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'People think environmentalists want to destroy farming. This is sad and unfortunate'

In truth, farmers and environmentalists are all on the same side, writes Mícheál Callaghan.

Mícheál Callaghan Environmentalist

I RECENTLY SAT in the audience of the Claire Byrne programme on RTÉ. The topic was climate change and agriculture.

These discussions are often pitted as a “them versus us” battle. In the audience before the show, people greeted each other by asking “What side are you on?” and “If the greenies get their way we are finished”.

Based on this, it seems like environmentalists want to destroy farming. 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 taking mitigating action now, and adapting to the changes that are already occurring.

Why are farmers and environmentalists often presented as opponents?

There are many and complex reasons for this. 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, and many fear the taking away of rights and freedoms by environmentalists.

Some of the early environmental laws in Ireland were the EU wildlife protection directives. Member States are required to protect certain species and habitats, by creating protected areas. This meant that 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 bureaucrats. The protection of nature became highly politicised.

Common ground

Many farmers are not happy with the status quo in farming. Some are frustrated at the lack of supports for smaller scale and sustainable farming. For example, despite the growing demand for organics, the organic scheme for new farmers has not reopened 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, for example the use of solar panels on the roofs of farm buildings. Not only would this 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 sustainability must be given greater voice in debates about farming and the environment.

The same struggle

The struggle of small farmers trying to stay alive and reinvent themselves in the midst of ferocious pressure is the same struggle of those fighting the big oil and gas 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, where just eight people have as much wealth as half the world’s population.

Coming together, and imagining a better future, one based on long term sustainability, equality and well-being, we can be a much more powerful force than a series of single causes that are often presented as separate.

Environmentalists and farmers need to create the space for dialogue, and cooperation, and avoid sound bites or attacks on the other’s views and values. Through listening and respect, we might find that there is more in common than we realise. Why fall victim to division when our future depends on us coming together?

Mícheál Callaghan is from Monaghan but living in Dublin. He is doing a PhD in environmental law and policy in UCD, examining the relationship between the law and local actions to promote biodiversity and food sustainability. He’s active in the Transition Town network in Ireland, and cofounded Transition Monaghan, an organisation which aims to promote sustainability and community resilience in Co Monaghan. He passionately believes that the transition to a low carbon economy can be hugely positive for local economies, creating jobs and reconnecting people with each other, as well as protecting the environment.

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About the author:

Mícheál Callaghan  / Environmentalist

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