The reason farmers are losing the PR war is because their claims are starting to ring hollow. Here’s four of the biggest culprits, and more importantly, other ways of trying to win over the public.
■ Ireland is feeding 40 million people with its meat and dairy, and thereby improving global food security
Friends of the Irish Environment may be regarded in farming circles as Fiends of the Irish Ag sector, but director Oisín Coughlan nails it when he says nobody in the world is going to bed hungry tonight because they didn’t have Irish meat or dairy products.
Rather, it’s the lack of grain that is going to tip northern Africa into famine this winter. Because we are net importers of grain, largely to feed our livestock, this is a hole farmers need to stop digging for themselves.
■ The carbon our livestock emits isn’t half as bad as the carbon emitted from other industries
The fact that methane disappears out of the atmosphere after 12 years has been weaponised against farmers by environmentalists, who correctly point out that the potency of methane means that any reduction has a massive impact on overall emissions, and therefore is one of the most cost-effective ways for society to reduce its carbon output.
The other idea that is muddying the waters is that methane from animals is biogenic; that this is simply carbon that the cows eat, digest and release back into the atmosphere where it is sucked up by plants only to be eaten by cows again.
Again, this is true, but it doesn’t solve the issue: where do we squeeze carbon emissions out of the system?
■ The rural economy will be devastated if agriculture is forced to meet a 30pc target
A startling report carried out by KPMG claimed that a 30pc cut in emissions from agriculture would result in a loss of around 50,000 jobs and €4bn to the economy.
But politicians have been slow to lean on these numbers, and with good reason. A detailed study by Teagasc’s economic unit found that the likely losses would be less than half the levels quoted in the KPMG report.
Given that much of beef farming in Ireland is part-time, and largely loss-making before the EU subsidies are added, will a reduction in beef cattle significantly affect employment at farm level?
A 30pc cut in emissions would require a 20pc reduction in the national cattle herd, which would bring it back to almost the same level it was at before milk quotas were removed.
Will reducing meat factory output to 2014 levels be that devastating for the rural economy?
I also suspect that whatever reduction in dairy cow numbers would be compensated at farm level by upping milk output per cow through breeding and feeding.
■ Cutting our herd will only export the carbon elsewhere
This is a point I’ve been harping on about myself, but it is not a bullet- proof argument.
Car manufacturers, coal mines, airlines and every other polluter could argue the exact same thing, so once again we’re back to the question: if the agri industry doesn’t step up, which industry will?
But here’s the bit where I wholeheartedly agree with the fear and frustration that farmers feel: who or what can guarantee that if farmers agree to cuts, the same level of economic pain will be shared out equally across society?
The so-called ‘just transition’ that saw the peat stations being closed down almost overnight is exhibit A in how this concept of fairness crumbled from the get-go.
Things will get very ugly if there isn’t political leadership of the highest calibre on this.
Just look at the Netherlands, Britain and the US to see what happens when any section of society feels that they have been unjustly targeted or ignored for the benefit of others.
It’s this vulnerability that makes farmers feel so threatened.
But it’s this same vulnerability that the wider public will relate to and believe.
That’s the first step on the road to getting them to see things from the farmers’ point of view.
It’s worth noting that regardless of where the targets are set, the George Monbiots of this world will still be campaigning to shut down livestock farming completely.
Monbiot believes that meat, dairy and eggs are “an indulgence” that mankind can no longer afford to consume without destroying the planet.
He may be right, but in the meantime, a kilo of Irish beef or dairy still has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world. It also provides a good living to tens of thousands. They are facts that I’d be happy to defend all day long on any national airwave.
Let’s jump the hurdles as they come, but let’s stop embarrassing the farm sector with claims that make it sound like a sector in denial.
Darragh McCullough runs a mixed farm enterprise in Meath, elmgrovefarm.ie
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