Farming and environment: finding common ground?

Do we really have to pit one against the other?

The link between cattle and climate change is a hot topic in Ireland at the moment, given the size of our agricultural sector. A recent edition of the TV programme ‘Claire Byrne Live’ on RTE 1 had a discussion on the topic. Mícheál Callaghan of Transition Monaghan was in the audience and found the focus was more on confrontation of interest groups rather than co-operation.    

farming and environemtn.pngPictured before the recent Claire Byrne show are members of Young Friends of the Earth: Bobby Fitzgerald, Sinead Mercier, Mícheál Callaghan (Transition Monaghan), Meaghan Carmody, Adrian O’Connell.

The discussion on the recent Claire Byrne programme centred on an article published in the Irish Farmers Journal, referring to a talk delivered by a retired MIT professor, who claims that the link between agricultural methane emissions and climate change is overstated. The claim in the article has since been rebutted by Irish climate scientist John Sweeney.

These TV discussions are often pitted as ‘them versus us’ battles. Based on exchanges between audience members before the show, it seems like environmentalists want to destroy farming, or put the custodians of the land out of their livelihoods. This is sad, and unfortunate. In truth, we are all on the same side. There is only one planet, and no matter what we might wish, there is no way to escape the effects of climate change, other than reducing its causes and adapting to change.

FARMERS AND ENVIRONMENTALISTS PRESENTED AS OPPONENTS

There are many and complex reasons for this, but let’s take a few. Often, environmentalists are associated with a middle class and largely urban background. Research on attitudes to environmentalism in Ireland has shown that it can sometimes be associated with our colonial past. Some of the early environmental laws in Ireland were the wildlife protection directives, agreed at EU level. These require countries to protect certain species and habitats, by creating protected areas. Certain restrictions were placed on what could be done on the land, and certain activities such as hunting were restricted to protect wildlife. Nowadays, there is more emphasis on consultation and collaborative decision making, however at that time, many farmers felt they weren’t properly consulted, and that these restrictions were being imposed by unelected experts and bureaucrats in Brussels. The protection of nature became highly politicised.

COMMON GROUND

Many farmers are not happy with the status quo in farming. There are frustrations at the lack of supports for diversification. For example, despite the huge growth in demand for organics, the organic scheme for new farmers has not been open since 2015, making it difficult for farmers wishing to convert. Farmers in Ireland can be at the centre of reducing waste and generating renewable energy by on farm bio energy schemes and the use of solar panels on the roofs of buildings. Not only would this reduce waste and help Ireland meet its renewable energy targets, it would also generate extra income for farmers. However, we do not currently have the sufficient supports or feed in tariffs here (payment for energy sold to the national grid), compared to other countries. The many farmers working hard to promote more sustainable methods must be given greater voice in debates about farming and the environment.

The struggle of small farmers trying to stay viable and reinvent themselves in the midst of ferocious market pressure, is the same struggle of those fighting the big energy companies, whose power and greed have had a monopoly over energy policy for too long. It is the same struggle of those fighting the rampant inequality that exists in our economic system. Coming together, and imagining a better future, one based on sustainability, equality and well-being, we can be a much more powerful force than a series of single issues causes.

Environmentalists and farmers need to create the space for dialogue, and co-operation, and avoid sound bites or attacking each other. Through listening and respect, we might find that there is much more in common, than debates like the recent one would make out. Why fall victim to division when the fate of our future depends on us coming together?

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