IT SEEMS THAT Ireland’s political system is maturing – political parties are sounding much more conciliatory and open to finding consensus. Whether this is just a short term respite from partisan politics or not remains to be seen, but perhaps now is the time to bring new policy ideas to the table.
Up until now food and agriculture has barely figured in the debates as it is often overshadowed by major problems that are clearly urgent – health and housing being two primary examples.
At the same time our food and agricultural systems have major impacts on our health, environment, land use and in reviving our rural economies – all issues that are also clear concerns for Irish citizens.
Time to think small
The last 30 years have seen our local food systems eroded beyond recognition – local production of meat, vegetables and other primary products has all, but disappeared as farm production has been redirected towards global markets and citizens pushed towards large retailers, which ensure the food chain is long and rigid, with profits flowing primarily to everyone but the farmer.
Everyone has the right to access good quality local food – and the right to make a living from the land in dignity. This means we need to support our local markets – and our local producers. We need to stimulate local production of food and the revival of rural economic activity based around primary food production. The last twenty years of Common Agricultural Policy and government subsidies have eroded these systems. Now is time for the government to help rebuild what it has broken.
Local food production has multiple benefits – to health as shorter supply chains mean more nutritious and fresher fruits and vegetables, to local employment, to biodiversity and the environment, and additional benefits to the community from having small-scale farms in rural and urban areas that provide social spaces for learning and education.
The state can no longer justify paying large subsidies to farmers whose produce goes directly overseas while refusing to support small scale local production of fruit, vegetables and meat for local markets. Irish taxpayers money should go primarily to feeding Irish people, not global markets.
Making local real
“Local” is a term which is often used, but perhaps it’s time to fill it with some meaning.
We should create a special criteria for “local producers” of primary goods (fruits, vegetables and meat) – for example small scale agroecological farms with a minimum turnover of €10,000 who can show that 75% of their total sales are within 100km should receive a basic payment to support their work and encourage new producers to start farms supplying local markets.
Local producers could also be provided with tax incentives for employment, as high quality small scale production is often labour intensive. County councils should provide 5% of their land on long term leases to young people interested in starting a new local farm or community garden. Tax incentives should also be made available to ensure older farmers can transition to younger farmers without suffering financially.
In order to avoid local food becoming elitist, a new social welfare payment should be linked to the establishment of these producers so that families are provided with a weekly €20 local food credit which can only be spent on local produce. Food is a right, not a privilege and it is the responsibility of the Irish state to ensure that its people have access to high quality food.
At the same time, community gardens and allotments should be integrated into any future social housing developments, along with community woodlands and other commonly managed and developed resources. Such projects foster stronger community links and provide positive points of connection with nature even in urban and suburban environments.
Little money, big results
The idea of subsidising agriculture and food production is not new – it is already happening. Agricultural subsidies were invented to ensure that the population had a steady supply of food, and to ensure that farmers could make an income from their work. Those two priorities no longer appear to be functioning as over the years larger farms and farm companies have taken over the henhouse.
Annually, the Irish government administers around €1.2 billion to farmers around the country. More than 200 farmers receive more than €100,000, but the average payment is around €9,000. Many farmers depend on these lower payments to survive – but higher payments should be capped, and the surplus used to invest in local farming.
There should be plenty of money to go round – one payment of €100,000 would pay for 20 small scale local producers to receive a mere €5,000 euro per year – and would instantly see an increase in locally produced primary production in Irish villages, towns and cities.
Making a decision to rebuild Ireland’s local food systems is a decision made for the future, not the short-term gains of the present. Prioritising access to local, seasonal and fresh food in people’s diets is in reality a long-term investment in health, in public education and in the environment.
Ireland has huge potential to be a leader in providing quality local food, reviving rural communities and transforming the urban landscape while benefiting the environment and contributing to a more truly sustainable future. It’s time to focus on quality, not quantity and make our countryside, our cities and our landscape work for the good of everyone.
Fergal Anderson is a farmer and food campaigner. He runs a Community Supported Agriculture project from Leaf and Root Farm with his partner in East Galway. He is involved with the Irish CSA Network and Food Sovereignty Ireland, which recently launched a proclamation for Food and Agriculture at www.foodsovereigntyireland.org.