Can a policy, irrespective of how essential and noble it is, be successful if it does not recognize and include the key stakeholders involved in it? Professors Sheila M. Cannon, Trinity Business School, Susan P. Murphy, and researcher Lyndsay Walsh,Trinity College Dublin, explore the question by examining the ‘just transition’ proposed by the Government of Ireland to reduce the environmental effects of beef farming.
What’s the beef? How to make a ‘just transition’ in farming to meet climate targets by CoBS Editor Pavan Jambai. Related research: Just transition frames: Recognition, representation, and distribution in Irish beef farming, Susan P. Murphy, Sheila Cannon, Lyndsay Walsh; Journal of Rural Studies, Elsevier.
Anyone who has visited Ireland can recollect the image of cows grazing on pastures. The image is so iconic that it is regularly used in Irish tourism advertisements. This highlights the fact that beef farming is not only an important economic activity in rural Ireland but also embedded in the social and cultural fabric of rural communities, identities, and social structures.
Even purely as an economic activity, Ireland exports 90% of the beef it produces, and in 2018 exported 579,000 tons at a total value of €2.5 billion, accounting for over 30% of total food and drink exports. It is a worrying sign that an industry with such a high cultural and economic value has consistently been confronted with a variety of challenges.
Beef Farming: A dying industry?
The beef farming industry is facing a range of pressures from the social, political, economic, and environmental spheres. Economically, most beef farms are vulnerable, meaning that farm income alone does not remunerate family labour, thus requiring farmers to engage in off-farm work to supplement their incomes.
Public opinion of the industry, as a result of environmental awareness, has been on a downward spiral leading to reduced meat consumption and hence demand. Government policies to reduce emissions to achieve their sustainability goals means that the funding and support for the industry have been cut significantly.
There is also a lack of transparency over how processors – organizations that purchase cattle to process for human consumption – determine beef prices which declined by 12.5% between the beginning of 2018 and mid-2019. Together, these factors led to street protests by the beef farming community in 2019.
Climate Change and Just Transition
With the inevitable effects of climate change dawning upon us, it is imperative to address the emissions related to the beef industry – one of the key contributors to the problem. With the Irish government pledging to reduce agricultural emissions by 30% by 2030, plans to transition the sector to sustainable pathways are emerging rapidly.
Just transition emerged in the 1970’s as a grass-roots labour movement to mobilize workers and communities directly affected by environmental policies in the energy sector which resulted in the loss of livelihoods and employment opportunities. The idea being the benefits and burdens of the transition to enhanced environmental governance and protection policies should be fairly distributed among all stakeholders.
Experts and executives, governed by scientific, moral, and legal principles, come up with action plans to counter the effects of climate change. Less considered, although of significant importance, are not only the economic consequences but also the cultural, community identity, and sense of place of the beef farming communities.
To illustrate this apparent chasm, Ireland’s Climate Action Plan notes that ‘the development of plans to manage the sustainable environmental footprint of the beef and dairy sectors will be central to the achievement of [Ireland’s] climate targets’ while offering little to no insight on how the idea of just transition will be operationalized in the Irish beef farming sector.
What counts vs What’s countable
There is a fundamental mismatch in how beef farmers and key actors assess the current situation. The most powerful actors, the Government and the Irish Farmers’ Association, are not addressing the issues that beef farmers consider most important: unfair power distribution leading to inadequate prices and a general lack of support for small farmers.
Even after the public protests, which – ironically due to the lack of recognition of the beef farmers, blocked the country’s capital on multiple occasions – the government did not mention these issues in its assessment of the sector. This is a blatant form of misrecognition which sends the message that beef farmers are unequal partners in the decision-making process.
Beef Farming: Just transition without justice?
Recognition and participation are mandatory preconditions for justice. Beef farming is intrinsically linked to the identity of the farmers and the lack of recognition and participation in a key issue that affects their livelihoods can and should be perceived as a threat to the very identity of beef farmers.
The government and experts are focused on treating the symptoms of the problem, the poor state of beef farming, and poor prices for producers – the ‘what’ of the injustice. They would be wiser to first focus on the cause of the problem – the ‘who’, ‘how’, and ‘why’ of injustice and inequity – and question the underlying social, institutional, and cultural causes that lead to distributive injustices.
For Cannon, Murphy and Walsh the core of the problem is clear: intangible factors have to be taken into account. These include the non-market-based, non-material concerns and harms experienced by the beef farmers along with – or before – considering the matters of distribution, market-based and economic instruments, and indicators to increase recognition and participation of the farmers.
Inclusive Just Transition
The execution of a policy is as important as the noble intention behind it. While it is undeniable that strong measures must be taken to combat the impending doom of climate change, the way to do it must not put the livelihoods of any community in danger.
Profs. Cannon, Murphy and researcher Walsh’s key takeaway is that if the transition is to be just, it must move from a single-axis analysis of economic variables to a multi-dimensional examination of social, environmental, and cultural factors. How can it be a ‘just’ transition if it is not justified to the most important stakeholder of the transition process?
It is a sad reality that since social status and cultural loss are not monetized commodities, their loss is not acknowledged. “Not everything that counts can be counted,” goes a famous saying, “and not everything that can be counted counts.”
- Link up with Sheila M. Cannon, Susan P. Murphy, and Lyndsay Walsh on LinkedIn
- Follow Prof. Cannon and Lyndsay Walsh on Twitter @SheilaCannon20, @LyndsayWalsh4
- Read a related article: Tending to the cultural aspects of organic farmers
- Discover Trinity Business School at Trinity College Dublin
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