Farming has always been up for a ‘deal' on climate change

Farming and food is Northern Ireland’s greatest success story, and driving all of this is our unique ability to grow grass. But we need ruminant animals - cattle and sheep – to realise this amazing potential
Richard Halloran

THE scale of the disconnect that now exists between our farming sectors and the public at large has been totally encapsulated by the machinations of the Stormont climate change debate of recent weeks.

From the get-go, all the various sectors within agriculture said they were up for a meaningful deal on this crucially important issue, not just for them but for society as a whole.

However, the total lack of recognition given by the Clare Bailey private member's bill to this absolute fact and the continuing refusal of any Green Party members to engage with agriculture on the matter served only to enrage farmers to a degree that I have never witnessed over the past three decades.

For many farming families, the perspectives communicated by Green Party deputy president Mal O'Hara on the BBC a couple of weeks ago were the last straw.

Courtesy of an interview given to Mark Carruthers, he asserted that the Bailey bill was an exercise in Stormont exerting its political will, where climate change is concerned. So much for ‘the appliance of science'.

Thankfully, wiser counsel seems to have been brought to bear on these matters, courtesy of the amendment to the Edwin Poots' climate change bill that was brought to the floor of the Assembly by Sinn Féin.

In simple terms, this new way forward recognises the critically important role played by cattle and sheep within our farming systems. And rightly so!

Farming and food is Northern Ireland's greatest success story. And, in many ways, it is also our best kept secret.

Driving all of this is our unique ability to grow grass. But we need ruminant animals - cattle and sheep – to realise this amazing potential.

Many countries around the world, including the likes of New Zealand, talk about their forage-based farming systems. But they still rely heavily on irrigation systems to make any of this happen.

Here, in total contrast, we can produce meaningful quantities of beef, milk and lamb in the most natural way possible. Our soils and climate are totally suited to grassland-based production systems.

And we are only scratching the surface in this regard. The potential to further develop our grass based production systems is immense.

Farming and food is worth around £3 billion to the local economy. Making better use of grazed grass in a wholly sustainable manner would allow our farmers to boost this figure immensely.

The wrong climate change legislation, however, would have killed-off all of these hopes and aspirations completely.

Moreover, the rate of new technology uptake within agriculture is increasing at an exponential rate. We are just getting an initial sense now of how new science can impact so meaningfully on the carbon footprint of all our farming and food sectors.

In truth, climate change cannot be considered in isolation, where agriculture is concerned. Our very real potential to produce food must always be considered as must be the fact that our farmers manage the largest carbon repository on the planet – our soils.

For the record, we haven't started down the road yet of accurately quantifying the carbon sequestration potential of our soils never mind the hedgerows and woodland areas that ad so much to our landscape.

This is the central issue that climate change legislation must take full account of. Farmers are right when they say that they are an integral part of the climate change solution.

And as I keep making the point: it would have be one of the most clear cut example of killing the goose that laid the golden egg, had the Clare Bailey climate change bill been allowed to pass through Stormont unchecked.

:: Richard Halloran is a freelance writer on agricultural matters and is president of the Guild of

Agricultural Journalists of Ireland

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