Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 2 November 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action
Reduction of Carbon Emissions of 51% by 2030: Discussion (Resumed)
Mr. Donal Sheehan:
I thank the Chair, as previous speakers did, for the privilege of speaking to the committee today. I am here, first and foremost, as a dairy farmer and, second, as one of the people involved in one of the EIPs, namely, the biodiversity regeneration in a dairying environment, BRIDE, project.
I am a dairy farmer, milking 72 spring calving dairy cows in Castlelyons, part of the Bride Valley area of north Cork. I will express some concerns I have with the direction our farming and food system is taking, and in particular that the road that we are now on as a result of the Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025 strategies is unsustainable.
As well as being a farmer I am also one of the people involved in the biodiversity regeneration in a dairying environment, BRIDE, project. This project is one of the many European innovation partnership projects, EIPs, scattered throughout the country, set up to provide templates and knowledge transfer for the wider agricultural community on different aspects of environmental and sustainable food production practices. It is funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the EU.
The BRIDE project was initiated by two farmers and an ecologist who were frustrated by the way our farming system was damaging the environment while farmers themselves were being blamed by the public. There was a need to showcase a more positive image as well as improving biodiversity and water quality and reducing our carbon footprint. The system we are on rewards farmers for producing larger volumes of food, and more one produces, the more money is made. Consequently, there is no value put on the habitats on any farm that can deliver the environmental ecosystem services that can help to create a more sustainable food production model.
This is fundamentally what needs to change, as farmers are paid to produce food but they also need to be paid for managing the farmland habitats in a way that improves biodiversity, water quality and carbon sequestration. There is a need to give farmers a continuous signal that there is an indefinite financial value in maintaining and managing these vital habitats from generation to generation. The current model of getting a payment from agri-environmental schemes for a five-year term is not working as habitats, created from taxpayers' money through the scheme, can be put back into food production when the scheme is terminated. Habitats have very little legal protection so damaging or removing is a routine occurrence.
I will speak to the expansion model and my experience of it in an intensive farming area. The environment has played second fiddle to production and the volume of food produced over the past 50 years with a resultant deterioration in its quality. Since quotas were abolished in 2015 and even since preparations began for that in 2010, farmers have been pushed to produce more for the same money, with the result being damage to wildlife habitats, biodiversity and water quality. We are also struggling to reduce our carbon footprint and the public backlash that dairy farmers in particular are now getting is a direct result of the unsustainable food production system we use.
This same model has done much damage to rural Ireland, with small farmers coming under increasing pressure to stay afloat, with many of them going out of business. The media narrative often focuses on the "family farm", which sounds good but we need to define this family farm. It is taking an increasingly larger farm to sustain a family and most farms require one of the partners to work off farm. This puts more pressure on the farmer to get more work done and milk higher numbers of stock and so extra labour is needed, which is becoming more and more difficult to source. Once a labour unit is sourced, inevitably more cows are also sourced to pay for the labour and thus begins the treadmill on which dairy farmers now find themselves. This is the dairy expansion model, not the family farm model and certainly not the "viable" small farmer model.
The average herd size in the Glanbia area is now over 80 cows so under this figure would be classed as a small dairy farmer. Farmers in the less intensive farming areas of the country with smaller herd sizes again, supplying smaller co-operatives, are put at an unfair disadvantage when competing against such scale. In dairy farming, the milking platform, or the land area adjacent to the milking parlour, is the limiting factor to expansion, so to expand or increase production to stay viable, as price for milk to the farmer is more or less static over the years, farmers require more land. In my area, land rental costs can be up to and more than €300 per acre per annum. To buy this land would cost a minimum of €10,000 to €15,000 per acre and more if two farmers want it badly enough. So to increase herd size by 50 cows would require 50 extra acres, costing a minimum of €500,000. The smaller the scale, the smaller the chance of being able to get on this unsustainable ladder.
To give an example of what is happening on the ground with my own case, I have two tillage neighbours, one bloodstock neighbour, one suckler neighbour and two dairy farmer neighbours. For any of us to expand would mean buying an adjoining farm and putting them out of business. The only way for me or them to expand is to buy an adjoining farm. This is the model we are on and is leading to smaller farmers getting out, an ultimate decline in overall farmer numbers and ultimately a depleted rural community. This model is pitting farmers against farmers, dairy farmers against each other and against every other farm enterprise and as can be publicly seen, pitting farmers against environmentalists and the consumer.
Everyone is talking about the extra jobs that dairy expansion is giving but nobody is talking about the numbers of small farmers that cannot compete and are going out of business. Small farmers do not have the purchasing power that large-scale farming brings. For example, prices are cheaper when products are bought in large orders. Small farmers cannot compete when it comes to buying and renting land, as there needs to be a minimum land area on which a farmer can make a living; otherwise, we are on the road back to the landlord system. The minimum milk collection policy in my own area has now increased from 250 litres per collection to 400 litres per collection, and this is just another nail in the coffin of small milk producers. As this model is totally production-focused and with no incentive to look after biodiversity or any other ecosystem service, farmers are sent the signal to produce more and more to fuel the relentless drive for a commodity product that can be sourced cheaply. Inevitably more fertiliser is used, more sprays are used on any plant that is competition to the crop, wetlands are drained, hedgerows are removed, woodland and forestry are converted to grassland etc. This is all done legally, as habitats have very little protection, especially in intensive farming areas where most of the food is produced. There has been a continuous push on farmers to produce more for less, with a devastating impact on the environment.
The 10% "space for nature" is a concept that the BRIDE project adopts. A figure of 10% of the farmed area being prioritised for biodiversity is mentioned in the green deal, biodiversity strategy and food strategy 2030, but no timelines or guidelines have been given on how this will be achieved or where the money will come from. In practice this will mean some farmers may need to take land out of food production to attain the 10%. When land is taken out of agricultural production, it should be replaced with an environmental payment equivalent that incentivises the farmer on an ongoing and indefinite basis to deliver the ecosystem services that alternative land uses can provide such as clean water, flood prevention, more biodiversity, carbon sequestration etc. This payment should be results-based, as in the BRIDE project template, so that farmers can be incentivised to manage their land both for environmental benefits and food production.
The current Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, payment structure should be reformed to include an environmental payment to farmers for this 10%. This puts a value on the habitats and biodiversity that are being lost and sends a signal to the farmer that maintaining these habitats is important. It would be a payment from the taxpayer to the farmer for delivering ecosystem services at a time when we have a global climate and biodiversity crisis.
Ireland's agriculture is at a crossroads. We are going down the road of increased expansion and racing to the bottom of the barrel to be the most efficient food producers in the world but with the worst environmental record and a farming population that is tired and stressed in that race. Our future young farmers will have other more profitable and rewarding occupations to choose from with better work conditions if we do not make changes. Our credibility and the Origin Green credibility is under serious threat and we cannot any longer claim to be sustainable food producers while the public is well aware of the environmental problems that intensive farming is causing. Time has caught up on poor and lax environmental care over the years because of bad short-term policy. In recent discussions on the food strategy 2030 document, it has been suggested that "there needs to be give and take" but there has been too much take from the farmers and the environment over the past 20 years; both have been exploited and this needs to change.
Everyone is kicking the dairy cow numbers matter down the road but we cannot have our cake and eat it. At the high stocking rates of over 2.4 cows per hectare being encouraged, there will be high artificial nitrogen usage and very little space for nature. If artificial nitrogen use is curtailed, it would encourage farmers to utilise fertilisers and slurry more efficiently. Reducing nitrogen use would have a positive impact on our emissions and would not have the negative impact on grass production that we are told it would.
The BRIDE project has created a template to help farmers achieve a 10% "space for nature" certification entitled farming with nature, which is also an objective of the aforementioned strategies. This creates a minimum standard that rewards farmers who are looking after the environment. We have recently received further funding from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the EU through the EIP funding initiative, where we were given over €100,000 to create an app that will measure the quantity and quality of biodiversity on any farm. This will be the basis of a "farming with nature" standard that any farm in Ireland can have and should be the basis of any food we export abroad. We are currently liaising with one of the meat processors and it will trial a "farming with nature" certified beef range with a payment being returned to the farmer for this certification.
There is a diagram in the documentation illustrating the certification we would give to farmers.
It can be seen from it that farmers are paid for the quantity of habitats that they have on their farms. In other words, it can be 2, 3, 4 or 5 ha and up to 40% or 50%. The figure on the certificate giving the additional biodiversity managed area, BMA, is probably the most important one. In this example, and this is a real farm, the farmer took out 0.066 ha from his 2019 baseline BMA. He had 3.948 ha in what we will call space for nature, and then he took out 0.066 ha from that total. That figure reflects the experience of the 42 farmers we have in the BRIDE Project. Few hectares are being taken out and that is because once the BRIDE Project is finished, those farmers know that if the land is gone, then it is gone from food production. The BRIDE Project finishes in 2023 and they will have no payment for it. We can see that farmers right across the board are slow to take land out of food production for obvious reasons. It is the source of their income, and that is why there is a need to give them a continuous income. Farmers are not looking to be millionaires, but an incentive must be provided to look after these habitats which are delivering these ecosystem services.
The next diagram is an example of farming with nature certification. With the app that I mentioned we are able to go around to any farm in Ireland, map the habitats on the farm and rate them on a scale. We also score the quality of those habitats. The 11B figure on the sample certification shows that the farmer has 11% space for nature on his farm and the quality of the habitats is B. The app can be used on a farm walk and we hope farmers will be able to do that.
To summarise, we must change from a model of production at lowest cost, where the processors and retailers are forcing farmers down a road they do not wish to go, to a model of regenerative farming, where the farmer, the soil and the quality of the food produced will lead to a more sustainable food production system and, ultimately, a healthier consumer. This point should be noted.
We are at a crossroads in dairy farming. We can down the road of continuous expansion with farms getting ever larger but with the number of farmers becoming smaller and smaller, with all the consequences that would have for rural Ireland. We are trying to compete with the big dairy production countries of the world on scale, but we are losing out on the quality of food we produce, the quality of our water and the quality of our life and biodiversity. We must put a value on all these things so we can truly say we are sustainable food producers and proud of it.