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Saoirse McHugh: The time is right for an agricultural revolution in Ireland

Intensive agriculture has damaged the planet. But we can change that.

Saoirse McHugh

In her fortnightly column for TheJournal.ie, Saoirse McHugh of the Green Party writes about what we can do as individuals in the face of climate chaos.

AGRICULTURE IS THE most important interaction between man and nature. It is the largest interface there is between society, the environment and the economy. Thousands of years ago agriculture allowed cities to develop and has been a significant factor in many wars, migrations and whether a population flourishes or collapses.

Over the centuries the emphasis has moved from feeding people to accumulating profit.

The economic power in our global food system is constantly accumulating at the top.

There are a tiny handful of companies who control the majority of the world’s food supply chains. On the production side there are colossal agro-chemical companies that supply fertilisers, pesticides and seeds while food companies such as Unilever and Nestle enjoy unprecedented control over food choices, supplier terms and labour markets.

The maximisation of profit from the agricultural system has led to many pressures on the environment. For example, biodiversity loss reduces crop yields and undermines the ability of ecosystems to deal with diseases and natural disasters, deforestation disrupts global rainfall patterns and over-cultivation leads to enormous soil erosion.

Unlike aeroplanes – which could continue to fly if the earth was scorched, barren and lifeless – agriculture depends entirely upon a healthy, stable environment. It is the first system damaged by freezes, droughts, heatwaves and pollinator collapse. But it can also be our front line of defence against these things.

Irish agriculture

In Ireland the issues of global agriculture are playing out in miniature. Extensive, small-scale farmers are being driven off the land and the countryside is barren of once-common birds and insects, while a few large companies, factories and supermarkets are making all the profit in a climate that is no longer reliable.

These converging factors are predominantly driven by insatiable, policy-led, export-oriented intensification and an obsession with GDP with no thought given to the discrepancies that those figures obscure. There is no doubt that agricultural Ireland has been sold a dummy and feels abandoned.

There are calls from many sectors for the government to intervene, most recently, the Beef Plan Movement.

The beef industry in Ireland has reached rock bottom for many producers and it is hard to ignore the glee with which their land is being speculatively divvied up. The farmers have come together to demand a fair price for their work and control over their farming choices.

There is a golden opportunity for the Beef Plan Movement to demand a re-prioritisation of our agricultural system away from product export and towards locally sensitive, resilient and ecological food production.

The next 10 to 20 years will be crucial in developing a biodiversity-rich landscape that feeds and supports the people living in Ireland while creating resilience to the difficult conditions that climate breakdown will cause. Without doing so, there is no long-term future for farmers in Ireland.

It is reasonable to imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) begins to disappear for smaller producers. But while we have it, it would be incredibly prudent to create a system where our farmers are not dependent on CAP nor on export markets.

Vital steps to creating a robust food system include diversifying the type of farm products we support so we have a wide range of food, fuel, and fibre crops while also supporting the non-marketable aspects of farming like biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

We should also be strengthening the decision-making power of our farmers by dismantling the control of supermarkets and processors and encouraging farmer-led cooperatives, while also scaling health and safety regulations to encourage small-scale producers and processors. 

When it comes to these producers, we should ensure that they are not closed down as a result of the steep price associated with regulation compliance. 

We should also re-localise our food systems to create and keep wealth in areas, while also intervening in land markets to halt the consolidation of land by few big farms and businesses and encourage new, young and agro-ecological farmers by offering right of first refusal.

We must strive for food sovereignty, for the right of the producers, distributors, and consumers to define their own food and agricultural systems rather than them being controlled by companies and market institutions. This dispersal of power will be at the core of any transformational shift in Irish agriculture.

The localisation and democratisation of food production would enable us to remove human rights violations and deforestation from our supply chains. I worry that without a redistribution of power, one controlling actor will just be changed out for another – be it meat processors substituted for live export buyers or one supermarket swapped for another.

Without any fundamental change in power relationships we are destined to arrive at the same problems over and over again.

For hundreds of years our connection with the land has been under attack and now with the converging crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity loss and the failure of the global market to protect our farmers and provide for everybody we must regain power and control if we are to create an agricultural system that is to survive.

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Saoirse McHugh

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