It is “logical” for Ireland to “produce more, not less” agri-food products because of the country’s “much lower” input/output ratio compared to many other EU member states, leading economist David McWilliams has stated.
he adjunct professor of global economics at Trinity College Dublin told a US-based agricultural conference that Irish farming has been “slightly hijacked” by “a generic ideology” that, he says, doesn’t fully appreciate the country’s grass-based and climatic efficiencies.
Addressing the Alltech One Ideas Conference, Mr McWilliams said: “An interesting way to look at agriculture is that agriculture is ultimately evolutionary – certain countries have traits that are successful evolutionary wise as traits survive, and those traits tend to be natural.
“Of course you can green the desert, but it takes a lot of bloody money to do it and it costs a huge environmental burden to do so. We in Ireland complain all the time about the Gulf Stream, the dampness and the weather. But it gives you a comparative advantage, and a permanent advantage, over countries.
“You can make stuff here which is associated with grass and you can make it much, much cheaper because grass grows here all the time because of the combination of the damp climate and the relatively warm winters.
“We don’t have any tundra. If you compare us to equivalent latitudes which would be Labrador in Canada, where it is actually freezing cold, we are benighted with the fact that it is much warmer here as a result of this environmental gift called the ‘Gulf Stream’ that comes up gently and warmly from the Caribbean and across the Atlantic.
“So, let’s just think, does it make sense to put Ireland, which is a natural producer of, for example, beef or certain grains, in the same boat as Estonia, northern Sweden, Spain, France or Italy which are parched during large parts of the year? No, it doesn’t.
“In order for the European Union to get an aggregate reduction in carbon emissions, it would seem to me much more logical to favour those countries that have an evolutionary, or ecological, or environmental gift in order to produce more, not less, in places like this because our input/output ratio is so much lower here, than in the parched Mediterranean or the frozen tundra of the north.
“If you look back at the history of humanity, and the great population centres of the ancient world, central China, the fertile crescent around Iraq and Mesoamerica around southern Texas and Mexico – this is where we had huge population increases because they were the best places, at a certain period of time, for generating grain surpluses which is how the basic ancient economy worked.
“So there is a natural tendency, an evolutionary tendency, for people to produce where it is most efficient. And as temperatures have changed, as environments have changed, those legacies have either become less or more important.
“But I think it’s very important that we have been slightly hijacked by a generic ideology which isn’t sensitive to the specific, local characteristics which makes this place, as we know as Irish people, a very good place to produce.”
In conversation with Alltech CEO Mark Lyons, the economist also outlined his thoughts on the future of US agriculture under the administration of President Joe Biden.
McWilliams continued: “We know that agriculture is the only industry that can sequester carbon. And, therefore, what I’m imagining, and what the US Government is talking about, is a huge green new deal for agriculture.
“The farmers, the people that work the land, the people who understand the land, are the custodians.
“Farmers have always talked about ecology, the environment, the weather, the soil. The way my grandparents, and their friends, talked about the soil and the extraordinary way they saw themselves as custodians, meant that the harvest was actually half of the discussion.
“The other half was, how do we sustain everything? How do we keep everything going? So farmers get this instinctively because the farmer understands that everything goes in cycles.
“They understand it much more than industrial workers, or policy makers, or academics, or politicians, because going back as far as the old testament this has been an issue.
“So Biden is trying to say to the farming community ‘you are not the problem, you are part of the solution. Your husbandry of the land, your understanding of ecology and the environment is going to be the ace that we use to sequester carbon, to meet our carbon neutral targets in the future.
“What I see is a revolution in American agriculture. There has been a lot of propaganda for years, but if you look at the actual data, only 7pc of California’s carbon emissions come from agriculture – 31pc come from motorcars.
“The farm is A not the polluter that people believe it is; and B it is the only renewable solution we have.
“Agriculture was the industry of the past – before the industrial age, before the electricity age, before the internet age there was agriculture – and agriculture will be the industry of the future because only agriculture can naturally bring us to carbon neutrality, so I think it’s a really exciting time.”
However, the author and journalist also admitted that it will be a “slow, slow process” to encourage US farmers to “come on side”.
“It’s a very slow process, but ultimately… my sense is that over time you will see significant and heavy penalties for bad behaviour and significant and substantial upsides, tax breaks, subsidies, for good behaviour.
“You will see a manifest change in incentive structures and that will be ‘away from production incentives’ because one of problems with agriculture in Europe and America, is that so much of our agricultural thinking was based on post Second World War ideas of scarcity of food.
“Consequently we set up a whole load of incentives and subsidies to maximise production and, of course, what that led to was far too much production and then we reverted the other way.
“So, my sense is that, now we’ll see something more subtle with ‘ag tech’ and proper use of resources and proper use of inputs.
“Sometimes America might be slow to the table and slow to appreciate its role, but when it does it’s an impressive sight. To use Churchill’s quote ‘America will always do the right thing after it has exhausted all of the alternatives’. And I think that is the course we are on.”
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