Admit the Problem to Solve it

Recent beach closures in Clare, where I live, have sparked a conversation about Irelands farming practices. My previous post “Keep the Sh1te Out Of Our Water”, prior to the closures, mentioned 3 forms of pollution in Irish waterways; waste water treatment plants, slurry or animal waste from farming and septic tanks – human household waste. There have been numerous beach closures recently affecting seasonal tourism and local business. It’s time to talk about why, with a view to prevention.

Clare County Council verified that this pollution was not caused by a dodgy wastewater treatment plant. There’s more information in this press release from An Taisce who followed up with Clare County Council.

I have a septic tank. It’s not in the affected catchment but if it leaks it probably runs into the ocean at Doolin. I had booked a service just before lockdown and the beach closures served as a reminder to get in touch with the company to reschedule an appointment. I would also love to know more about how surplus water would interact with the surrounding environment as it’s in boggy land with lots of rushes. It may be better if I created a reed bed altogether. I’ll have to contact FH Wetlands Systems Ltd in Ennis for some advice.

When it comes to slurry everyone gets defensive. I get dismissed with lots of romantic ideology and nostalgia claiming that this is how Ireland farms, mindful of nature and it’s never been a problem before. Tell that to the cow as she’s artificially inseminated. I call bullsh1t. It is time we started to have honest conversations about the economic, social and environmental impacts of farming today.

Farming has changed dramatically in Ireland over the years. It is completely different from the time my grandfather cycled for miles to tend crops in Liscannor. Every family had a vegetable plot. There was more diversity in the animals kept. Fields that once grew vegetables, potatoes, hay, feed for the animals, goats, donkeys, hens are now supporting cattle. Fields that once completely supported the local human population and more, are now dedicated to cows.

Some food for thought about the impacts this intensive model is having including some of my questions:

  • The cost of farming has increased. Amongst other factors, farmers are under pressure to keep up with “advances” and inputs. This report on Farm Income and Structures taken from the 2019 Annual Review and Outlook by the Department of Agriculture & the Marine demonstrate that the farm operating surplus decreased in 2018.
  • Fodder crises. We have had numerous calls for help when bad weather has left farmers without feed for cattle. Here’s an explainer in TheJournal.ie. Wetter summers are forecast as climate breakdown continues.
  • Small farms don’t earn much. The average family farm income rose by 2% in Ireland in 2019, according to a report by Teagasc. A combination of factors were responsible for the increase in income in 2019, which averaged €23,933. Better weather made for good production conditions in 2019, but lower output prices were experienced in some sectors.
  • The profits for intensive farming are going to the top of the agri-industry chain, to big farmers and beef barons, some of the richest people in the country. Family farming is one of the nostalgic images that will soon only be alive in the history books as they are being sold to bigger farms supplying the beef and dairy industry..
  • The meat industry is based on low paid farmers and low paid workers in appalling working conditions. The current Covid19 crisis is highlighting that. It is complete negligence and relies upon the belief that some lives are worth less. Here’s a general search for relevant Covid19 news in TheJournal.ie.
  • Why are smaller abattoirs closed? Where’s the local butcher gone? Why aren’t we supporting them?
  • It is not our job to feed the world. That is a myth generated by the industry heads to make themselves more money. They lobbied government who have embraced that model and happily feed off the taxes of low paid workers while the enormous profits go mainly tax free. Agriland article from July 2019.
  • Farming in Ireland is heavily dependent upon EU subsidies. In case you need reminding here is a World in Action documentary from 1991 highlighting how beef barons profit from subsidies supposed to be supporting farmers in Ireland. Why aren’t farmers supported to protect and enhance biodiversity instead of propping up an industry that is destroying the environment? Like the Burren Programme.
  • If we did have to feed the world then there are better ways. The following relates to a study detailed in a press release by An TaisceDr Colin Doyle is an associate member of the Environment and Sustainable Development Cluster, Whitaker Institute, NUI Galway. Dr Doyle conducted a food trade energy analysis for Ireland and the EU on behalf of the An Taisce Climate Change Committee. What are the lessons from this food energy analysis? – “Ireland and the EU can contribute to a sustainable global food supply by increasing cereal, oil crop and vegetable production, reducing beef production, and moving away from biofuels.”
  • If slurry is the best manure and we have over 7 million cattle, then why is bagged fertiliser still needed?
  • Slurry run off is a massive issue. That has been documented for years. The latest national water quality report from the EPA is available here. What else can we do with it? Dry it out? Use it to generate compost? Anaerobic digestion to generate heat and/or electricity?
  • #cattlebubble – cattle have become the new housing, all our eggs in one basket, economic model, that destroyed us in the 90s. Why are we following that same path?
  • We are told that farming is dependent upon EU and state funding to survive – despite some very rich people within the industry. Why do we support a model that could be much better for society, the economy and the environment? Why not create a new model that shares the money equally and pays for the restoration of the environment?
  • Agricultural emissions are our downfall when it comes to climate action and subsequent fines. A fact continuously confirmed by many credible sources yet constantly argued by interest groups and those averse to change.
  • Farming practices have contributed to biodiversity loss. Why not create a high nature value farming model and lead the way?
  • We import tonnes of vegetables that can be grown here including potatoes, carrots, onions and apples. Why don’t we put subsidies into farmers growing crops? Why not have community co-ops trading local produce instead of top heavy profiteering?
  • Bearing in mind the close relationship the profiteers have with the government I no longer trust state agencies to do the right thing. A press release by An Taisce in December 2019 quotes Teagasc and concludes that “Nowhere in its mandate is Teagasc charged with lobbying on behalf of one agricultural sector versus another, but in Prof Boyle’s recent remarks, we believe he has strayed well beyond Teagasc’s legal remit and into the realm of agri-politics”, according to a spokesperson for An Taisce.

The EPA has a best practice guide for spreading slurry. Some of these guidelines are completely ignored. This is an excerpt:

In order to prevent waters from being polluted by nitrogen and phosphorus, the European Union (Good Agricultural Practice for Protection of Waters) Regulations, 2014 require that you must do the following:

  • You must spread chemical fertilisers, livestock manure and other organic fertilisers, effluents and soiled water as accurately and as evenly as you can.
  • You must not use an upward-facing splash plate or sludge irrigator on a tanker or umbilical system for spreading organic fertiliser or soiled water.
  • You must not spread organic fertilisers or soiled water from a road or passageway, even if the road or passageway is on your own holding.
  • You must not spread chemical fertilisers, livestock manure, soiled water or other organic fertilisers when:
    • The land is waterlogged;
    • The land is flooded, or it is likely to flood;
    • The land is frozen, or covered with snow;
    • Heavy rain is forecast within 48 hours (you must check the forecasts from Met Éireann).
    • The ground slopes steeply and there is a risk of water pollution, when factors such as surface run-off pathways, the presence of land drains, the absence of hedgerows to mitigate surface flow, soil condition and ground cover are taken into account.
  • You must not spread chemical fertiliser on land within 2 metres of a surface watercourse.

I can see why politicians avoid this discussion. I can see why the state avoids it. I can see why farmers avoid it. BUT we can’t avoid it forever and it’s getting worse. It’s time to talk solutions, preferably as a community. What can we all do to help each other?

Theresa O’Donohoe

August 8th 2020

PS before the claws come out it’s worth acknowledging that I am a systems analyst. A problem solver. I give and accept critique. If people like me don’t ask the hard questions it’s probable that nobody will. They need to be asked. Too many people are busy trying not to rock the boat that they are oblivious to the ice berg.

Food we trade – how much of it could we produce?

2 thoughts on “Admit the Problem to Solve it

  1. Just one comment, Theresa. That documentary from 1991 is surely out of date. The EU long ago changed the CAP to include environmentally beneficial changes such as hedgerow protection and the creation of broader field headlands to encourage bio-diversity. I’m certainly not saying the CAP is perfect, but it is a lot different today than it was 30 years ago.

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