Food for thought: Northern Ireland's farming crisis

3 Oct 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 3 Oct 2019

Picture: Unsplash

Our health and the health of the land are inextricably linked. That link is now fractured.

Food and farming policies have driven us to a twin crisis: ill health caused by poor diet and the collapse of vital ecosystems due to inappropriate farming practices.

Collective action is urgently required in order to repair the damage to the land that we farm and to the food that we eat.

This was the driver for the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission. It was set up to provide fresh thinking about where our food comes from, how we support farming and rural communities, and how we invest in the many benefits the countryside provides.

It has just published its report on Northern Ireland, and the document makes for sobering reading.

Lay of the Land examines the extent to which NI is currently meeting a series of global obligations -and there is nothing to be proud of. For example:

  • The UK is currently committed to a 57% greenhouse gas emissions reduction on 1990 levels by 2030 as part of an EU 40% reduction commitment. Northern Ireland, however, is struggling to reach the modest 35% reduction required of it.
  • The 2015-2020 Biodiversity Strategy for Northern Ireland, outlines 20 targets which are supposed to contribute to reducing or halting biodiversity decline. It is unlikely Northern Ireland will meet any of them.
  •  Northern Ireland will miss the 2020 target of achieving Good Ecological Status (GES) for 70% of water bodies and is likely to miss the 2026 target of 100%.

The report concludes: “How we produce food in Northern Ireland is central to our ability to meet these obligations. The UK Government’s Committee on Climate Change states, ‘Nearly 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in Northern Ireland are from agriculture, compared to 10 percent in the rest of the UK.’

“Much of the challenge, therefore, lies in our predominantly animal based farming system and the solutions are far from clear.”

So whilst scientists are urging a shift to predominately plant-based diets in Northern Ireland just 5% of agricultural land produces plant-based food. And most of it is used as animal feed.

But the report is keen to stress: “In highlighting these stark realities, we do not think it is helpful to point the finger of blame at farmers. A combination of a climate that favours grass-based agricultural systems and policy that has often been myopic on environmental issues has left many farmers with few choices”

The report cites research by the Food Standards Agency which shows that people in Northern Ireland are more likely to eat meat, less likely to eat fish and less likely to eat raw vegetables and salads than people in England. They are half as likely to be vegetarian or vegan.

People living in poverty are especially at risk of poor diet and consequent ill health. One fifth of the population of Northern Ireland are living in poverty.

This raises an important issue: people in poverty are not in a position to choose healthier food if that means paying more for it. An essential ingredient in improving diet is tackling inequality.

The report was citizens-led meaning it involved widespread discussions with consumers, farmers and stakeholders.

Some of its most interesting findings relate to a series of what it calls disconnects.

These include the obvious disconnect between the price of food and the value of food. Competition between supermarkets has led to the widespread expectation that food should be cheap. So whilst people prefer the idea of organic and free range food, the tendency is to buy on price. Good, nutritious food is seen as too expensive.

There’s also the related disconnect between the pressure farmers are under to improve productivity and their ability to earn a living. They rarely if ever benefit from improvements themselves, these are sucked up by supermarkets who pass on some of the benefit to consumers through lower prices.

Similarly there are obvious disconnects between public subsidies to farming and public good. On average 83 pence in every pound earned by farmers in Northern Ireland comes from CAP payments.

The report states: “While there is broad support for the principle of supporting farming in this way, there is a widespread belief that the subsidies don’t really work. Some believe they are captured by corporate interests higher up the supply chain, others that they penalise farmers who work hardest and others say that they should be more directed towards environmental protection.”

Central to the report are the disconnects between the way that land is used and a healthy environment. Farmers are pressured by an aggressive commercial environment to destroy habitats and eco-systems – what some call “farming to the fence”. This in turn creates distrust between environmentalists and farmers, groups who need to become allies and partners in forging a better future. There should not be a conflict between farming and nature, they are co-dependent.

Another strong example is the way that most consumers have become disconnected from the people who produce the food that we eat. Farm shops and food markets are becoming increasingly popular because they involve a direct relationship between the two groups. Consumers know precisely where  the food has come from and get to meet the people who have produced it.

One thing that all those consulted on could agree upon was that the current system is not what they want and it is not working. There was no consensus on precisely what the future should look like, but it would appear that both farmers and the public agree that government policy is leading to  the wrong outcomes and that change is required.

The report suggests that this appetite for reform needs to be harnessed into a collective desire to achieve ‘a safe, secure, inclusive food and farming system, a flourishing rural economy and a sustainable and accessible countryside’.

The tough bit is how to get there – and there are no quick and easy solutions, not least because part of the challenge is squaring circles. For example how do you ensure that farmers are able to get fair prices for great produce whilst at the same time ensuring that good food is affordable for all? This is an urgent problem not least because of the clearly established link between health inequality and poor diet.

Yet it is hard to disagree with any of the proposed outcomes that the report argues for.

These include: farming that conserves our soils, restores biodiversity and reduces carbon emissions; healthy diets available for all; satisfying local food demand from local produce; building relationships between producers and consumers; young people understanding the relationships between farming, food environment and health.

The report is thoughtful and incisive. It clearly analyses the gathering crisis and the failure of government to date to address it.

It must not be left gathering dust on a shelf. The next step has to be the forging of a partnership between farmers, environmentalists, consumers, civic society and government to work through how we can progress. If we fail to the collapse of eco-systems and the degeneration of the land will force our hands in ways we may not like.


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