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Farming and the Environment

This blog was initially published in the October edition of the West Cork People.

As the autumn weather sets in now it is a good time to reflect back on our experience at the Ploughing Championships and the reception we received from Ireland’s farmers.

Once again I upped sticks from my constituency office on Washington Street in Cork City for the annual pilgrimage to the National Ploughing Championships this September where, and it might surprise some readers, a warm welcome was waiting for us at the Green Party stand. Hundreds of farmers and festival-goers joined us over the course of the few days. Farmers interested in supports for organic farming, nature restoration and farming for biodiversity.

The topic of fertiliser was on everyone’s lips, following recent news that the European Commission will reduce Ireland’s allowed limit of organic nitrogen per hectare from 250kg to 220kg. On a discussion panel with Irish decision-makers and farmers to discuss this change to Ireland’s so-called ‘Nitrates Derogation’, I noted the toll Ireland’s historically high fertiliser use had taken on our rivers, lakes and oceans.

People across the island have been shocked by scenes in Lough Neagh, where a thick green algal bloom caused primarily by nitrogen run-off has strangled aquatic life in the lake, leaving it now one of the world’s most eutrophic waterbodies according to The Rivers Trust.

Unfortunately that phenomenon is not limited to Lough Neagh. In West Cork, the beautiful Lough Hyne is suffering from a similar fate, with a massive reduction of marine life in the saltwater Lough despite being Europe’s first ever marine nature reserve. This condition is general all over Ireland. Over a third of Cork’s rivers and lakes are currently in bad or poor condition. Ireland’s new River Basin Management Plan will help to mitigate the issues our rivers are facing, but without an immediate reduction in nitrogen use in Irish agriculture and better urban wastewater treatment facilities, the issue will spiral out of control.

Many farmers who have benefitted from the Nitrates Derogation have expressed anger over the decision, though it was clear that they understand the reasons behind it. I strongly believe that they will have to be supported through the transition in order to protect both livelihoods and our natural heritage at the same time.

In addition to the more ‘traditional’ discussions on farming, we brought one of my longer-running campaigns to the Ploughing on the ‘Cost of Being a Woman’. While almost a third of the Irish agricultural workforce are women, ownership of farms is much lower amongst women. So I was proud to bring a woman’s touch to the Ploughing, with a stall dedicated to women and the additional costs they face over the course of their lives.

Studies show that it can cost on average about €12,000 extra annually for women to simply exist, with the need to purchase menstrual products, pregnancy aides and hair and beauty products as an example. Our stall provided free sanitary products for women and provided a place to discuss the extra costs associated with womanhood in Ireland and what we are doing to reduce them. Recently, the Greens in government introduced free contraception for people aged between 17 and 25. The government has also set up a pilot scheme for free period products.

Cork was well represented at the Ploughing and our tent was no exception. Local area representative for Skibbereen-West Cork Rory Jackson, a champion of clean oceans, was present on the ground. I was also delighted to have Harriet Burgess helping out. Harriet has recently announced that she will run for the very large local constituency of Macroom and I know she will make an incredible public representative. For myself now that the Ploughing is over, I will be back to the constituency office in Cork and home in Tramore, or ploughing my own furrow in Brussels.

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