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Saoirse McHugh argues the Irish government is allowing us to freewheel off a dangerous slope of heart disease and climate destruction. Here she takes a look at how the Irish Farmers Organisation has us by the cajoles and how we are falling behind on our environmental commitments.
The climate change performance index published its findings last November. Ireland was ranked number 49 out of 59 countries surveyed, the lowest of any European country by a long stretch and coming in around giant polluters like Canada, Japan, and South Africa.
This may be easy to dismiss if what was being discussed was not the most important issue man has ever faced, that is, the warming of the planet. In this regard Ireland has no excuse given we have a long history of education, no large extractive industries, and the good fortune to be in the EU meaning we can export all our really dirty industry needs to poor countries. Yet we continue to spew out greenhouse gases (GHGs) despite treaty after convention after agreement.
Taking a close look at Ireland’s sham image as the bucolic innocent simpleton of the EU quickly reveals the rapacious exploitation of our emerald isle. As GHGs are vomited into the atmosphere at a continuous rate we import mined potassium, phosphorus, and expensively produced nitrogen, to spray all over land in order to sustain more and more cows. The environmental cost of synthetic fertilizer production is largely invisible to us as, thankfully, it occurs elsewhere. However, the environmental cost of using synthetic fertilizer is unavoidably obvious. Our waterways are choked with algae to the extent that the fishing season is significantly shortened, our soil hosts a fraction of the biodiversity present a few decades ago, and the pH content of our soil is increasing yearly.
All in the name of good food you say? Wrong. Ireland has never had such a problem with food. We are hurtling towards becoming the heaviest nation in the world as projected by the WHO and yet a large proportion of us are malnourished. As we stuff down bute laced horse meat pies, the sad 39c bag of carrots withers in the back of the fridge. Then again, the vegetables we do take the effort to eat are likely to be imported and significantly depleted of micronutrients compared to the same crop grown 60 years ago as nutritional complexity has been traded in for higher carbohydrate content and trace minerals are not replaced in the soil. So perhaps we are as well to keep lubing ourselves up with ketchup and sliding back those big IFA breakfast rolls.
Why is the Irish government allowing us to continue careening down this dead end of heart disease and climatic destruction? A fetishization of old MacDonald coupled with a healthy dose of hiberno-celtic exceptionalism has lead us here to beneath the thumb of farmers who cry purity from the midst of their ever expanding herds.The act of being a ‘simple country farmer’ comes under pressure when the amount of money given to this industry yearly is examined. Roughly €1.6 billion from CAP and another €626 million from our own governments apparently empty pockets. Divided by the ~139,000 farmers on the island results in a hefty chunk of money for a relatively small sector who systematically abuse our common resources.
To get away with this overt robbery requires political and media collusion at the highest level. The IFA have a mafiaesque grip on the governing stones of this country as our leader recently stated unequivocally that, despite the recommendation of the citizens assembly and the disproportionate contribution that agriculture makes towards our overall emissions, there will be no carbon tax put on agriculture. Not to mention the goal of ‘foodwise 2025’ to increase our livestock number. An Taisce have called this Trojan work by politicians in status quo maintenance “dismal, disastrous and dangerous for our collective future”. There is no doubt that farmers will not bear the brunt of the large fines we are facing for not only missing our GHG reduction target but overshooting it, despite their lucrative profiteering from those very emissions
A more insidious indicator of these dangerous bedfellows is the persistent and pervasive juxtaposing of the ‘food security’ concern with the ag industry, a link that is surprising to see persist in the national conversation, as if the food security of Ireland is somehow related to shipping cows to Saudi Arabia or powdered milk to China. Another tune that our national broadcaster fervently plays to soothe the dragon of the IFA is that of ‘them vs. us’. Environmentalists and their conspiracies vs. the humble hard working farmers of Ireland.
It is apparent that anything, including the environment on which agriculture relies, that competes with maximum profit has no place in this post Celtic tiger moral wasteland. This logical melee is illustrated beautifully by some of the infantile responses to Mary Robinson’s call to reduce or cease meat consumption. One TD who was highly concerned about the “tens of thousands of people who would become unemployed” yet seemingly indifferent to where these same people may live in a few years as, according to John Gibbons, author of Think or Swim, “the world beyond +2ºC is broadly incompatible with this or any other version of organised human civilisation”.
One glimmer of hope is visible. Based on the High Court’s recent declaration that “citizens have a constitutional right to an environment that is consistent with human dignity and the well being of citizens at large”, Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) are bringing a case against the Irish government for their failure to act on climate change as obsequious brown-nosing to your fellow plutocrats is not yet a crime in Ireland.
Is any other sector in Ireland managing to pull such a visible scam? No, and from behind your ‘well earned’ plate of steak and chips it might feel that there is nothing more Irish than the meat sweats. However, what if tomorrow the EU said that it needs no more cow products and Ireland had to wave goodbye to subsidies? Apart from the spectacle that would be big Phil Hogan grovelling for mercy before having to dye his few hairs and flee to South America Eichmann-style, the results would be fairly serious. Below-cost beef would disappear from our delis, Tescos, and restaurants and then we would really see how much the slab of cow is worth to us. And what to do with the 7 million cows staring balefully at us from every side? We will have to hope that they have never seen ‘The Birds’.
Realistically that is not going to happen tomorrow but it will happen. The end of meat eating by 2100 was discussed at the recent hyper conservative Oxford Farming Conference, and although the motion was defeated, an impressive 100 farmers was convinced in the course of the debate. Cows are an extremely inefficient form of protein production and as we move closer to fully accepting how far up shit creek the planet really is excess luxuries will become too expensive to subsidize. The toys will inevitably be flung out of the 181 Nissan Navaras but we cannot continue to pander to the greed of 2% of the population.