Many younger people are becoming very worried about the environment they will inhabit in 15-20 years’ time. Almost daily, new climate projections are released showing increasingly extreme weather events, along with alarming news of losses of species and other assaults on our collective life-support system.

Closely linked to the environmental crisis is the threat to food security posed by monocultural, commodity based and export-driven farming. In addition Covid has shown how dependent we are on supply chains that lead directly from the EU or via the UK, and this has raised serious concerns about our mid- and long-term food security. The long term impacts of the decline of family farming to rural society are becoming ever-increasingly obvious. This is particularly evident to people living in rural areas of the West and North-West of Ireland.

I fear that we are squandering our rich and fertile agricultural heritage by adopting industrial farming methods to supply ever more agricultural products to the so-called world market. This approach favours larger suppliers, which in turn leads to the accelerating decline of family farming. Since it is extremely challenging with the current model to be economically viable, young people are drawn to other careers, and thus family farms have no one to continue the farm. The resulting options are to sell the land, sometimes for building sites, sometimes to neighbouring, larger farms.

The role of the environment in our very survival is increasingly undervalued. Although Ireland still has a fairly good natural environment in comparison with some other countries, we are putting ourselves in grave danger because of the tendency to damage and even destroy our natural environment in the pursuit of commercial profits.

Farming activities in Ireland still resonate stronger in Ireland than in other EU countries. No other economic activity is so closely interwoven with our human and natural environment as agriculture. If farming changes, so too do the ecological and social infrastructures.

Feasta – along with many other like-minded organisations – has long advocated building resilience into local economies, in order to help counter the destructive economic forces that are wreaking such havoc.

Organic farming will play an important role in building such resilience, and on the plus side, the growing demand in Europe for organic products means there is a good market opportunity for family farms. But the farming community needs support in order to switch to organic farming. The veritable transformation also needs farmers with more general training in land (or marine) stewardship. Such a development would tie in with a “European movement demanding an ecological and social transformation of our agricultural and food systems” (Heinrich Böll Agriculture Atlas, 2019).

In practical terms, this means that we need to make sure young people have access to a much broader education and training in hands-on skills such as agroecology, agroforestry and woodwork, and the scope to put these skills into practice.

Where such opportunities exist, they tend to be taken up with great enthusiasm. Here are a few recent examples from Ireland and Germany:

• The Irish Farmers Journal of 23 January 2021 describes Catherine McKenna from Tyrone. Catherine holds a degree in Chemistry. She came back from Glasgow in January 2019 to help out during the lambing season on the family’s organic farm, which also has some horses, native Irish forestry and an orchard. She didn’t return to her job in Glasgow, deciding instead to use her knowledge in chemistry to research business opportunities for the home farm in the agri-food sector. She is now doing a Masters in agri-food business and rural enterprise development, while also helping on the farm. She thinks “farming is actually becoming more attractive to young people”.

-The Tuam Herald reports in its edition of October 7, 2020 (p 5) that “St. Jarlath’s College” “needed extra space to meet the rising demand for the subject of woodwork and construction studies. There are 120 First Years this year and 100 of them doing Mechanical Technology Wood or woodworks (MTW)” This extra demand will be cared for with a newly-opened woodworks and construction studies building.

• By popular demand, the Bavarian Government was obliged to pass into law a petition on biodiversity in 2019. This referendum, the most popular in Bavarian history, became known as the “Bee referendum”. According to The Guardian, ‘The proposal set a target for 20% of agricultural land to meet organic farming standards by 2025, before reaching 30% by 2030. Ten per cent of green spaces in Bavaria would have to be turned into flowering meadows, and rivers and streams better protected from pesticides and fertilisers’.

This law has had a very positive influence on many farmers, especially young farmers. Projects that they have started on their farmlands as a result include letting weed grow and fallen trees decay to provide more habitat for insects; reserving edges on the land for flowers or flowering plants; providing nest boxes for birds and insect hotels; using more crop rotation for soil improvement; and extending habitats for birds and insects by planting or establishing hedges and trees.

report in the “Freistunde” add-on paper of the “Straubinger Tagblatt” local newspaper from 28/08/20 shows examples of how young farmers in my native Landkreis (roughly equivalent to County) have reacted to the bee referendum. One of the portrayed young farmers is from my home village: Johannes Stelzl from Steinach. I would have known his grandparents.

Transforming Education for the future of Agriculture – a proposal

So, what more can be done to reinforce these encouraging trends? I propose that the Irish Government establish a group of new “Agricultural, Horticultural and Forestry Colleges” and “Marine and Fisheries Colleges”.

An additional Agricultural College should be located in each of the four provinces with a student capacity between 200-450. These colleges should become lead colleges for sustainable agriculture, horticulture and forestry.

There should be a further three Marine and Fisheries colleges established, perhaps one in Connaught, one in Munster and one in Leinster with a student capacity of approximately 300 each. The focus for the Marine Colleges should be Sustainable Marine life/ fisheries as well as better use of Maritime riches such as seaweed and sea plants.

An alternative model might be that these topics are being organised around Centres of Excellene to enhance economic viability.

These colleges could draw on existing knowledge and expertise. The Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) is a reference point for sustainability and food security/resilience. In particular, the Ecovillage in Cloughjordan could be used as a case-study for a low carbon society. GEN

“uses local participatory processes to holistically integrate ecological, economic, social, and cultural dimensions of sustainability in order to regenerate social and natural environments. […the ecovillages] represent an effective, accessible way to combat the degradation of our social, ecological and spiritual environments. They show us how we can move toward sustainability in the 21st century.”

Further information under www.gen-wise.org

In order to make the training more attractive, the students could finish with a diploma (say 2 years) or a degree (3 years) which would enable them to optionally enter the University Cycle.

In addition, the government could incentivise these graduates to return to their family farm with appropriate support structures, e.g., financial incentives for buying land from neighbouring farms, or by setting up Common Land Trusts as an exploratory form of common land ownership.

These graduates would thus form a kind of sourdough for a new generation of sustainable farms and fisheries.

With their knowledge and with proper incentives, the graduates would be motivated to start up new farms or farming coops and new fisheries/marine coops and enterprises, or convert conventional farms and fisheries into sustainable ones. This would be a huge step towards sustainable land and marine stewardship.

The down-to-earth nature of my proposal would also support the demand by the Irish Minister for Higher Education, Simon Harris, who has argued that the “snobby’ obsession with university for school-leavers must end,” as reported in The Irish Times of 09/10/20 (p5). This proposal also fits into the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014).

The alternative might well be ever bigger agro-industrial farms and fish factories. The land would get ever more depleted if, as seems likely, it was bought by investors and used for industrial exploitation, with ruinous consequences for rural communities and severe environmental damage. Instead of land stewardship, we would go into a downward spiral of declining yields and land and soil degradation.

The Post Covid World

There is no doubt that the post-Covid world will look different. Many people will need to change their jobs. The travel and hospitality industry will change post-Covid, as will the long-term residency and care home sector.

There will be more need for carers, helpers and medical personnel generally. Some who were working for airlines might find it comparatively easy to work in the expanded care and hospital sector. Some might retrain as teachers, for example.

But there will also be more people who want to work on the land or sea and contribute to sustainable land and marine stewardship as a job, thereby securing our food base. My three examples above from the “Tuam Herald”, “The Irish Farmers Journal” and the “Straubinger Tagblatt” hopefully support that theory.

The shock and hardship caused by the Covid pandemic could become a catalyst for societal and political support for the above proposal.

Note: a useful overview of the changes needed in agriculture in Ireland can be found in this recent position paper by the Environmental Pillar, Stop Climate Chaos and the Sustainable Water Network (SWAN).

Featured images: sourdough starter. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sourdough#/media/File:Masa_madre.jpg