This morning, I delivered a speech to the 2nd National Biodiversity Conference in Dublin Castle, and I'm delighted to share that with you here;
I am delighted to be here in Dublin Castle with you all today to support the 2nd National Biodiversity Conference.
I would like to begin by thanking the organisers, my government colleagues Minister Darragh O’Brien and Minister of State, Malcom Noonan, and our fellow speakers this morning. It is an honour to share the opening plenary with each one of you.
As Minister of State within the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine with responsibility for Land Use and Biodiversity, it is my responsibility to work with colleagues across government to advocate for biodiversity and steer dialogue around how we can enhance nature in how we use our land, particularly within the agricultural and forestry sectors, which come under the remit of my own department.
I am working closely with my colleague Minister Eamon Ryan, on a Land Use Review, so that optimal land use options inform all relevant government decisions. Restoring biodiversity will be central to its success.
Within forestry, it is vital that we get our policy decisions right so that our forests can deliver for biodiversity. We know that forests contribute hugely to biodiversity and we also know from forests planted in the past that poorly sited and poorly managed forests can have an adverse effect on biodiversity.
Through Project Woodland we are developing a new Forest Strategy for the next 50 years. This will feed into the next Forestry Programme from the 1st of January 2023. The aims of the new Forestry Programme will be multifaceted, and the programme will seek to capitalise on the many benefits of forestry. Promoting and protecting biodiversity, both through newly created and through existing forests will be an important part of that strategy and programme.
Within agriculture, it is clear that our farmers and food producers have a vital role to play in our national response to the biodiversity crisis, with agriculture accounting for more than 60% of Ireland’s land area.
Biodiversity doesn’t recognise borders or field boundaries, land parcels or herd numbers. That’s why it’s essential to embrace farming practices that support biodiversity across the whole farm. A whole-farm approach should not compartmentalise biodiversity to a strip or a corner of a field. Nor should we go down the road of a split within agriculture, whereby one cohort of farmers farms exclusively for nature, and another exclusively for food production. They must go hand in hand.
Adopting practices that allow biodiversity to flourish across our countryside, across all fields, and on all farms is the direction of travel we must take.
An interesting article by tillage farmer and advisor PJ Phelan in yesterday’s Farming Independent put it very well.
He said -
“Our agricultural production systems have become dependent on fertilisers and pesticides…Cash flow projections that do not make provision for environmental costs do nothing to make the world a better place.”
I have visited so many farmers over this past year or so who are thinking outside the box, and who have taken actions, that some might see as commercial risks, because they know the value of biodiversity on their farms. And I know that the vast majority of farmers want to get involved and play their part.
Farmers who think about building soil carbon and humus, are thinking about the future of their farm. Farmers who think about water quality, are thinking about their local community. And farmers who are thinking about biodiversity, are thinking about delivering for the next generation.
Only last Friday at Bloom in Phoenix park, after listening to a fascinating talk by Kate Chandler from the National Biodiversity Data Centre, I went to visit the Centre’s stand, where Liam Lysaght was locked in conversation with an intensive dairy farmer, who wanted to know more about what she could do to promote biodiversity on her farm. “She really gets it”, Liam told me, after their conversation. More and more farmers - of all varieties - now get it, and we in Government have to do what we can to capitalise on that momentum, and help farmers to help biodiversity.
Carbon is the building block of life, it is cyclical, and we have tasked our farmers with sequestration and storage of the excess carbon in our atmosphere. Not just from the Agricultural sector, but from all sectors. No other sector can do this - and that is a huge ask. And that will be one of the huge public good provisions our farming community can deliver for our nation. What a legacy that will be.
The same goes for biodiversity, and our farmers are the ones that we are turning to in our time of need. We know that a business as usual approach will not cut it, one where we repeat the same practices of the past number of decades that have led us to this point of biodiversity crisis. Nor will tinkering around edges reverse the decline to the extent needed. The system change we ultimately need to make, to produce food in a way that protects, conserves and restores nature, cannot be underestimated. I think we all know this, and we need to support our farmers through it.
Underground and overground - biodiversity is a keystone to our way of life. We mustn’t forget that. Farming practices that damage our biodiversity, damage life for us all.
It takes a lot of time and energy to work against nature. As an organic farmer, that’s something I have been able to reflect upon in the context of my own farm. Organic farming means working with nature, and after nearly ten years of farming organically, I know that I can see the difference in my soil quality, and I can see the increase in the number and variety of insects and birds on my farm.
But again, while we know the benefits for biodiversity that go with organic farming - and I am determined to deliver on the Government’s ambitious targets for the increase of land under organic production - we simply cannot afford to adopt a twin track approach, with only certain cohorts of farmers incentivised to farm for nature: if we are to tackle the biodiversity crisis, we will have to bring all farmers with us - from the most intensive to the most extensive, and every farmer in between – as we make that shift to an agricultural model that works for biodiversity, instead of against it.
Education and awareness of the interplay between food production and biodiversity are key, both for farmers and for the wider public. I think most people will accept that there has been a growing detachment in recent times between our society and the processes used to produce our food. I am hopeful that the recently convened Citizens Assembly on Biodiversity will prove to be powerful vehicle to give our citizens a voice on how they want our natural resources to be managed, including in the context of agricultural policy, and I am glad to say that we are listening.
Our next Common Agricultural Policy will adopt a new approach to the delivery of agri-environmental climate measures by farmers, with our Results-Based Payments Models welcomed by the European Commission in its observations on our CAP Strategic Plan. The use of these Results-Based Payments Schemes will help us to advise and encourage farmers to farm for the benefit of the environment, and will ultimately assist in achieving results from the right action, in the right place, to support our nature and our farmers.
This new approach, of tailoring targeted measures and results-based payments using habitat scorecards, combined with the landscape-level advice and knowledge exchange opportunities now available to farmers, will empower the custodians of our land to know exactly why they are being asked to farm for nature and how best to do it.
Positive measures at a local level being taken to address our biodiversity challenges include numerous locally-led schemes and innovative pilot projects looking at how we can blend biodiversity-awareness and our economic sectors, including agriculture. There are 57 European Innovation Partnerships, or EIP projects, underway at the moment. Many of these EIPs target the restoration, preservation and enhancement of biodiversity in farmland habitats, as well as a shift towards more sustainable agricultural management practices which will have a positive impact for biodiversity.
Knowledge is power, and I am hugely excited by the potential of the pilot Farm Environmental Study recently launched by my Department, which will begin the process of bridging a farm-level knowledge gap by developing a national baseline database of farm-scale habitat and biodiversity data along with additional environmental parameters. The information gathered will enhance farmers’ knowledge of habitat and biodiversity on their farms, while also providing information to my Department which will inform future plans and policies through greater awareness of what we have on our farmlands. As farmland habitats cover over 60% of our landmass, this knowledge will be critical to agriculture delivering for the environment.
In addition, my Department has also provided financial support to procure a Farmland Pollinator Officer under the second All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, to help deliver the actions required to make farmland more pollinator friendly. Last July along with Minister Noonan, we announced financial support for a pilot initiative to establish a National Pollinator Monitoring Scheme. This work is being undertaken by the National Biodiversity Data Centre and I’m delighted to say that monitoring of our precious pollinators is up and running.
Action is also taking place in other arenas. For example, through the various EU LIFE Projects which are led by our colleagues in the NPWS and supported by my Department and other bodies. Some shining beacons of these actions for nature include the Corncrake/Traonach LIFE Project, the Wild Atlantic Nature LIFE Integrated Project, and the LIFE on Machair project. Within all three of these projects my Department has collaborated closely with the respective project team to steer the design of the results-based scorecards and models to be implemented on the ground.
Given the fact that the target areas for these projects rely so much on habitats used for agriculture, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is a key beneficiary and partner; and indeed my Department’s involvement, and that of its hardworking and dedicated staff in these projects, reinforces the key theme that if we are going to reverse the biodiversity crisis, we will not be able to do it without the help of our farmers.
I look forward to seeing the green shoots from this conference come to full fruition in the future and I wish all the speakers and delegates an insightful, inspiring and enjoyable conference.