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Opinion 'The shift coming in Irish agriculture must be transformational - but it will be positive too'

Minister of State for Agriculture Pippa Hackett writes that the future for farming in Ireland should see increased incomes and decreased emissions.

IT’S A TRICKY space, agriculture.  

Most of us accept that the way we farm is changing, and indeed must change.  But with a vociferous few harbingers of doom banging drums and bemoaning the supposed death of rural Ireland at the hands of the dreaded Greens, there may be a suspicion that the price of climate and biodiversity action could be too high – that our farm families could be forced off the land, and that our green fields could be left bereft of cattle.

Well, my message is that nothing could be further from the truth.  

Yes, there is a shift coming in Irish agriculture which will and must be, transformational.  But it will also be hugely positive. And I see it resulting in new generations of farmers and foresters working the land in a sustainable way, with nature being restored, water quality improving, and premium prices being delivered to those who produce premium Origin Green produce.

To my mind, that is a future worth fighting for. And it is why I am so pleased that in the past week we have seen just two more developments which demonstrate how environmental thinking is permeating agriculture in a very real way.

The developments were the publication today of a key strategy document for the food sector, Food Vision 2030, and the launch of an initial public consultation on the next Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) strategic plan. 

In both instances, the influence of the increased climate ambition of this Government was clear. It’s an ambition which I believe has led to outcomes which, while perhaps not perfect, show clearly that Green thinking is at the heart of a shift in agriculture.  

To explain:  Food Vision 2030 is a stakeholder strategy which was produced with Department of Agriculture support.  The stakeholders included farm organisations, industry representatives, State agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency and the Environmental Pillar, though the Pillar left shortly before the end, believing the strategy was not sufficiently ambitious. 

But the strategy has now been published, with its chair Tom Arnold, highlighting how it will employ a ‘Food Systems’ approach to ensure Ireland’s agri-food sector meets the highest standards of economic, environmental and social sustainability.  For the Green Party, this placing of the environment as central is both crucial and welcome.

The other element of the strategy, which is equally welcome and also vital, is the acknowledgement that the targets set in it are fluid and will change with increased climate ambition. This is essential, as the Climate Action Plan, when it is published later in the year, will almost certainly increase the ambition and demands on the sector, as will other environmental measures which are being rolled out.  

These include the Clean Air Strategy and the revision of the Ambient Air Quality Directive in 2022; the Third River Basin Management Plan under the EU water framework directive which will greatly improve water quality; and the reduction of carbon emissions under our own Climate Action Bill and the EU’s ‘Fit for 55’ emissions reduction package. It is really positive therefore, that the strategy specifically acknowledges that it will adjust its targets to meet the requirements of the Climate Action Plan. 

The consultation on the CAP Strategic Plan also demonstrates just how seriously we are taking the need to shift to ‘farming for nature’ and focus on the needs of the land.  

The CAP is the method through which the EU supports farmers with direct and incentive payments. It is due to be renewed in 2023 and the form of the new CAP is currently the subject of discussion throughout Europe, with the basic premise, accepted by all, that this CAP will have environmental concerns at its heart, and will make payments based on results achieved.  This is what the citizens of Europe have demanded.

Here in Ireland, the CAP Consultative Committee is responding to that call with a plan which again is not perfect, but which is setting us along the right path. The plan is due to go for an initial four-week public consultation immediately, while a subsequently amended version will then go for major consultation in the Autumn.  We will be keen to see submissions, and as a party, we will certainly support calls for even greater ambition, which will help us meet the sectoral emissions ceilings set out for the agricultural sector.

As members of the Green Party, we have been aware for many years of the need for climate and environmental action.  Others have been less aware, but I think everyone has been shaken by the recent examples from Canada to Germany of how climate change is taking hold.  We have read the reports which show our water is polluted and we can see the horrifying footage which shows our world is burning.

We can only address those issues by working together.  And the acceptance on the part of farmers, industry, agencies and the Department of Agriculture that we must work together, that we must change, that we will step up, and that the measures such as the new CAP and Food Vision will align with the targets to be set by the upcoming Climate Action Plan, is very welcome.  

We want a future for farming in Ireland in which incomes are up and emissions are down.  We believe such a clean, green, profitable future is possible.  It is achievable.  And the Green Party is proud of the part it is playing in making it a reality.

 Pippa Hackett is a Green Party Senator and Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture

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