“Farming is not doomed – we can adapt,” says Martin Heydon, Fine Gael junior minister


One of Martin Heydon’s childhood memories of farming is of being with his father at Kilcullen Mart, Co Kildare and being told by an elderly neighbor that farming had no future.

It was around the time of the MacSharry EU Farm Reforms of 1992 that ushered in a series of major changes in Irish agriculture.

Now it faces its greatest era of change with controversial plans to cut agriculture’s carbon emissions by 25 percent.

The Department of Agriculture’s Deputy Minister has directly urged farmer unions – particularly the IFA and ICMSA – not to engage in “catastrophic predictions” about the impact of new climate change measures on rural life in Ireland.

Mr Heydon – a farmer and Fine Gael’s senior climate change negotiator for agriculture – says he “grew up” with a series of predictions that Irish agriculture was doomed.

He was responding to strong criticism from farm unions and predictions that climate change measures would devastate rural Ireland.

He said this has been proven wrong in the past as Irish farmers navigated a series of changes over 30 years, moving from product subsidies to direct payments to farmers and a focus on the ‘greening’ of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the EU.

The Kildare South TD confidently predicted that with generous government support, farmers would make new changes aimed at reducing carbon emissions.

“I don’t want to overly criticize the farmers’ unions, which have an important task,” he said. “But there was a history of catastrophizing all the challenges we faced that weren’t reflected in farmer behavior.

“Indeed, farmers have proven to be very adept and adaptable to new agricultural practices and new approaches, especially when – as they are becoming – supported by good government programs.”

But as someone who has close ties to farmers, he recognizes that the real challenge will be to finalize and publish detailed farmer support programs to ensure they are not left behind by the changes.

He argues that there are significant funds available for this, with nearly €10 billion coming from the CAP over seven years; €1.5 billion for a new agri-environmental program called ACRES; a five-fold increase in organic funding to €256 million; and €260 million to improve carbon efficiency through breeding in suckler herds.

There will also be substantial funds for farmers to produce electricity via solar panels and sell it to the grid. There will also be ways to generate gas and heat from manure, grass and general waste.

He assumes that in a few years farmers will be able to earn up to 8,000 euros per year by selling solar power back into the grid.

Farmers have the opportunity to grow “grass for gas” – using the grass not to feed livestock but to generate energy.

“My expectation is that Irish agriculture will continue to produce mainly food. But we need to develop these other income streams to protect them from price volatility,” he said.

Mr. Heydon’s responsibilities include developing new markets for Irish products. He says most of the lucrative markets in mainland Europe have strong conditions for products to meet the demands of climate change. “That means we really don’t have a choice here.”

He cites the example of the new cheese factory that Glanbia is developing in Waterford in collaboration with a Dutch company to export soft cheeses to mainland Europe.

“This could offset potential losses in Cheddar exports to the UK, which we hope will continue. But there is climate change compliance.”

Despite protests from farmers’ unions – and criticism that not enough is being done by the environmental lobby – Mr Heydon argues the 25 per cent reduction is fair.

He called on all sides to work to implement the agreed cuts in all sectors and to avoid playing one group off against the other.

He has been Fine Gael’s TD since 2011 and believes the tripartite coalition will continue its full term after going through a no-confidence vote and climate change negotiations. He believes Fianna Fáil and the Greens will stay the course.

“By then, Sinn Féin’s luster will be fading as the election approaches,” adds Mr. Heydon. “Their behavior of sitting cynically on the fence and waiting to see which direction climate change would take has shown that they cannot be trusted on either the climate or the economy.” “Farming is not doomed – we can adapt,” says Martin Heydon, Fine Gael junior minister

Fry Electronics Team

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