7 March 2009
Address by Trevor Sargent T.D. Minister for Food and Horticulture at the Comhaontas Glas / Green Party Ard Fheis / Convention on 7th March 2009
Trevor Sargent addresses the Green Party
Travelling around Wexford and indeed Ireland, I meet people worried about their jobs, their children, their community services. Their plea is very often, ‘you’ve got to do something’. The first thing we need to do is focus our minds on what we NEED to live, which may not be the same as what we WANT.
The next task is to see how many of our needs can be met, without burning fossil fuel. Less burning of oil and gas would improve our balance of payments as a country, as well as prevent runaway climate change and create many new jobs. As I said at the Ard Fheis in Dundalk last year, our challenge as a country is to learn how to live well without the oil well.
Our current pre-occupation as a country is the global financial credit crunch. The lessons of this crisis are hard to stomach. But we are not just living beyond our means financially. We are also squandering the Earth’s resources too. I hope that the way we solve the fiscal credit crunch will help us also to solve the far more unforgiving ecological credit crunch. As you know, Nature does not do compromise, only consequences.
One major difference between the banking crisis and a potential food crisis is that while we can print more money, we cannot print more food.
So how can we protect ourselves? Let us apply some of the lessons we can learn from recent events.
Banks cannot be independent of government. This also applies to food.
The state will need to take a more direct role in the distribution of food. We must see an end to predatory pricing where large, commercially motivated supermarket chains dictate the price the producer is paid, whatever it may have cost them to produce that food. We have seen the ultimate reward for allowing greed to dominate in financial matters. Let us not allow the same thing to happen to our most critical resource, food.
Food producers also will need to exploit new routes to market, not just selling to the supermarket but selling through various channels including
o Direct to consumer
o Farmers markets
o Farm Shops
o Distribution systems independent of supermarkets’ control
Farming needs to become more diversified – producing more varieties of food but also producing fuel, building materials and clothing materials.
In 2002, the World Bank initiated what they called an International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology. 580 experts were commissioned to write a report called ‘Agriculture at a Crossroads. It has been endorsed be the WHO, the FAO, large corporations and to date 58 countries including Ireland.
Like our party this World Bank report thinks globally and recommends actions locally. Like our party, this report does not see organic farming as a niche, it sees the organic way as the future.
Of the 525 million farmers worldwide, most have holdings below 2 hectares. I met many such farmers when I visited Ethiopia with Irish Aid last November. Dr Tewolde, a senior government agricultural advisor met me to discuss ways of increasing sustainable food production in Africa. The best way, he believed, was the organic way. Researchers from the University of Michigan in the USA believe the same. Their research shows that organic farming can yield up to three times as much food as conventional methods on the same land in poor countries. And in developed countries research showed that yields were almost equal on organic and conventional farms.
In short, we must prepare for a green agriculture revolution where food sovereignty is the ultimate aim. Good food safety standards are not enough.
A move to more organic production will see employment numbers rise. When I visited another farm in Ethiopia I met with a farm family who ran a restaurant, a farm-shop and a tree nursery as well as producing a range of vegetables and prepared foods for their local market, all on less than a hectare. Many successful businesses in Ireland have also begun as on-farm enterprises.
Looking abroad, the UK Organic food market of €2.1bn is hardly being exploited by Irish producers. If you are a farmer apply before 15 May and you can become organic. We must do more as a people to get Ireland growing.
Part of maintaining our clean green GM free image includes a commitment to animal welfare in farming. This is one reason why we are bringing forward the Animal Health and Welfare Bill. I want to thank all here who made submissions during the recent consultation period on the Bill.
Another priority for Government is for country of origin labelling to be in place. The pigmeat crisis illustrated again, the need for this. And as this matter depends on the EU Council of Ministers, the only other country in the EU supporting Ireland’s call for country of origin labelling is Italy. Therefore I am calling on Labour to persuade their socialist colleagues elsewhere to stop preventing country of origin labelling in the EU and the same with Fine Gael and their Christian Democrat colleagues in other member states.
The pigmeat crisis at the end of last year also reminded us how much this country depends being able to export – Irish pork and bacon is exported to over 40 countries.
In many countries already however, the alternative to growing their own food is colonisation. A massive land-grab is underway. Middle-eastern countries have been actively acquiring land in many countries. China has acquired 1.24 million hectares of land in the Philippines.
So what is it to be, colonisation or cultivation? Cultivation means more jobs and new hope. If we are to get Ireland growing again, more of us need to grow good food.
This is why I have worked with Agri-aware, Bord Bia, An Post and a host of other generous sponsors to raise over quarter of a million euro to send vegetable and fruit growing kits to every primary and a number of secondary schools in this state. As a result two out of every three primary schools are now growing food. Those not registered on www.incredibleedibles.ie have until St Patrick’s Day to ‘get Ireland growing’ in their own schools.
‘Get Ireland Growing’ is the name also of our Green Party / Comhaontas Glas campaign to develop allotments and community gardens. We want healthy food security. We want to cut the cost of living in these recessionary times. Let us become the change we want to see happen!
The Government Report on Obesity says obesity related problems costs Ireland over four billion euro per annum. Doesn’t that figure sound familiar? Are we not now seeking to cut €4bn from Government spending? Could it be that the solution to all of our problems, the financial crisis, food security and climate change are all to be found in a more serious focus on food?
Now there’s food for thought.