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Irish farmers should learn from the past for a better future

Letter to the editor of the Irish Farmers Journal published 22 December 2007 Vol 60 No 51 page 15

Sir

I suggest that the current concerns about the future of the Irish pig industry due to the current two decade cereal price highs, would benefit from a much longer term historical perspective.  Those of your readers in their retirement years can tell the rest of us, how, in their youth, beef and sheep were the main meats in their diet and that pig and poultry were expensive luxuries.  The current reversal of this position is due to the industrialisation of agriculture starting in the 1940s.  A key component of this process was the subsidisation / boosting of agricultural production by fossil fuels, particularly nitrogen fertilisers, which are made from and with oil.  The free availability of nitrogen resulted in huge increases in arable yields with commensurate cereal price reductions.  This dramatically altered the relative costs of livestock production in favour of non-ruminants.  Pigs and poultry were taken from pasture and put into intensive indoor production systems and rapidly fattened on cheap cereal based diets.  In comparison, the same yield increases achieved in cereals could not be achieved with grass, and ruminants proved far less amenable to intensive indoor production, so they became comparatively much more expensive. 

I propose that environmental problems, such as global warming and peak oil, are starting to firmly turn the wheel of history full circle.  With rapidly deteriorating costs and availability of the materials that made industrial production of non-ruminant meat so cheap, the permanent disappearance of such intensive production systems is an odds-on bet.  The recent articles by those making the somewhat heretical claim that grass fed Irish beef was about to regain a long lost competitive advantage over its grain fed continental cousins and John Shirley’s report on ‘Ted’ who is bucking the trend and heading further into sheep are examples of the return to dominance of grass fed ruminant meat production. 

I also suggest that farmers would make better decisions if they had a fuller understanding of agriculture’s history and how it integrates with the rest of industry.  Despite much derision and jokes in farming circles about the ignorance of city folk about where their food comes from, I am hard pressed to find a farmer who has much idea, for example, of where his fertiliser come from other than ‘the co-op’.  This is no better than urbanites saying milk comes from the milkman.  Farmers’ lack of understanding of where their system’s ‘food’ i.e., inputs, originate, has produced a serious disconnect, resulting in the blind faith that inputs such as mineral fertilisers will always be with us, which is clearly not the case.  If Irish agriculture and society are to develop a clear vision of the road ahead then we need a much fuller understanding of the wider context in which agriculture sits and a vision of agriculture centuries from now, not the typical five to ten year business time horizon. 

Readers interested in further reading are recommended: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haber_process http://www.fertilizer.org/ifa/statistics/indicators/ind_reserves.asp . Thirsk, J. (1997). Alternative agriculture: A history from the black death to the present day. Oxford University Press.

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Copyright 2008 Charles N. Merfield.