The Irish government has shared further details on what the Taoiseach, Michael Martin TD, described as ‘the single biggest investment ever’ by the Irish government when it provided an update on the Agri-Climate Rural Environment Scheme (‘ACRES’) this morning.
ACRES, part of Ireland’s draft CAP Strategic Plan, will see €1.5bn channelled to the country’s agri-food sector. It is hoped the initiative will come into effect at the beginning of next year although the draft proposal still requires approval from the European Commission.
“This €1.5bn scheme is the single biggest investment ever by an Irish Government, and meets a key commitment to design a flagship environmental scheme under the new CAP that is user friendly for farmers, and will deliver broader environmental and biodiversity benefits,” Martin said. “Climate change is a threat to all of us and to our way of life; and the agriculture sector has a crucial role to meet the challenge, while creating resilient farms for generations to come.”
Under the proposal, Martin revealed some 50,000 farmers will be ‘supported directory’ to deliver ‘measurable’ climate, biodiversity and water quality gains.
“This is the highest amount of money ever committed by a Government to a single agri-environmental scheme so it is great news to see ACRES come this far,” Irish Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue TD added.
‘Farmers have a significant role to play’
Irish legislators hope the initiative will provide income support for farmers while also addressing issues like biodiversity decline and environmental protection.
“Farmers have been playing a significant role in the protection of the environment and enhancing biodiversity through their participation in agri-environment schemes down through the years,” McConalogue noted.
All farmers will have the opportunity to apply for ACRES funding through two entry routes, a nationally available ‘general approach’ and a ‘co-operation approach’ available to farmers in ‘high priority geographical areas’.
Martin Heydon, T.D. Minister of State with special responsibility for Research and Development, Farm Safety and New Market Development at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, said that both approaches will focus on ‘results-based actions’ with payments tied to a scoring system.
“This is a positive development for the environment and participants as the increased payments levels for higher scores will be an incentive for even better management of our environment,” he predicted.
“I know that farmers' commitment to doing the right thing for the environment is clear, particularly considering the level of participation in previous agri environmental schemes. I am a firm believer in the power of one, where the greatest number of people possible will deliver substantive change by working together.”
The Government has previously committed to total funding for the CAP Strategic Plan 2023-2027 of €9.83bn. The total national funding and the level of co-financing are both significantly higher than applied under the previous CAP programme - over a seven-year period the funding is almost €1.2 billion higher, an increase of nearly 30% over the 2014-2020 funding.
‘It’s tied up in red tape’
Despite promises of increased government support, Irish farming body IFA remains sceptical about a new scheme that, it warned, is ‘likely to be a bureaucratic nightmare’.
“While we don’t have full visibility on the exact conditions of the scheme, it looks very complicated and is likely to be tied up in red tape,” IFA President Tim Cullinan said.
Cullinan complained the move was ‘typical’ of the approach currently taken by McConalogue and the Ministry of Agriculture: “Big announcements with headline figures before the detail is properly discussed with farmers.”
Are environmental schemes placing unfair burdens on farmers?
Reflecting on the state of Irish agricultural policy, the IFA President said that the ‘various’ environmental schemes that have come and gone in the country all have one thing in common: “Each version has put more costs on farmers without any income increase.”
Cullinan doesn’t expect funding under ACRES to actually reach farmers on the ground. “It will exclude many farmers and huge amounts of funding will leak to people running the Co-operation model, and to other consultants,” he predicted.
So, what do farmers need for environmental schemes to support real change?
IFA Rural Development Chairman Michael Biggins said all farmers who apply in 2023 must be paid in the same year.
“Not accepting all participants into the scheme in 2023 simply cannot happen. Agri-environment payments are a critically important part of farmers’ incomes. It’s essential that all applicants under all tranches receive a payment in 2023,” he said.
“The scheme cannot be limited to 50,000 participants,” the farming representative continued, stressing ‘no farmer’ should be without an environmental scheme payment for 2023.
Results-based measures ‘must be realistic and suitable for all sectors’, IFA argued. These measures need to include a ‘large list of options’ and ‘provide for simple scoring’ which is easily defined. They must also be practical and achievable, the farming organisation continued.
“Consultation with farmers on the design of the scheme has been minimal, but from what we have seen, it will cause huge frustration amongst farmers. For a scheme which is due to open this year, there are simply not enough details available to help farmers prepare,” Biggins said.