My speech from BioFarm 2023
Good afternoon everyone. First of all I’d like to say I really am sorry I couldn’t be here this morning to open the event, and to listen to the discussions that have gone on all day.
Government meetings are on Tuesday mornings, so as soon as we finished this morning I jumped in the car down to Adare.
I do a lot of traveling around the country as Minister for Land Use and Biodiversity, speaking with different farmers who are trying new and different things: some of whom are doing things in a more traditional sense -by that I mean they’re following and rediscovering practices that were mainstream before the chemical industrialisation of European agriculture; but certainly farmers who are looking at the bigger picture, and taking a broader, more holistic perspective, than simply chasing input costs.
I’d like to think I get a reasonably good sense of the breadth of practices across the country, and I really do think there is serious momentum building in Ireland behind regenerative farming, biological farming, or maybe most simply put as sustainable farming.
This growing sense of momentum certainly applies to organic farming also, which is easier to nail down as a concept and as a movement, given the written rules and regulations around organic certification.
For me, the unifying thread that captures the essence of the momentum is that the farmers at its vanguard are farming with an open mind.
These farmers are farming with a sense of perspective, with an understanding and a respect of their farm’s place in the natural environment. And they are farming – and innovating - in harmony with the natural environment, rather than trying to defy it.
An open mind and a willingness to innovate and try new things, is key to building a resilient farming system. One that can produce food in a way that works with the natural constraints of the farm’s topography and existing ecology, and ultimately that works from a business perspective to deliver a viable income.
While that openness to new ideas, and to a more holistic way of thinking about the farm system is one part of the jigsaw, it is nothing without the advice, and the knowledge sharing, of the pioneering innovators in whose footsteps we can follow.
Events like this are critical in sharing knowledge and ideas, and in helping people learn from each other and make new connections.
Biofarm - to my mind – is the Woodstock of Irish agriculture: it’s visionary, it’s progressive, it’s a movement whose influence will be to change how Irish farms produce food for decades to come.
This isn’t about putting people into siloes, or pitching one type of farm system against another. This is about celebrating the best of organic, regenerative and biological farming, championing what works in those systems, and making those practices mainstream.
As a Government Minister, I am acutely aware of the reality of the extent to which farmers respond to incentives, and the power of Government to use financial incentives to nudge farmers in one direction or another.
I would love nothing more than to have the keys to the kingdom and all the money in the world, to be designing the Common Agricultural Policy from scratch, and to be able to move more radically away from a system of predominantly area and sectoral-based payments.
But the reality is that we operate within the confines of a political system and a subsidy structure that still has a distance to travel in fully embracing the idea of payments for environmental benefits delivered, and payments for adopting progressive practices, rather than the lion’s share of payments simply subsidising the same way of farming.
Notwithstanding that political reality, I believe that during the lifetime of this Government we have made real progress.
We have incentivised an unprecedented level of interest in the Organic Farming Scheme, and we are on course to hit our target of 10% of all agricultural land farmed organically by 2030.
We have mainstreamed the concept of results based payments, through the ACRES scheme and through the European Innovation Partnerships, or EIPs.
We know there are teething problems in rolling some of the EIPs into ACRES for the purpose of scaling them up to get more farmers involved.
ACRES is not perfect, no scheme is; but what it represents is the fact that we have now embedded in Department of Agriculture policy the idea that we reward farmers for the environmental results they bring about through their farming practices.
Similarly with financial supports for farmers to sow Multispecies Swards and Red Clover. These are pillars of a resilient farming system, and those of us who farm organically have been reliant on them for years.
While the money involved is a drop in the ocean in the context of the overall Department of Agriculture budget, the level of interest in the past two years and the number of conventional farmers getting on board, and sowing red clover and multispecies swards, shows the enormous influence that pioneering farmers with an open mind can have beyond their own farm gate, by showing how things can be done in a better way.
We’re also paying farmers to take heed of their soil, again, something that many of us here in this room have been doing for years without Government support. It’s critical to get your nutrients right so that you can reduce or eliminate external chemical inputs.
Of course, the biological component of soil has for too long been ignored by government policy, so it was great to see Talamh Beo receive funding in 2021 under my EIP call that year, for a Soil Biodiversity Project, which involved 16 farms across Ireland embarking on a year long educational course & experimental investigation.
Improving our understanding of how soil functions and offering practical advice on how to kick-start sleepy or degraded soils is something every farmer can learn from, no matter what system they have. And this is something we need to continue to build on.
Again, a practice that delivers on so many fronts: for soil health, for carbon sequestration, for water quality, for animal wellbeing. Pioneers and innovators have championed the benefits of agroforestry for many years, and now in Government we have put the money behind agroforestry that we hope will see it take off across the country.
So we are making progress, and we are definitely starting to allocate budgetary resources and to direct subsidies in the right way. But the numbers and the finances are never going to be enough on their own.
To take organics; clearly the market question is hugely important: we are promoting the Irish organic offering abroad in a big way: I have done three trade missions to mainland Europe in the past two years, and you’ll be seeing domestic ads for organics over the coming weeks as well.
We’re also proposing 10% of State-purchased food to be organic, but again this only covers the financial side of the equation.
So aside from the numbers, to encourage farmers to adapt their systems and embrace new practices we need to be able to point to the examples of where it is working well, to have those pioneering early adaptors showing the way.
There is no substitute for a neighbour, or an adviser, or a friend of a friend: someone you can trust, who has done it before; to be able to walk a farm that has been doing it successfully for years - to see and to hear how different systems work in practice; talking, and listening, with an open mind.
And some of the most important conversations that are being had in Irish farming will happen at this event, be they on stage in a formal setting today or tomorrow, or over lunch or dinner, or maybe over a pint at the bar later on.
This is the epicentre of the movement of the open mind.
These are the conversations that will shape how we farm: five, ten, twenty years down the line. Yours are the farms that people will be walking to see how it works in practice.
So without going on any longer, I’ll let you get back to the experts, back to those conversations that will shape the path for the future of Irish farming.
I want to finish by thanking you all sincerely for giving your time, your knowledge and your expertise so generously, and for championing farming systems that will ultimately bring about real sustainability, and real resilience.