Farming in Northern Ireland (NI) has a fundamental influence upon economic, environmental and social matters. Around 75 per cent of our countryside is used for agricultural purposes. This makes farming the largest single production sector; with meat, dairy and eggs accounting for over 80% of its output. Farming turns over around £4.5 billion every year and remains a cornerstone of NI’s economy. It is more than just a job or source of income, however. It is a way of life for a significant proportion of the population. Traditionally, rural communities are extremely close knit, with generations of farming families at the heart of this. Over the last few years, however, volatility in the prices paid to farmers for their produce has caused significant problems for the industry. Often, farmers see their profits squeezed by other partners in the supply chain, while market uncertainty across sectors has wreaked havoc with farm gate prices.
The economic and social significance of agriculture renders it an inherently political realm, with competing debates suggesting alternative management frameworks. Unsurprisingly, the future of farming practice has developed into a key component of Brexit discussions and the potential implications that leaving the European Union will present for production and trade opportunities remain unclear. Additionally, as public consciousness around climate and ecological breakdown has grown, agriculture is finding itself firmly under the spotlight. There have been persistent calls from a range of organizations and concerned citizens for more sustainable farming practices to be operationalized. From growing crops to processing, transporting, selling and storing food and material; everything we produce and eat has an impact on the environment.
The RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission clearly illustrates the long-term social, economic and ecological impact of climate inaction. Despite this, there remains limited government action to combat the environmental pressures impacting agriculture. This has manifested itself in an often-polarized debate, in which the needs of farming and the environment are pitted against each other. With current policy in NI championing growth and intensive farming, environmental concerns rarely have influence at the decision-making level. But how did we get here? And where can we go? We argue that it is possible to combine more productive farming, while sustaining livelihoods and meeting the growing demand for food, by constructing sustainable, wildlife-friendly methods. Beginning with an overview of the political and environmental context of farming practice in NI, this article will be the first in a three-part discussion presenting the case for change.
A GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND?
Think of the Northern Irish landscape and you probably conjure up visions of green fields and rolling hills being grazed by livestock. The archetypal image of our land, which has been used to market our growing tourist industry to audiences around the world. Digging a little deeper, however, it quickly becomes apparent that our environment is far from being in a healthy condition. The Royal Society for Protected Birds (RSPB) recently released a State of Nature Report, demonstrating the pressures facing biodiversity at present. One in ten species is currently facing extinction on the island of Ireland, with iconic, internationally important farmland birds, such as the Curlew, under severe threat. Furthermore, we have continuing issues with water and air quality. Agriculture is directly responsible for 27% of greenhouse gas emissions in NI, the largest of any sector. Ammonia emissions, of which 93% derive from farming, are a particular concern. To solve these problems, it is first important to recognize what led us to this point.
THE COMMON AGRICULTURAL POLICY
Agriculture policies influence how land is managed. In NI, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is central to the farming sector. Initially, the CAP was established in the years following World War 2, as a way of enhancing food security and providing income support. However, while the policy has gone through many iterations since its formation, it has failed to address the negative environmental impacts of farming, many of which it has helped to create. In its current form, the policy is split into two separate pillars. Pillar 1, providing direct income to farmers, based on their scale and output; and pillar 2, financially supporting sustainable land management, combatting climate change and increasing agricultural competitiveness. However, the levels of funding allocated to each pillar are far from even. In total, CAP spending amounts to around €140 billion across EU member states. Almost 80% of this is allocated towards pillar 1, highlighting how comparatively little is given to pillar 2. In NI, over €2.3 billion pillar 1 payments have been received over the last seven years, compared to only €227 million pillar 2 payments.
So why is this important? Pillar 1 funding does very little to incentivize good environmental land management, with minimal conditions applied to the payments in terms of biodiversity provision, carbon mitigation, soil health and water quality. Indeed, to receive pillar 1 payments, farmers are commonly incentivized to remove wetland or scrub areas, features that are valuable wildlife habitats. In contrast, pillar 2 applicants are required to develop agri-environment schemes. These focus on rewarding farmers for delivering work for specific species and habitats found on farmland. In some cases, these have provided impressive results and serve to demonstrate how it is possible to farm in a way that provides both economic and environmental benefits. Whilst these schemes have achieved wins in some areas, they have not been funded to deliver at an effective scale.
THE NEED FOR SUSTAINABLE TRANSITIONS
The need to develop domestic agriculture policies was outlined as a major opportunity to help deliver Michael Gove’s vision for a Green Brexit. This included the proposal of a ‘public money for public goods’ approach. However, there remain concerns about the government’s genuine desire to operationalize such a shift. Indeed, post-election publications by the Conservative party appeared to drop much of the Green Brexit terminology. There is also the seismic issue of NI’s absent executive, unless support is given to the proposed New Decade, New Approach deal, which adds a further layer of complexity. The current ‘Going for Growth’ strategy, wherein environmental objectives are considered as an afterthought, is ill devised. Unfortunately, without a strong government voice pushing for an alternative, more conservation driven model, it is difficult to see how successful transitions can be realized. Nevertheless, we must interpret our major challenges as opportunities. In the following two articles, we will dig deeper into a possible path that NI could follow. By evaluating successful farming transitions from elsewhere, we will examine how similar approaches could be replicated here.