The Irish agricultural system will have to change dramatically over the next decade to reduce emissions and increase equality and sustainability. The Teagasc Annual Farm Survey shows that just 36% of 135,000 Irish farms are currently considered viable – mostly concentrated in the dairy industry. In all other sectors, Common Agricultural Policy payments are key to on-farm survival, with many farmers forced to work off the farm to supplement their incomes.

A recent report by the Think-Tank for Action on Social Change showed that, when time spent working is factored in, agriculture is now the most unequal sector in the country, with the top 10% of farmers receiving 30% of all income.

The other major challenge in agriculture is emissions. Farming contributes 33% of Irish emissions versus just 10% on the continent. The difference is due to higher levels of intensive production, a culture of beef and dairy farming and a low level of forestry cover. Ireland currently uses 65% of its land for grazing and 10% for forestry, for example, whereas the split in Europe is around 40% agricultural land and 40% forest cover.

Agriculture---Ireland-to-Europe

In order to make agriculture more economically and environmentally sustainable, we propose breaking the monopoly control of the big agri-corporations and incentivising small and medium-sized farmers to diversify the sector through horticulture, organic products, bee-keeping, widening hedgerows, hemp, agro-forestry, forestry, wetlands and any other forms of agriculture capable of absorbing carbon.

Big agri-companies are committed to increasing beef and dairy production, regardless of the environmental impacts, but small and medium farmers are in a very different category. Their aim is to secure a livelihood for their families in a way that maintains their link to the land and sustains their lives in rural Ireland.

Our proposed anti-pollution fund from the profits of big agri-businesses would incentivise farmers to give part of their land to environmental initiatives for the benefit of wider society.

State-sponsored emissions

Any idea that Fine Gael take climate initiatives seriously has been undermined by the Central Statistics Office, which has shown that from 2012 to 2016, the state gave annual subsidies of €2.5 billion in fossil fuel supports and €1.5 billion in agricultural supports to industries and initiatives that incentivise behaviour that damages the environment.

Each year, Fine Gael support a €500 million subsidy for cheap diesel for the agricultural sector even as they impose carbon taxes on the rest of us. Our alternative is to support farmers who reduce emissions through a major Just Transition Fund and a carbon tax on the major polluting industries.

By creating an anti-pollution fund from the profits of big agri-businesses, we can incentivise farmers to offer part of their land to environmental initiatives that will benefit the wider society.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine estimate that it will cost €567 million annually to plant 125,000 hectares of trees – made up of a mixture of broad leaf, native species and Sitka Spruce.

If farmers take up this scheme over 10 years, it will leave 70% of their land still available for other forms of agriculture that will be further incentivised to move away from beef and dairy.

The following are our key policy proposals for agriculture:

1. Break up the major beef processors and agri-corporations

According to the Central Statistics Office, profit in the agricultural sector was €2,849 million in 2018, but we know that major agri-businesses are using accountancy tricks to avoid paying taxes. Larry Goodman recently used companies in Luxembourg to avoid taxes on €170 million profits, for example, and this process is widespread in other sectors too.

People Before Profit would nationalise the major agri-corporations in order to:

  • Remove the key vested interests who profit from increased production and pollution;
  • Provide funds for a Just Transition for those farmers willing to move to more environmentally sustainable agricultural practices, and;
  • Allow the tens of thousands of small and medium farmers to have a more sustainable future by removing the profit motive that is squeezing their livelihoods.

2. Initiate a major afforestation and rewilding campaign

Ireland has approximately 1,500,000 hectares of land suitable for sustainable forestry and perhaps a further 500,000 hectares of wet areas appropriate for the regeneration of native woodland.

Over the next 10 years, People Before Profit would move Ireland towards the European average level of forestry cover (35%) by planting 125,000 hectares of trees and other carbon-absorbing plants annually.

Some of this land can be delivered through the national forestry agency, Coillte, but the majority will have to be given over by farmers for a guaranteed environment payment every year.

People Before Profit would offer farmers €3,000 annually for every hectare put under an absorption model (hemp, forest, hedgerows etc.). This would cost €560 million (including capital outlay) annually or just over 20% of the profits in the sector at present. Every hectare put under Co2-absorbing farming practices has the potential to both sequester carbon and reduce the cattle and dairy herd. Our estimate is that each hectare moved from livestock to forestry or other forms of sustainable farming will reduce emissions by seven tonnes per hectare per annum.

3. Cap the Basic Payment Scheme and increase the Greening Payment

Post 2020, the EU will begin to impose stricter limits on the amount a single farmer can receive in a BPS payment.

The cap should be set at €50,000 per annum with the rest of the money going to increase payments to at least €10,000 per annum for every farmer. All extra money should then be put into the Greening Payment for farmers who plant trees or move to other forms of sustainable farming under the afforestation scheme.

People Before Profit would lobby in Europe to make this a reality.

4. Reduce the national dairy herd by 50%

The expansion of the dairy herd to take advantage of the relaxation of milk quotas in 2015 is causing massive damage to the environment. 1.4 million dairy cows emit nearly 150% of the Co2 emitted by the country’s 2.7 million cars.

We must reduce the dairy herd considerably, not look to keep increasing it. Farmers who lose money in this reduction will be properly compensated provided they are not earning more than €100,000 per annum when the reduction is made.

Summary of our key initiatives in agriculture

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