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Farming and the Environment – ‘Finding Common Ground’

Damian McDonald, IFA, outlined how a social dialogue process could assist farming and environment interests find a common ground at our Social Policy Conference 2020.  Below is an extract from his paper.

The agri-food sector is Ireland’s largest indigenous sector, providing direct employment to over 160,000 people or 7.1% of total employment. Agriculture provides employment and generates earnings across the country, not just at farm level, but in thousands of regionally based jobs dependent on and linked to the sector. The sector accounts for over on average 11% of regional employment which reflects that many of these jobs are located outside of the main urban centres.

Given its importance to the economy and rural Ireland in particular, farming had its own pillar in the original social partnership model and IFA was a full ‘social partner’. We are now part of new National Economic Dialogue. While the old Social Partnership model had no shortage of critics, the concept of the pillars coming together on a regular basis to discuss policy issues with the aim of reaching multi-annual agreements still has much to recommend it. The Current National Economic Dialogue model is much less engaged and provides minimal opportunities for real engagement with Government or between the pillars.

IFA continues to have good access to Government to lobby on any issues that concern us. However, a more robust, structured and frequent engagement between the pillars and the Government would be very worthwhile. We fully accept that the Government has to govern and they ultimately make the decisions, but greater civic engagement through representative groups could add value.   

It could potentially have improved communications during the current pandemic. As we now face into a period of significant challenge for the public finances there will be a need for increased dialogue to improve social cohesion. In this context, I would like the use the opportunity to set out some of the challenges facing farmers and agriculture. While these challenges are immediate for our sector, how they are addressed will have consequences for wider society.  

Only 34% of farmers in Ireland are now viable and the vast majority of these are dairy farms. In the push to maintain margins all other parts of the supply chain are trying to reduce costs. We are forcing farmers to get bigger in order to remain viable. Working conditions in the meat processing sector are also an issue. As we face a growing world population, we must ensure that all land available for agriculture is utilised. To do this we will need to maintain a strong population of farmers. Ireland still has very much a Family Farm model and if we are to protect this, we need to keep farmers on the land. We must have an attractive proposition for the next generation who will be less inclined to remain in farming because of tradition.

It is a cause of great regret that environmentalists and farmers now find themselves as adversaries in the climate debate. The reality is that we have far more in common than we have in difference.

Policy initiatives can be identified which have the potential to hit a ‘sweet spot’ that improves the environment while also improving farm incomes.

A mature discussion needs to take place about the price of food and who pays for the additional production costs imposed by increased environmental and other conditions. European farmers must comply with conditions which are well ahead of what food producers in other countries have to comply with. Yet non-EU imports are often allowed into the EU market to undercut the prices of European produce. This is an area where there is potential for collaboration between the environmental and agricultural lobby. Recent evidence of this can be found in the mutual opposition to the ratification of the Mercosur trade deal negotiated by the European Commission.

Perhaps there is a role for a new modern form of social partnership to provide a safe space for the farming and environmental pillars to engage to better understand each other’s points of view and to find common ground.

The full paper is available to download here.