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Pat McCormack
Ex-president, ICMSA

Rural Ireland runs on milk

Entering a new year, the message that we at ICMSA hear being sent by the Government about the agri–sector is that, rather than being an economic and social asset to our country, we are a problem. Our sector is a problem that has to be ‘solved’.

That’s the way our interaction with the Government is being framed and that’s the basis on which policy is being handed down. Farming is a problem and here’s the next load of restrictions and regulations by way of an answer to that problem. Ten years ago, after the financial crisis that wrecked the economy, we were begged to knuckle down to farming and work to produce the food and rebuild our exports through our traditional strengths. Government practically ordered us to expand. And we did. And, it was Irish food exports that rebuilt the export profile of this country, but that’s all eaten bread now… or drunk milk.

Now, the farming and food sector has to be reduced by a quarter or a half or whatever reduction some environmental activists deem to be necessary. And we’ll probably read about it first in the newspaper, or hear about on the radio.

We have to get past this completely false presentation of Ireland’s climate challenge that has farming and food as an obstacle to progress. This is not an ‘either/or’ between Irish farming and meeting our climate targets. It never has been and if we persist in looking at it that way then we’ll end up failing on both.

Very influential elements in our decision-making process don’t seem particularly alarmed by this trend. They should be, because we certainly are.

The energy of rural Ireland is not wind or solar or even diesel–rural Ireland runs on milk. The focus on environment to the exclusion of food will almost certainly mean that, in the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres,  at the G20 Summit in Bali in November 2022: “We are on the way to a raging food catastrophe.”

ICMSA will be part of solutions that start from and proceed within the bounds of science and logic. Some consistency would also be welcome; everyone wants emissions to be lowered, but no-one wants to give up their sun holidays. We live in an age of jaw-dropping double standards where, often on the same news bulletin, we have calls for compulsory reductions of cow numbers while surging sales of hundreds of thousands of overseas flights to sun destinations by budget airlines are announced as though it were a good-news story.

Emissions from farming? That’s a national problem with mandatory targets aimed at reduction of the whole national sector. Emissions from air travel? That’s none of our business and bon voyage! We seem to have arrived at a very odd decision about the distinction between good and bad emissions. But that wouldn’t be the only odd decision we are going to be grappling with in Ireland.

The recent Supreme Court decision around costs of environmental objections is also of significant concern. On the face of it, this judgment must surely mean very prolonged periods of incredibly expensive legal process with only one side – those seeking permission to build – being in any way liable for what would surely be staggering costs involved. The State is now committed to effectively underwriting any costs to any objections where the objections arose on environmental grounds. This must increase the already dizzying number of cases where the State was effectively mounting legal challenges against its own decisions. Through subventions and funding of agencies like An Taisce and numerous other groups, taxpayers are already in a position where they were funding both sides of horrendously expensive legal battles – the State agencies that had given third party entities permission for building and the state-supported NGOs that were objecting to those projects proceeding. The net effect of the Supreme Court judgment is that so long as the objection can be filed under any kind of environmental heading, then the State is obliged to cover all the costs associated with that objection. 

The An Taisce action on the Nitrates Derogation is of huge concern to our members and our Executive Committee decided recently that ICMSA should apply to be a notice party to this case. The State won’t fund our legal action, farmers will have to fund it ourselves and ICMSA has decided to use our resources to defend our members’ position and to insist that our voice is heard on this matter. The action is of huge significance to, not only our members, but to the whole dairy sector and the wider rural economy. If An Taisce succeeds on this matter, it will have huge negative implications for our sector and ICMSA expects the State to resolutely defend its position on this matter.