PJ Phelan: Why I believe the ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy could put most Irish tillage farmers out of business

The largest shipment of soybean and derivatives in Brazilian history is being processed this month. Destination: the Netherlands.

he ship is 292m long and 45m wide and will carry 103,000 tonnes of soybean meal. That will be fed to European cows and cattle for consumption by Europeans.

Brazilian soybean is produced by GMO and/or Crispr technologies which are largely prohibited in Europe. Those technologies enable rapid response by plant breeders to the needs of farmers for disease, herbicide and drought resistance in crops.

Glyphosate resistance has been bred into many crops, enabling usage of the herbicide in growing them, while Europe is considering banning its use pre-sowing.

Meanwhile Europe has announced the ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy — for a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system.

It expresses an aspiration that EU standards will raise world standard, but does not take the essential step of stating that produce which does not meet the standards in the strategy will not be allowed into Europe.

In my opinion the strategy has the potential to put most Irish arable farmers out of business. It requires that we reduce pesticide usage by 50pc by 2030.

Our rainfall levels are such that disease pressure is higher here than anywhere else in Europe, to the extent that many new pesticides are trialled in Ireland before being marketed in Europe.

Margins have been tight on arable farms for many years; agronomists and farmers have reacted by cutting pesticide rates as low as possible.

A further reduction of 50pc will result make crop production unviable.

Remember we still have to see how severe the loss of Chlorothalonil will hit crop yields.

The strategy requires implementation of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which we have being doing for many years, with the use of non-chemical approaches.

In practice the use of such approaches must be dynamic with different measures being used to respond to differing issues from year to year due to climatic and disease pressures.

Every year is different; every crop is different.

Compliance

The strategy requires a baseline set of IPM measures in order to qualify for CAP supports— the result will be that in some years farmers may be obliged to implement measures solely for compliance rather than as an aid to crop production.

There is no way that a farmer can achieve those standards, remain viable and compete with produce produced outside Europe.

Is there any logic in allowing rainforests in one part of the world to be destroyed for food production — and some of that food exported to Ireland, where farmers may yet be asked to plant shelterbelts?

Development of new highly disease-resistant varieties is the only way we may achieve a 50pc reduction in pesticide usage and maintain viability.

It takes 20 years to produce a new variety using conventional plant breeding but only 2-3 years using GMO/Crispr technologies.

So if we are to stay with conventional plant breeding, the target for the 50pc reduction must be extended to 2040.

The strategy calls for a 20pc reduction in fertiliser usage, not recognising that poor soil fertility is a contributor to disease development in crops — poor soil fertility increases the need for pesticides.

A requirement for balanced crop nutrition should give a reduction in fertiliser usage and increased output much more efficiently than a crude 20pc reduction.

The programme should be based on science and nutrient management rather than a pure numbers game.

The target that we should have 25pc of the EU’s agricultural land under organic farming by 2030 is dangerous and unnecessary.

There is a substantial core of organic producers in Europe who are promoting and responding to the demand for organic produce.

Any interference with the natural upward supply trend is likely to result in overproduction and a possible crash in price.

It would be preferable to address other issues mentioned in the Farm to Fork strategy such as the “33 million EU citizens cannot afford a quality meal every second day”.

Should Farm to Fork make European food production uneconomic, we will have more rainforests destroyed, no self-sufficiency, no EU quality-standard food and food scarcity in the event of another pandemic.

Consumers, farmers and agri-business must give these issues serious consideration and make sure that our politicians are well informed before making decisions based on emotions and ill-informed promises rather than science.

Online Editors

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