THE NEW NORTHERN FOREST IRISH STYLE

This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com in January 2018

To quote the Woodland Trust on the 7th January 2018, “We’re thrilled to announce that… we plan to create an exciting new Northern Forest”. No, despite some local communities thinking otherwise, this does not relate to any unofficial plans for Counties Leitrim, Cavan, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo but a project that “will embrace the major cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Chester and Hull as well as major towns across the north [of England]”.

One assumes that as the Northern Forest will “deliver major environmental, social and economic benefits that complement the significant growth, investment and new infrastructure that is planned for the north of England” that it will be broadly welcomed by the region’s communities. The Trust goes on to say that “It will deliver a better environment for all by: improving air quality in our towns and cities; mitigating flood risk in key catchments; supporting the rural economy through tourism, recreation and timber production; connecting people with nature; and helping to deliver improvements to health and wellbeing through welcoming and accessible local green spaces”.

In contrast, two Irish MEPs, Marian Harkin and Mairead McGuinness have been visiting localities in the north of the Republic who are seriously concerned that their communities are disappearing into newly planted tracts of commercial softwood forestry. It is a situation that is only likely to get worse as more planting is encouraged to help meet GHG emission targets. And that planting will happen where economic values of land are lowest and where alternative land uses cannot compete.

One would imagine that the environmental lobby would be happy to see more tree planting but no they are fickler than that. Apparently, they like monocultured conifer plantations only a tad less than Ireland’s failure to halt rising GHG emissions. Frankly, conifer plantings are a pretty blunt instrument to address GHG emissions with, but they are indicative of Ireland’s response to climate change.

Extensive, typically suckler beef, has been identified as the sacrificial cow with respect to land use change. She is an easy target when you do not account for the carbon sequestration side of her grazing. As we move into an era of fines linked to GHG emissions, the economic output of land using activities will become an increasingly important factor [and one that over-rides the ‘we have low GHG per unit of food’ argument] and that will focus more attention onto extensive beef production. Complicating the scenario is, nonetheless, how do you value the role of cattle in managing our landscapes and preserving/enhancing the biodiversity that they encapsulated within them?

Simply, conifer plantations are a poor-quality, knee-jerk reaction to Ireland’s GHG situation. It is one that avoids looking too closely at the sacred cow. One has also heard the plantings being justified on the basis that Ireland has a natural advantage when it comes to producing softwoods, because they grow fast. That high-quality softwoods come from much higher northern latitudes where land values are low, and thus where trees can be grown very slowly, is a fact that seems to have slipped under the radar. Unless cheap is a primary motive, you buy Scandinavian or Siberian.

A common complaint from those in the way of the New Irish Northern Forest is that commercial plantings are competing for agricultural land with local farmers who are trying to grow their businesses. The blunt response is, of course, to say that it is simple economics, if they cannot pay the asking price they cannot access the land. It is a line that is not going down well with local communities who see farming as the fundamental centre of their existence. As that is the case and with such at stake, this debate needs to move up a level or two.

As an aside, are we fully exploring the agroforestry options? Although most land will not be well suited, should we be planting fruit and nuts, either as orchards or integrated with livestock systems? If GHG mitigation is crucial, maybe we should again be planting fruit on the best land, rather than keeping cows to produce milk for milk powder for export to whoever can be found to buy it. Maybe Irish folk would appreciate the chance to buy a more diversified range of local produce? And then we should be looking at how we can integrate forestry with extensive meat production.

There is, of course, a fundamental weakness when it comes to producing more specialized food products either on valuable landscapes or within agro-forestry systems, and that is the lack of routes to markets for such produce. If all farm produce is reduced to a commodity by the supply-chains, whether it exits the farm gate as premium or not, what chance is there to obtain a market-derived, premium price? The fact that food processing seems to be excluded from rural development funding programmes, only makes this serious shortfall situation worse.

Irish farmers on tough terrain need to be producing valuable produce, period. Their local communities need to be able to process, enhance and add value to that produce. It is the systemic extraction of the very raw materials that local communities need to be processing that is destroying rural Ireland, albeit that those communities on the marginal lands are going first. It is nothing new and it is happening in upland and marginal regions everywhere. Whether one chooses to address the problem head on or not is another matter.

There is an on-going, probably deepening, rural crisis that can only be addressed through highly coherent, economic and environmentally-focused rural development planning that has farming and food at its centre. It is not happening. It is a policy failure that needs to be called out. Instead we are choosing to sweep many Irish communities under a carpet of conifers. There must be room for more trees, for more woodlands, even forests, but they must coexist with thriving rural communities.

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IS RENATIONALISATION OF THE CAP MR GOVE’S GOLDEN GOOSE?

It was back in 2013 that I predicted in the Romanian English-language press that the failure of Brussels and the western EU member states to effectively support the regeneration of rural Romania would lead to the demise of the EU as we know it. My rational was that the arrival of a post-2013 flow of migrants into the UK would tip the balance in a UK referendum on Britain’s EU membership. Given how narrow the vote was, I believe that it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We are now working through the consequences.

After the 2016 referendum result my reaction was that as the consequences of leaving were fully appreciated, the British public would demand a second referendum and that would come down in favour of Remain. Now I do not think that it will be the case, Leave will mean Leave. That said, pragmatism will mean that EU-UK trade will flow freely and so will, by and large, EU and UK citizens.

The reason for my change of mind is because I think that the arch-Leaver, Michael Gove, has hit upon a golden goose when it comes to swaying the British voter. It is a goose that transcends party politics and talks to the many. It is the opportunity to re-write British farming and food policy. The CAP has long been disliked by the UK public as it has been construed as a feather-bed for Range-Rover driving farmers. It may be misunderstood, but £3 billion was a number that they consider large enough to warrant serious consideration. At £50 per head of the UK population, it is not that great and much lower than that paid by the tax payers of its immediate island neighbour. More would have gone to support the CAP’s coffers for payment to farmers outside the UK.

Demonstrating to the British public the positives of leaving the CAP will be driven forwards over the coming months, and it will be done in such a way as to have mass voter appeal. We may also find that many farmers signing up to a much different policy. One can see that it is already swaying some who would be adamant Remainers and no fans of Mr Gove. There are already noises around that the UK, freed up from Brussels, may indeed be the trailblazer for the development of a totally new approach to food, farming, rural and environmental policy. And Brussels may eventually follow.

The development of a separate, stand-alone alternative to the CAP is also coming when there is talk about some renationalisation of the CAP. If such had come earlier and loudly proclaimed, maybe that would that have swayed the 2% of Leave voters to stay and Brexit may have remained no more than a glint in Nigel Farage’s eyes. Then again, maybe that would have required the joining together of too many dots.

Again, back in 2013, I was questioning whether the one-size-fitted-all CAP operating across the EU-28 was truly sustainable. My view was that on the green front leading countries like the UK were being held back by a centralized CAP. Further, I was aware of how CAP payments were being distributed in some locations and if it became widely known that a few received rather a lot, there would be a clamour from contributing member states for change. In the end the 2013 reforms were something of a damp squib and a missed opportunity. Maybe greater CAP reform would have been sufficient to swing the necessary few British voters, or was EU migration the ultimate issue?

From an Irish perspective, any moves to renationalise the CAP will be interesting. If each national budget is established in Brussels and allocation is decided in Dublin, will it make that much difference? It is not as if there is that much debate at the national level, be it in farming or politics, about the direction Irish agri-food is taking. For farming lobby groups, it is about how much their members get and for the agri-food industry it is about the EU/Irish taxpayer picking up any shortfalls that occur in farm incomes from the market not delivering an adequate, sustainable farm-gate price.

What would happen if, as in the UK, the general populace gets a whiff of an opportunity to have a major say in an Irish farming and food and environmental policy? One can see the green lobby becoming highly excited. The Irish taxpayers spend per head is also rather more than in the UK and it is likely that they would want a far greater say in what they get in return for their taxes. Providing support to an industry that feeds the world first and Ireland’s population second may not be considered acceptable. Any further decline in Ireland’s environment, water resources and GHG emissions performance will also not pass muster. In an industry resistant to change, any renationalisation of the CAP must be forestalled, whatever it takes.

Without the UK, a more radical member state, maintaining the CAP status quo should, in theory, be easier. Seeing Michael Gove collecting his golden eggs from the populace may, nonetheless, be too appealing a picture for politicians elsewhere in the EU. It may incentivise those who want to see a much-changed CAP. Judging by the recent CAP reform public consultation, there is much interest in reform from outside the immediate farming envelope and those who have made submissions, otherwise frustrated, may take faith from policy developments in the UK. And, France, may not be the bastion of resistance to CAP change that some may assume. If the political motivation there moves towards supporting farming that is greener, more sustainable and preserves the terroir, it is anybody’s guess where the CAP will be heading in coming years.