Agriculture is often a glossed over topic in political circles in mainstream political conversation in Ireland, which is a surprise to most international conversation.
When you think that the agri-food industry accounts for almost 10% of our exports and represents 7% of the workforce, you would think that it would be more front and centre more often. Certainly, Brexit has shone a light on the delicate balance of circumstances the industry needs to prosper but much more important to the future of agriculture in Ireland, and across the continent is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Long lauded as a huge success of the European project on these shores, it should be noted that such sentiment is not universal across the block.
Only 6 years ago this week, I and two county councillors from Sligo and Carlow, travelled to the European Political Congress of LYMEC, an influential wing of the ALDE party, the centrist grouping in the European Parliament which traditionally holds sway on the voting of motions at Parliament, to speak on CAP. At the time, the official policy of LYMEC was “scrap the CAP”, a policy that, we successfully argued, would lead to massive loss in food security across Europe, at a time that we were facing huge energy crisis due to dependence on energy supplies from outside the EU.
With support from politicians from the likes of Finland, Sweden, Portugal and Estonia we succeeded in reversing LYMEC’s decade long policy, despite fierce opposition from German, Dutch, Danish and Austrian delegates. The landscape at that congress are reflective of the overall national positions across Europe and a warning that we should not take the CAP for granted as there is a significant weight of political pressure out there to do away with the single biggest portion of the EU budget altogether. In certain parts of Europe, subsidy is a bad word.
Officials and politicians from Ireland and similar countries have been working hard in recent years to ensure that, not only that CAP survives but that it is reinforced as a central tenet to the European project. Hence, seeing a near 30% increase in overall CAP and it’s national budget top up announced by Government this week has to be seen as a major win for the Irish Government and the line Minister, Charlie McConalogue. The Minister was at Ennis mart at the beginning of the month to discuss the new CAP arrangements with Clare farmers and listen to their concerns and it appears that he was listening to small farmers, typically more common in the west of the country, who will do far better under the new CAP scheme than in previous iterations. The bottom 74% of farmers will be at least no worse off, if not significantly better off, under the 2021 – 2027 scheme than previous years.
Large farmers are not happy though, as CAP payments look set to be capped at €66,000. Nevertheless, this is only right and proper. Previously, the largest beneficiaries of EU farming subsidies were industrial scale argi-food businesses and their industrial farms who did not need it. CAP should always have been about supporting small farmers primarily and ensuring our food security long into the future. This now appears to be the emerging reality.
Moreover, CAP has long been the EU’s main environmental protection policy, and this is underlined in the new Pillar II commitments. Some €723 million, the lion’s share of the €1.2 billion national increase in CAP funding in Ireland, will be taken from carbon tax revenue to re-invest in rural communities and help improve environmental innovation and protection here in Ireland through farming practices and defences. Overall, the new CAP funding through EU and Irish Governmental funding for this 7-year cycle will come to €9.8 billion, a massive, and much needed investment in rural Ireland.
However, it has not received widespread acclaim with IFA President Tim Cullinan going so far as to organise protests at the Minister’s mart meetings since the new CAP arrangements were announced. This is all the more conspicuous when Cullinan had been absent at every single such meeting prior to the announcement, including that in Ennis despite it being so close for the Tipperary native to make the trip. Even more surprising was his statement on Monday evening criticising the emission ceilings for agriculture in the new carbon budget, despite no such ceiling being included in it for agriculture. One has to wonder who is advising the IFA President and why he is standing over protests at new CAP funding model that sees small farmers benefit at the expense of large farming industrialists?
One thing is for sure, innovation is the name of the game in agri-food, and Ireland has always been a world leader in that field. This new model should see that title last for another generation at least.