29 September 2001
Agriculture in Crisis - Sinn Fein call for radical strategy
Speaking at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in Dublin today, Sligo Alderman Sean Mac Manus slammed the government for its failure to protect farmers and the agriculture industry in general.
The full text of Alderman MacManus's statement to the Ard Fheis follows:
Irish agriculture, North and South, is in a state of crisis for a variety of important reasons. Firstly we have the real threat to farming that continues to exist from BSE and Foot and Mouth disease. The impact of the Foot and Mouth outbreak earlier this year should not be underestimated as the repercussions of it continue to be felt throughout the farming community the length and breadth of this Island.
The second problem facing farming is that in both statelets, the farming sector is dependent on EU grants, price supports and other aids dispensed through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
On top of all this is the low profit margins and erratic market prices for agricultural produce. Added to the inequalities of the CAP, this has left thousands of farmers on either very low or subsistence incomes.
As a result, right across Ireland, rural communities are disappearing. It is a cumulative process. Families are leaving the land and moving to Cities and urban centres because their holdings are deemed to not be commercially viable. As families forsake farming, the rural villages they were part of become increasingly run down with local businesses closing, adding to yet more families deciding to move out and into urban centres also.
(2) At the same time as the migration of families and resources from these rural areas continues, a second problem emerges - that of entrenched rural poverty of those who decide to stay on and work their holdings. Indeed just 12 months ago, the Combat Poverty Agency revealed that up to 30,000 farm households throughout the 26-County state were living below the poverty line. At the same time, the Teagasc National Farm Survey showed that the average farm income in 1999 was just £9,100, a dramatic fall of almost 18% on the previous year.
This situation is further compounded by the changes currently underway in the system of payments to farmers, switching from headage to area-based payments. These changes are resulting in the further significant loss of income for many hill farmers, particularly in areas such as my own constituency of Sligo/Leitrim.
The challenge facing us now is how to reverse this decline and how to secure a future for farming and rural Ireland in general. First of all we must put together an effective strategy aimed at resolving the crisis and ensuring the regeneration of local communities from one end of the country to the other. To succeed, such a strategy must be able to break the cycle that starts with population decline, leading to a reduced demand for services, leading to fewer employment opportunities and ultimately migration out of rural areas. Those communities currently fighting their way out of this cycle need proper funding and resources from Central Government as well as local Government structures that can adapt to their needs.
(3) The core objectives of any such rural development programme must include:
- To keep the maximum number of people on the land and to preserve the social fabric of rural life.
- To create a co-ordinated programme linking agriculture, enterprise, environment, culture, health and education and social services strategies into a comprehensive Integrated Rural Development Project.
- To create the conditions whereby local communities themselves can re-build their local economies and to ensure that everyone has a dignified standard of living as well as access to proper education, housing and health resources. In terms of the new area-based payments, this means that those farmers that are set to lose out financially as a result of the new scheme must be compensated in full for any losses incurred and that these payments, and indeed payments to all farmers are kept ahead of inflation.
There must also be real and radical reform of the CAP in order to help small farmers as well as significant increases in LEADER funding. Other initiatives such as matching funds for Rural Enterprise Projects, a funding initiative to promote organic farming, declaring the island of Ireland as a GM - free zone and the introduction of an Island -wide Code of Principles for farm practices and commercial food processing to tackle the BSE and Foot and mouth crises are all essential steps that need to be taken if we are serious about securing a real and viable future for farming and indeed for the whole of rural Ireland.
(4) The need for the establishment of farmers markets and the co-operative principle must also now be recognised. Specific funding should be allocated to set up and fund such markets which must be run on the co-operative principle by the local communities in which these markets would be sited. These markets would be one way of breaking the cycle whereby farmers have seen their product prices fall while consumers are paying ever-higher prices for food.
This would allow for farmers to brand, market and sell their own produce. The funding could come from LEADER type projects which would help them to develop the necessary skills and cover the start-up costs of such an enterprise. If such facilities were co-operatively run, it would help to re-kindle the co-operative spirit not only in the Irish farming community but also within the wider rural society.
As I have pointed out, this crisis is real but it is one that can be tackled and can be overcome if the political will is there. It is up to us all to now focus in on the problems - and more importantly on the solutions - to ensure that the farming sector and rural Ireland not just survives, but that they are able to begin to prosper and create a better future for themselves, their families and for future generations.
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