is a move towards fairness, and timely – as smaller farmers are less environmentally destructive. Overall farming community support for convergence is split about even.
Some fear administration costs. Big farmers especially take advantage of all schemes. As devoutly industrial conventional farmers are competitive, against partnering, and resent giving to smaller players, treating all as united to achieve sustainable food production seems challenging. Small farmers and traditional co-operatives which are often in debt and operating at losses exacerbated by regulatory compliance, have often been squeezed out.
CSP’s requirement that non-productive features must account for 4% plus of eligible areas introduces a significant emphasis on nature value, although IEN looked for 30% plus to be allowed. How this rule plays out in practice matters. Counting areas previously excluded, such as scrub, rush-land and wetlands on land amenable to some farming, expands the eligible area. As so-called ‘licences to burn’ have been granted to farmers by DAFM for removal of ‘non-productive’ but richly biodiverse corners, ditches, hedges, stubble and heather cover, to meet CAP eligibility, contributing to disasters such as the Killarney National Park fire last April, the new definition of non-productive is crucial, as is the stipulation that land-damage disqualifies.
Forestry payments still languish, inciting SEEFA protests, despite a small tree-planting requirement per eligible hectare.
It is unclear if the many upland farmers holding a much higher proportion of unproductive commonage will miss out, unless it’s classed as priority habitat by other means e.g. Natura 2000 criteria for “environmentally sensitive” sites, of which, scandalously, Ireland has the fewest in Europe. Huge amounts of greenhouse gases are released when draining to create farmland, and damage done counteracts eco-scheme and carbon-sequestration goals. There should be proper transparency on environmental impact assessment screening of drainage for rural restructuring.
As food system officials measure, audit, inspect and advise, fragmenting farmers’ routines, social sustainability is an important consideration. Climate training, not high-level but specific to each farm, or at least farm type, and to geographic area, is essential to help many farmers understand the environmental consequences of intensive farming: information downplayed in agricultural colleges.
The farm advisory services (FAS) need to get fit for purpose.David Ross and Ruth Little’s research paper,, ‘Engaging ‘harder to reach’ farmers; the roles and needs of skilled intermediaries’, shares useful insights.
Farmers disengage because of bad previous experiences, bureaucracy, digital discomfort, remoteness, financial penalties, unfamiliarity with agri-environmental schemes, change fatigue and so on.
To re-engage them, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is facilitating a more local informal approach, including ‘nudges’, and is recruiting skilled intermediaries who must be credible, can communicate well, have suitable backgrounds and are accessible to farmers approached, who listen and give feed-back.
Face-to-face learning remains best as trade-offs erode digital advantages. To instil optimal skillsets for intermediaries, a new UK institute in the vacuum where a publicly-funded system used to operate, is being explored, paralleling suggestions for a research centre in north-west Ireland dedicated to farming for nature; while public-private consultancies like Envirowise are also appearing.
Even McDonalds, whose supply chain has become more transparent, runs its own agriculture programme to improve sustainability and welfare. Structural power exists in buyer-supply chains, but collaborating can be strained when competing with other providers and even suppliers.
Diverse certified assurance schemes like Fair-trade, RSPCA, Marine Stewardship Council (fish) and corporate own labels could be combined as a single sustainable eco-label, as pioneered in Northern Ireland, with buy-in from producers. Supermarkets constantly re-arrange stock and spotlight growers for adept branding. The top five supermarkets, whose priority remains customer affordability – rather than fair value – sell 90% of Irish groceries. Some have started inviting farmers’ markets into their carparks to fend off revenue loss.
Rural Ireland Organisation (RIO) notes that emission-reduction goals are still conspicuous by their backgrounding. Those continuing to artificially fertilise and use slurry, may pollute running water flowing through compliant farmers’ lands, invalidating Eco-Schemes, with no sign of ‘the polluter pays’ principle, and rare back-up from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or local authorities.
Small farmers who do less damage deserve better treatment, payments and support for fair transition.
Ordinary farmers e.g. Farmers for Nature, want to do right for the environment by protecting hedgerows and growing trees. The EU has allowed only very limited use of animal and human manure for biomass fertiliser which, having low biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), causes much less toxic damage to water, land and air than slurry or silage, both of which are approved. Though consumers increasingly prefer free-range poultry, there is little impetus to switch from the massive consortium-driven factory-farm industry which uses spraying and other toxic practices.
A Nitrates Action Programme is being prepared, and proper small-scale regenerative farming could outstrip EU Pesticide Directive recommendations, and even organic standards. Sole traders of fruit and vegetables and small networks could lose out on CAP benefits unless they surrender autonomy and join the handful of conglomerates worth at least €2.5 million each. CSP allocates €39 million over five years in sectoral intervention for fruit and vegetable. Meanwhile Ireland’s dairy herd swells – with concomitant soaring methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than CO2. Minimum EU stocking densities even for organic beef farming will delight owners of giant organic beef farms like Larry Goodman’s Good Herdsmen.
Considering the Stockholm Resilience Centre recently confirmed runaway nitrate releases as the biggest biosphere risk, conserving and even expanding nitrogen-intensive dairy-herd size, primed shortly to absorb the country’s suckler business, is simply inexcusable. A dairy cow emits almost twice as much methane as a suckler cow but economic incentives for low-impact dry-stock farming are declining and being phased out. The agri-food business lobby is extremely influential.
The IPCC report forecasts more rain with rising temperatures, making farming much harder and food security much more precarious. Importing will not be the solution, but industrialised agriculture IS the problem.
Created in 2009 by Green Minister John Gormley as a fifth social partnership pillar in the Programme for Government (the other four being farming, community, business, and trade unions), the official Environmental Pillar (EP) pulled out of the Food Strategy consultation earlier this year due to neglect of Just Transition, dilution of emissions targets, and failure to address multiple critical harms. EP drafted its own alternative position paper. Much firmer targets are needed embracing more plant-based agriculture which is unanimously acknowledged as healthier for humans, animals, the earth and climate.
Donald Davis’ UT research team, fusing USDA nutritional data from the 1950s for 43 different vegetables and fruits, found that the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorous, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past century has declined by up to half, because of soil depletion and new yield-increasing varieties which arrest plant rates of nutrient absorption.
While Northern Ireland supplies most of the Republic’s milk for retail, the south is wedded to dairy exports, instead of shortening supply chains and transport.
‘Soil fertility has dropped 40% over fifteen years’
Quantities of goods exported, including apples and salmon, frequently equal quantities being imported, which in turn are often sourced from countries permitting inhumane labour conditions.
Environmentalists oppose Teagasc’s investment in exporting ever greater volumes of powdered-milk formula, with aims to raise consumption by from one in seven to one in five babies around the world, as Ireland has to carry the externalities of more methane, water impurities and rapidly degrading land. Soil fertility has dropped 40% over fifteen years. These worsening imbalances are ignored at national-level talks except in brushed-aside calls from EP to reduce production.
Farmers are in hock to banks, stuck on a whirligig of loans, and don’t know how to get off. The system has deprived them of self-regulation. Farmers need alternatives that protect their incomes. An obvious one is restoring pricing that rewards food quality but contracts, payments and arrangements are often kept confidential, preventing transparency.
Feathers in Eur CAP
Local business is good for social connection and the public understanding of agriculture. Organisations like Neighbour Food, the Open Food Network and community-supported farms arrange for seasonal vegetables to be collected in boxes or delivered, ideally by efficient cargo bicycles, reforming distribution systems.
Conversely, nearly all Irish flour is imported save for supply by a handful of small wheat and cereal producers, who deserve more aid. The likes of Kerry Lamb, Hemp Cooperative Ireland and craft beers show what can be achieved when groups are motivated to work together and diversify. EU Leader projects could add environmental value for smaller operators.
As public awareness accelerates, companies are differentiating products by ecological and carbon-friendly qualities for win-win results. How farmers can make a living without damaging the environment is key. With realistic rewards for good practices especially carbon off-setting, appropriate certification, and more publicity, alternative farmers’ time may have come.
Business-to-business promotion should continue, until governments and public bodies choose to amplify across multiple media what so many constructive actors are achieving. Shows beyond RTE Radio 1’s CountryWide have started to take farming very seriously and give it airtime.
Carbon farming is an idea catching on, especially in Nordic countries, where farmers are being paid for sequestration. Money is subtracted for over-working agricultural land. Reference to scope for this practice in the CSP is positive.
To streamline certification of organic farmers, they could be grouped under EIPs to save on bureaucracy. Since 1986, Germany’s Land-Care has evolved public goods metrics now accepted at EU level where bonuses are proposed for biodiversity. With offices in Brussels, Landcare can influence the European Parliament and CAP. The Green Foundation, Talamh Beo and Cultivate have started partnerships with them, with about fifty farmers now signed-up to a five-year EIP based on the Landcare model.
Galvanising bodies like CAFRI, Teagasc’s UK counterpart, and European bodies to work towards common goals together is vital. Teagasc has started researching sustainable multi-species beef pasture, and collaborative initiatives with the UK.
Transborder initiatives are largely EU-funded, with the dairy industry still capturing most funding.
‘After Brexit, Britain is preparing to replace CAP’s area-based farm support payments with the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), based on the sound principle of “public money for public goods”‘
After Brexit, Britain is preparing to replace CAP’s area-based farm support payments with the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), based on the sound principle of ‘public money for public goods’, and results-based payments. This could embolden other countries to demand better too.
To Cap It Off
EU and Irish agri-business leaders essentially remain wedded to the WTO principle of concentrating on the few highest-yielding crops and herds, a trend initiated 10,000 years ago. They are largely open to the ominous EU-Mercosur Trade Agreement while slighting climate scientists and frontline groups like Via Campasena which advocate ecosystem-friendly polyculture, local supply, nutritious fresh food and empowered livelihoods.
Arguing comparative advantages hinges on expanding herds is contrary to overwhelming scientific confirmation that centralised monoculture is ecocidal.
Considering a UN expert panel recently agreed a definition of ecocide as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment”, making it an international crime, pleas to stop putting profit first are no longer so silly.
Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund advocates creating multiple income streams, not just from farm produce but also from habitat regeneration, carbon sequestration, renewable energy and biodiversity. Farmers deserve credit for safeguarding as much of this type of land as they could under the industrial model. They can finally make some hay from it.
Ireland’s rich terrain and temperate climate are ideal for extensive rapid conversion to green land uses. As IFA managers lead land workers into public protest, negatively framing the introduction of at least some healthier environmental practices, mature debate seems as far from the agenda as ever. With grass-roots movements hampered by restrictions, it is up to policy-makers and influencers to decide if they’re for those working for the planet’s future, or against them. They will be judged accordingly, and for all time. However much the tractors clog the streets of the capital one sunny day in November 2021.