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Pádraic Fogarty 'Farmers' power has seeped like a smothering fog through Irish politics'

The environmental campaigner who quit the Irish Wildlife Trust this week says the farm organisations are blocking progress on green goals.

LAST UPDATE | 28 Jul 2023

Environmental activist Pádraic Fogarty resigned this week as a member of the Irish Wildlife Trust after a controversy over a blog he’d written. He’d been with the IWT for 20 years but in the piece, Fogarty named the Irish Farmers Association, the Irish Creamery and Milk Suppliers Organisation and the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association as among the groups over which he had concerns. It transpired that the IWT later edited the blog post after complaints by the IFA to “remove political references that could be perceived to be divisive”. 

The article, titled ‘Drift of the farm orgs’ remains on the IWT’s website with a disclaimer that it does not represent the views of the IWT. Here, Fogarty writes further about his worries regarding the powerful lobbying abilities of the farming organisations, as opposed to all farmers. 

IN DECEMBER 2021 a draft of the fourth National Biodiversity Action Plan was produced by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

This document set a target of protecting 30% of land and sea in Ireland for nature, something which was in line with the EU Biodiversity Strategy published in 2020. In early 2021, the government even joined a ‘high ambition coalition’ of countries with the express aim of what became known as ‘30×30’, so the draft was merely reflecting this commitment.

However, when the plan was published for public consultation in October 2022, the target to protect 30% of our land had been dropped. The Irish government went to COP15 in Montreal in December of that year where the 30×30 goal was a central plank of the final agreement on addressing the biodiversity crisis, yet while there was government support for the deal, there is no sign that we intend to deliver on its central commitment (a final Biodiversity Action Plan has yet to be published).

Targets for whom?

This follows a very similar plot line to when Micheál Martin, then Taoiseach, signed up to a reduction in methane emissions at the climate COP in Glasgow in 2021, only to later clarify that he had no intention of Ireland actually doing this at home: the target was a ‘global’ one.

Protecting land for nature or reducing methane emissions would impact Ireland’s agricultural sector by reducing areas which could be used for farming or by reducing livestock numbers respectively.

There was no great campaign by Ireland’s farm organisations against either of these targets, in fact, there was no need. Both initiatives were killed at birth, before either could even become the topic of public debate, for reasons that are unclear and yet crystal clear: the farm organisations would have howled blue murder at the very ideas.

Powerful lobby

The farm organisations are used to getting their way. For decades, they have maintained the river of public subsidies and supports by intensive lobbying of public representatives, denouncing politicians through the pages of their media outlets or, if necessary, a ‘tractorcade’ through the streets of Dublin. While their power has weakened somewhat in recent years, we still see that most politicians in Leinster House would dare not openly criticise them.

The power farmers exert has seeped like a smothering fog through the houses of the Oireachtas as well as clogging the corridors of State bodies and government departments.

The farming organisations have a long history of opposing environmental measures, but recent years have seen their rejectionist policies go into overdrive. The EU’s Biodiversity and Farm-to-Fork Strategies, as well as an initiative to reduce pesticide use, are rejected out of hand. The Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss was a “real concern” according to the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA). The Nature Restoration Law needed to be rejected in its entirety as it put the “future of rural Ireland and food security [in] jeopardy”. The setting of a modest 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the sector by 2030 under the Climate Act was a “devastating blow for Irish farming”.

When an academic report into how Ireland might meet the goal of net-zero emissions in our land use sector was published in February, the IFA called on the government to “immediately reject” it, saying it realised “farmers’ worst fears”. And these comments were mild when compared to some of the rural independent TDs; Micheal Fitzmaurice denounced it as “ethnic cleansing”.

It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that a sectoral ceiling for land use has yet to be even published, something that the Climate Change Advisory Council said this week “must be set”. The politicians are simply too fearful of the backlash.

Political cowardice

While the list of things we are not doing mounts, farmers themselves are increasingly worried about their futures. And why wouldn’t they be? The government still has no coherent plan for transitioning the sector to a climate and nature-friendly model. How much of this is down to the influence of the farm organisations?

Nearly all of it I would say.

Public opinion has long moved on in this debate. The Citizens’ Assembly has clearly shown that Irish people want to see long-overdue action on climate and biodiversity and they want farmers to be supported in achieving this. Many farmers themselves (and I have spoken to many in recent years) are already on board, as shown by the huge popularity of agri-environmental schemes.

Yet, the right supports to deliver change are still not in place, something largely due to lobbying from farm organisations which have fought hard to maintain the status quo.

Substantial progress in addressing biodiversity and climate goals is clearly not possible with the current clutch of farm leaders. This is bad news for everyone, not least farmers.

Pádraic Fogarty is an environmental campaigner. 


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