Irish Farmers – struggling for survival
In April this year (April 11-13, 2016), I actively participated in the SAI-Platform meeting in Dublin, which included field visits to Irish farmers. I decided to join the excursion to beef farms.
Irish beef is popular in many countries. We eat Irish steaks at home regularly. They are excellent, often even better than those from South America. Marketing of Irish beef is consistently conveying the romantic picture: the small farms, the friendly farmers, living in harmony with nature, and so on. Such marketing may be effective to attract consumers, but reality is a bit different from the romantic picture. After the Dublin meeting, I discussed this with several people, and sent the following e-mail.
Irish Beef – fairy tales and reality
- The farmer’s contribution to ‘sustainability’. From profitability to sustainability.
We all know that farming is tough. Profitable farming on the basis of global commodity prices and in the context of national and EU policies is not easy and often hardly possible. Farming is a continuous struggle for survival. What the farmers in Ireland told us, was no surprise. We all know this. More responsible (‘sustainable’) farming cannot go significantly beyond ‘win-win’ practices that combine gains in the ecological and/or social pillar with contributing to profitability. Measures that lead to reduced profitability are hardly feasible. During the seminar, it was repeatedly said that ‘without profitability no sustainability’. This is correct, but some people apparently liked to believe that profitability directly contributes to (social and ecological) sustainability. Of course, there is no guarantee whatsoever. Just as an example, consider the on-farm biodiversity at Irish beef farms (which I had the pleasure to visit). What I saw was depressing: hardly any birds other than crows, starlings and a finch or sparrow here and there. The grassland itself was a monotonous monoculture without any herbs present. Evidently this is what you get when optimising beef production. This is what the farmer needs for his survival. His freedom to contribute to biodiversity is limited to leaving some less productive corners of his farm to a more natural development. On-farm biodiversity is severely restricted in the context of maintaining productivity. Does this make his farm unsustainable? Actually this is not a good question at all. See next point.
- Sustainable farms, sustainable agriculture, sustainable development
If we define sustainability at the farm level, we will look at the possibility of running a profitable farm and at the same time protecting the environment (biodiversity, climate, etc.) and taking care of social standards. The majority of ‘sustainable farms’ in this view would most probably be low-input farms, extensive farming on semi-natural land, such as sheep farming on remote hills in mountain areas. Some organic farm systems could be ‘sustainable’ as well in this definition. It would, however, define most highly intensive agriculture as much less ‘sustainable’ or even ‘unsustainable’. By doing that, one can easily miss the point that intensive high-input agriculture can be a major contribution towards sustainable development at a wider scale, for example by saving land that can be reserved for conserving or developing nature. To make agriculture sustainable, there is a need for a mix of several strategies, allowing for low-input extensive farming, high-input intensive farming and excluding land from agriculture. In this sense, ‘farm level sustainability’ is a difficult concept that not always makes sense. It could be more appropriate to talk about ‘responsible farming’, where the farmer takes direct responsibility for those (few) factors that he/she can really control. In the end, sustainability can only be defined at a higher ‘landscape level’, regional or national level.
- Sustainability beyond marketing
Bord Bia, on their website origingreen.ie conveys a picture of Ireland and farming in Ireland. The first sentence on the video (Saoirse Ronan for Origin Green Sustainability Programme – Bord Bia): “Ireland is an ancient and unspoilt land. There are few places to which nature has been so kind… “. The video conveys the overly romantic impression that Irish agriculture has a direct link with unspoilt nature. Although it is certainly true that Irish agriculture is better in sustainability terms than agriculture in a number of other countries, it cannot be taken for granted that Irish farms are sustainable. Irish farmers have to work under the same gigantic commercial and policy pressures as their colleagues elsewhere. And the result is not too different from results elsewhere. Farmers as a group show an alarmingly high suicide rate. Life at Irish farms is not the fairy-tale that Bord Bia tells to the consumers. There is nothing against such marketing as long as it strengthens the farmers’ position on the market. But the marketing myth and reality are two different things.