A dairy farm in New Zealand, where social licence for farming became an issue long before Ireland.

A dairy farm in New Zealand, where social licence for farming became an issue long before Ireland.

Lorcan Allen reflects on his Nuffield study topic which focused on societal expectations from farming, and how farmers can secure a social licence to farm.

Lorcan Allen is a 2017 Nuffield Scholar. He grew up on a suckler beef farm near Moate, Co Westmeath, where his parents still farm. He is currently the Business Editor of the Business Post newspaper, leading and developing the paper’s business coverage. Prior to this, he covered the agribusiness industry, sustainability and climate change for eight years at the Irish Farmers’ Journal.

For my Nuffield research study, I investigated how Irish agriculture can maintain its social licence to operate. I chose this study topic because during my Nuffield Global Focus Programme travels, I noticed how farmers in many countries with proud agricultural heritages were becoming increasingly disenfranchised from their fellow citizens.

I travelled to Brazil, Chile, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, California, Chicago, Wisconsin, New York, Canada, New Zealand and Australia throughout 2017 and early 2018 and I met farmers who cited environmental pressures, animal welfare issues and climate change as the primary reasons for the deteriorating image that many consumers had of agriculture.

From California to Christchurch, the relationship between farmers and society was in decline. Farmers in these countries were losing their licence to operate from society. Despite our traditional affinity to agriculture, I quickly realised that Irish farmers would soon face a similar challenge, particularly as generations become more removed from the farmgate.

The key recommendation from my study was the creation of a new, fit for purpose strategy for Irish farming that recognised the need to maintain and continuously reinforce a farmer’s social licence to operate.

A core part of this strategy would be a push towards carbon farming, where farmers were incentivised to store carbon on their farms through soils, hedgerows and trees in a verified and scientifically measured way. I also recommended the establishment of food and farming trails throughout Ireland, which would give consumers the opportunity to experience farming first-hand and link the food they eat with the farmer who produced it.

At the time when I submitted my Nuffield report in November 2018, my assessment was that the relationship between farmers and Irish consumers was generally quite healthy. But in the intervening years I believe societal perceptions of farming are visibly changing.

The need for action to address climate change has quite rightly taken hold as one of the most serious challenges facing humanity, and consumers are sitting up and paying attention at last. Young people in particular are demanding climate action and it has forced the hand of Irish policymakers.

The Climate Bill signed into law last year is incredibly ambitious, aiming to halve Ireland’s carbon emissions by 2030. Yet it also has put enormous focus on agriculture, which accounts for over one third of Ireland’s carbon emissions.

Consumer perceptions about farming are now changing and increasingly the narrative around agriculture is about its high carbon footprint and its resistance to change. For me, it feels like we are living through a crucial period in history. Our response to the climate emergency will define a generation and farmers cannot ignore that.

Change is coming and it would be better to lead that change in a manner that works best for the livelihoods of the hundreds of thousands of farm families in this country. If I was writing a new set of recommendations today for my Nuffield report I would call on farm organisations and leaders to embrace climate action and help shape new policies that make sense for farmers, the environment and our climate.

If Irish farmers can do that, they can credibly say to society that they were not found wanting when action was required. And it would secure their licence to operate for generations.

Read more about Lorcan’s Nuffield study topic and download his full report – click here.