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Social, environmental and economic sustainability

Our approach is to aim for a 'triple-bottom-line' that includes economic, social and environmental deliverables. This is because a multi-objective approach creates the best chance for successfully regenerating and sustaining rural communities. It is an approach that is pragmatic and altruistic as it includes social and environmental goals alongside monetary aims knowing that the former should enhance the potential of the latter. For example, there should be the inclusion of fair-trade and social-ownership principles within the characteristics of a product created within a rural farming community; thus enhancing the attractiveness and saleability of the product to willing-to-pay-a-premium, issues-aware consumers. The same applies to integrating land stewardship into the characteristics of a food product; thus enhancing the economic viability of production whilst making the land stewardship scheme more sustainable [by reducing its reliance on the tax-payer]. Likewise when environmental benefits are created by the use of farming practices that reduce emissions. It is about recognizing that improving farm incomes is equally as important to sustainability as regulatory controls. Overall it is about acknowledging that our landscapes can be farmer-made and that demographically-sustainable family farms are needed to manage them.

Add value first and increase production volumes second

There has been raised eyebrows over an agri-foods policy that advocates a significant expansion in production at a time when there is international concern over greenhouse gas emission levels.

 

In contrast, we will stipulate that the Foundation’s approach will be to promote the view that it should be first about improving farm incomes by increasing the value of farm produce. It is about raising farm incomes and not farm production levels per se. It is about making every unit of output count in terms of the ultimate bottom line, the income that is generated for the farm household.

 

This is a far cry from an agri-foods policy that is about increasing farm production volumes so as to increase the throughput of large-scale processing units. It is a policy that is flawed when looked at from the perspective of what is the full-cost of production on Ireland’s small-scale family farms. Their overhead cost structure is typically too great to allow them to compete with the large-scale farming units that provide the raw materials for Ireland’s processing / exporting competitors.

 

At present we do not have all the answers in terms of how to react to emission constraints, but the Foundation’s policy will be to seek out better information concerning emissions and how they act upon farm decision-making. At present, it appears that the national policy is to reduce emissions per unit by the simple expedience of increasing production levels. For us it is about how much farm income can be generated per unit of allowable emissions. In the context of constrained emissions that may  mean adding value to raise income rather than selling primary raw materials.

 

Without doubt, farm decision-making is set to change as it adapts to an emissions-constrained environment but at present it is about seeking out further information to aid the actual process.

Linking land stewardship to premium-product markets

When farms are located in areas of outstanding natural beauty and/or manage, biodiversity-rich high-nature-value land, the preservation of such requires sustainable farming communities to continue the farming practices that were the originators of the landscapes themselves. Hence, environmental sustainability needs multi-generational farming communities that are economically sustainable. In these locations it is desirable to integrate farming with conservation practices and, ideally, within the context of creating premium-quality food products that can enhance incomes.

 

The bonus [as opposed to the main income source] is if farming is also linked to a government or EU-supported landscape stewardship scheme. Further, where tourism plays an important role, the right kind of locally-derived food products are an enhancement to the locality’s image and, hence, add to its attraction as a tourism destination and indirectly further sustaining the rural economy.

 

There is an increasing awareness of the role land stewardship schemes can play in managing Ireland's high-nature-value lands but thinking needs to evolve to the extent where stewardship is linked to specific farming practices [possibly using specific 'conservation-friendly' cattle or sheep breeds] and food products. We are exploring this further in ICSA-linked cattle and sheep projects.

The importance of carbon sequestration and soil fertility

The importance of carbon sequestration into farmed soils is a subject that is a part of the wider climate change debate. There are some commentators who believe that regenerating soils and the improved management of soils and grasslands can remove significant amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. Indeed, some go as far as to suggest that the best opportunity for slowing or even reversing CO2 concentrations within the atmosphere is through carbon sequestration. They also suggest that whilst ruminants are a source of GHG emissions, they can also play a vital role within carbon sequestration when raised upon grasslands in approriate management regimes. These are issues that the Foundation will be monitoring and it will seek to integrate best practices into the farming activities that it promotes as its understanding of carbon sequestration increases.

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