Feeling sheepish at the Plaid Cymru sustainability conference

by: Peter Harper

In April I spoke at the Plaid Cyrmu Conference on Sustainability. I was keen to raise a few issues that I knew would be controversial. Although Plaid now share power in the Welsh Assembly Government their members appear to have retained the ability to speak their minds and engage in intelligent debate.

On these occasions, given any sort of platform, I always raise the question of livestock because otherwise it’s ignored. Sheep and cows are net greenhouse-gas emitters and could not survive a systematic decarbonisation programme in anything like their present numbers. Reduced to say 10-20%, the huge areas of land they presently occupy would become available for other purposes in the new carbon-economy. I never have time to present the caveats and nuances, and it tends to come over a bit simplistic. Perhaps you need that in a public debate, but naturally this kind of sentiment does not go down well with stock farmers, well represented in a Plaid Cymru whose voter base is largely rural Wales (nor with Patrick Holden of the Soil Association, who was sat next to me on the panel!).  But I was not lynched; on the contrary the discourse was polite and reflective. The most telling point made against me was that if we restricted meat production in Britain, in a market system it would simply be bought from abroad. Quite true, unless the ‘drivers’ for decarbonisation are internationally agreed and enforced, as they would have to be. It reminded me that we are still a long way from a proper global decarbonisation plan, and it’s very difficult for small countries to go it alone.

Nevertheless a few farmers at the meeting had been thinking of diversification, and whether well-chosen new crops and services could bring fresh prosperity to the countryside. One who spoke to me had reduced his stock by half and grown some excellent crops instead, in spite of the widespread view that upland Wales is fit only for grass and trees. As the older generation of farmers retires, surely their successors will start to ask whether sheep-farming is not just a subsidised holding operation while we think of more dynamic and profitable uses for our land.

I have long thought there ought to be a kind of CAT equivalent for farmers in Wales, where they could go and see all manner of ‘carbon crops’ being grown, harvested and processed, complete with shiny new machines—and animals too, fitting in where they make the whole process more efficient. Many of the farmers I met at the meeting agreed it would it would help to have examples that you could see working. It needs a combination of a suitable farm, a university or two, and a driving spirit—a visionary farmer?—who won’t take no for an answer. Any takers?

There was some discussion about the question of economic growth, possibly stimulated by the Sustainable Development Commission’s recent report Prosperity Without Growth. One attendee at the conference recalled the village in North Wales where she was brought up in the 50s. People were poor, and there were few modern conveniences. Everyone longed for affluence and ‘modernisation’. Fifty years later they had it, but, she claimed, bitterly regretted what had got lost in the process. She asked the panel: if affluence not only destroys the planet but wrecks the quality of life, why are we such suckers for it?

  • Real brain power on display. Thanks for that aesnwr!