A proposal to set up a citizens’ assembly on agriculture and food production is “ill thought-out” and “the wrong model”, according to a farming group.
Labour Party Cork East TD Sean Sherlock said that a citizens’ assembly should be set up on the future of agriculture in Ireland, following a prolonged debate within Government over what sectoral emissions ceilings should be set for key sectors of the economy.
This resulted in a compromise rate of a 25% cut on agriculture’s emissions, with a reduction rate of 75% for the electricity sector and a 50% reduction for transport.
In a statement this week Mr Sherlock said that following weeks of negotiations between ministers, “we need to have a national conversation on what the future of agriculture would look like”.
Farming and rural groups have questioned such a proposal, arguing that expertise was needed to discuss agricultural issues, that a citizens’ assembly may not be the best forum to make progress, and that it may double up on previous work.
Eddie Punch, general secretary of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA) told the PA news agency that the idea was “ill thought-out”.
“After a couple of weeks where everybody seems to have an opinion about farming, farmers are, I’d say, a little bit raw after being lectured about how they’re destroying the climate for the last few weeks,” Mr Punch said.
“Farmers are interested in farming more sustainably all of the time.
“I suppose the concern with a citizens’ assembly is that what you end up with… (is) a lot of people who don’t necessarily have a stake in agriculture, who don’t have an understanding of what it is to farm.”
He added that this does not mean people who aren’t farmers shouldn’t have a view on farming, but that there are problems with asking people who do not farm to come up with solutions on how to improve the industry.
“Farmers are open to change all the time, but the notion that 100 people gathered in a hotel in Dublin for eight weeks, randomly selected, most of whom have never grown anything in their lives or don’t know anything about farming, the notion that they could chart a better course than people who have given a lifetime of experience to farm as best they can, I think it’s an ill thought-out proposal, to be honest.”
He added: “Farmers might be lucky to be 20% of the people presenting to the citizens’ assembly.
“There’s an immense amount of complexity in this which has huge financial implications and, quite frankly, I don’t think a citizens’ assembly has the ability to take all those things into consideration."
Macra na Feirme, a voluntary organisation representing 11,000 young people from rural Ireland aged 17-35, said that a governmental group has already been convened earlier this year to advise on this issue.
“In March 2022 the minister for agriculture established the National Fodder and Food Security Committee (NFFSC), this committee is tasked by the Government with preparing an industry response, contingency plans and advice to assist farmers in managing their farm enterprises through a period of high input price inflation and potential supply pressures. As this body comprised of industry experts, has already been convened and possesses a conduit back to the Government through the minister for agriculture, Macra na Feirme is of the opinion that this is the body that should advise on all matters relating to agriculture and food production.”
Chairman of the Irish Grain Growers group, Bobby Miller, said the group would be “in favour of any positive conversation” in relation to tillage farming and in order “to move to solutions, we need a good conversation, there’s no doubt about that”.
“(A citizens’ assembly on agriculture) is fine as long as it’s balanced and they know what they’re talking about – farming is a very complicated business in today’s world.”
Mr Sherlock said in his statement that he has “great sympathy” for farmers who were told to “leverage up, gear up and move into dairy”.
“We’re already seeing evidence of co-ops providing access to psychological and counselling services because of the pressure that farmers are under.”
Making an argument for the citizens’ assembly that would hear from non-governmental organisations, environment groups, business, agriculture and civil society representatives, he said: “Such an assembly could consider everything, from our food strategy to innovative and green ways of farming."