The new land wars

The West’s awake. And angry. At a public meeting organised recently by independent TDs, farmers vented their opposition to the proposed Nature Restoration Law declaring that ‘farmers want to farm, not to participate in agri-environmental schemes’. Such was the hostility towards climate and environmental policies that one farmer was reported as calling for the Minister for the Environment and Climate Action to be ‘thrown off the cliffs of Moher’. What is behind this over-the-top reaction?

Worryingly, the tone from farming representatives in recent years has been aggressively anti-environment. The farm lobby has led campaigns against the EU Green Deal and Farm to Fork strategies, and most recently the proposed changes to nitrate rules and the Nature Restoration Law. While Irish Fine Gael MEPs, key supporters of the farming lobby, voted not to reject the Law outright, they supported amendments that gutted the proposal of its most important conservation measures. And this is in spite of the growing body of scientific evidence showing the vital role of agriculture in supporting nature restoration.

Farmers reject policies that put limits on their capacity to extract from the land resource without compensation. But compensation is itself part of a long history of buying out farmland, feeding into a narrative of dispossession, land abandonment and loss of ties to place.

Yet Irish farming was once radically progressive. During the late 1870s, farmers across the West of Ireland were threatened by poor yields, bad weather and low prices. The prospect of another devastating famine spread panic throughout the population. The West woke, and the Irish Land League was born.

Farmers led the movement for independence and for a grassroots democracy at a time when few Catholic farmers had the right to even own land, let alone vote. Of course, the League’s leadership saw an opportunity to use the land reform movement as political leverage for the nationalist cause. But to cut a very long story short, the League’s campaign succeeded. In 1870, only 3% of Irish farmers owned their own land but by 1929, this ratio had been reversed with 97.4% of farmers holding their farms in freehold. The massive redistribution of land paved the way for Ireland to become a property owning democracy. And this remarkable political achievement was augmented by the  cooperative movement, which advanced the economic power of farmers as producers.

Today’s farmers have every right to be aggrieved by policy reversals. They have every right to defend their property interests. But the land as such is the responsibility of all of us, and farmers and landowners are effectively the stewards and guardians of its health. The most recent EPA State of the Environment report fingers the agricultural sector as a chief cause of water, air and greenhouse gas pollution as well as biodiversity loss. We all need Irish agriculture to succeed but it will have to do so on new terms – to promote ecological resilience as part of a shift to sustainable and healthy food production. It is astonishing that in the middle of a climate and biodiversity crisis we in Ireland are importing over 80% of all the fruit and vegetables that we eat, and from regions now experiencing climate-induced extreme temperatures and water scarcity. Meanwhile Ireland exports dairy, beef and live animals to countries that include petro-states and authoritarian regimes that care little for climate action or animal welfare. Vegetable growers are struggling, and tillage production is in decline. There was never a time when we needed farmers and farming more. But how our land is farmed is frankly out of kilter with what is needed for healthy, sustainable diets, and Ireland’s growing dairy output is putting ecosystems and water quality under severe stress. This is not the fault of farmers but of the food processors and the markets they have shaped, and all the while supported by government policies.

However, farmers do not all speak with one voice. Average family farm incomes reveal shocking inequalities that are rarely reflected in IFA narratives: dairy farms earned on average €148,000 in 2022 while beef farmers earned on average €8,700. Perhaps it’s not a new farmers’ party that’s needed, but farmer representation that is more honest about who it really speaks for. Are farmers now small businesses speaking for big businesses (the processors) as opposed to caretakers of the land? And if so, who will take care of the land in their place?

It is tragic to see the descendants of the Land Leaguers take such a distinctly illiberal turn, and it won’t end well for Irish farmers. If rurality is the enduring story of Irish centre-right politics, this has more to do with where people live than a political economy rooted in agricultural activity. No surprise then, that in order to get ‘rural’ people to vote for a new farmers’ party it would have to whip up social divisions. Throwing phantom enemies over the cliff is one way to divide and rule us all.

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