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McConologue suggests compulsory tillage as food shortages loom

The announcement by Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue that he may instruct farmers to start to grow grain in order to replace likely shortages if the war in Ukraine continues to impact on global supplies is not only an indication of the crisis but has some interesting historical resonances.

Apparently, Ukraine and Russia produce around 30% of global grain exports so any prolonged conflict or indeed a severe disruption of the growing season is going to have huge implications. Ukraine has historically been known as the breadbasket of Europe and has for that reason for centuries been a prime target of expanding empires from the Mongol Golden Horde in the 13th century to the Bolsheviks and Nazis in the 20th.

The various bungling and murderous attempts by the Soviet Communists to implement state ownership of agriculture meant that even after some economic easing in the 1960s that by the early 1970s Brezhnev was forced into a humiliating deal with Nixon to buy wheat and corn in order to make up for yet another shortage.

Throughout the Soviet period Ukraine supplied around a quarter of the USSR’s food demand. Since the collapse of socialism as an economic system, Ukraine and indeed the fertile parts of Russia have regained their pre-eminence in the food world.

The reaction to McConalogue’s plan from the farmers organisations with whom he will meet on Tuesday has been less than warm. Irish Farmers Association President Tim Cullinan questioned whether getting all farmers to grow crops would be the optimum use of their land, and while Pat McCormack of the dairy farmers organisation the ICMSA was slightly more positive he too referred to input costs and to the current restrictions on fertiliser use which is a product of the EU climate change driven approach to farming.

The main historical echo that has been picked up is of the “Emergency” period of World War II when the then Fianna Fáil government introduced a compulsory tillage order that required that all farmers with more than ten acres had to grow grain on up to 20% of their arable land. The full implementation of the scheme would have meant that around one sixth of the arable land would be put under crops and that half of the flour used would be sourced in the state.

The measure was strongly resisted by larger dairy farmers. Paddy Belton who was a large landowner in north county Dublin and a Fine Gael TD brought a private members motion critical of the order. It did not have the support of his party and James Dillon, the deputy leader of Fine Gael spoke against Belton who withdrew the motion.

When compulsory tillage had been proposed by the Labour Party during the Civil War it was opposed by Cumann na nGaedhael although they left the opposition to be voiced by the Farmers Party which represented the larger farming interests.

The breaking up of the “ranches” had been popular with the more radical elements of the Home Rule party in the United Ireland League and with republicans even as the process of land transfers and purchases proceeded after the Wyndham Land Act of 1903. This continued into the revolutionary period when there were attempts by smaller farmers and farm labourers especially in Connacht to hasten the breaking up of the larger holdings.

This was connected to the belief that too much land was devoted to grazing cattle, mostly for live exports as had been the designated role of Irish farming within the colonial economy since the 17th century. In a report which he presented to the Dáil in August 1921 Art O’Connor the Minister for Agriculture outlined his fear that “this country will be nothing else but a wilderness on which cattle will be browsing.”

O’Connor envisaged that the live export of 1.5 million cattle and sheep every year could be replaced by a domestic processing sector. How to persuade larger farmers to transfer from grazing to tillage was another problem which O’Connor naively believed might come about through “appealing to the patriotic sense of the individual affected.”

Daithí Ceannt was less invested in the patriotism of the large farmers and instead proposed that all farmers be compelled to devote between 10% and 20% to crops, with corresponding sanctions in cases of failure or refusal to do so. Others favoured compulsory taking of land from larger farmers who were solely engaged in grazing.

This was during the Truce and it was an indication of the intent that an independent Irish government had once the British had left, something that was then under tentative negotiation leading to the Treaty and of course the Civil War. Following that, the Free State made its peace with the most reactionary political, financial and economic forces and almost every aspect of a radical nationalist economic and social policy was quickly abandoned.

It is interesting that Ceannt’s proposal was similar to that introduced in the 1940s but removed once the Emergency was over. Fianna Fáil too had gradually been worn down by those whose consent was required, and was seldom given, for a nationalist economic policy.

Thus, it is that only another war has sparked some radical residual memory in one of the Ministers of that party.

Increasing the amount of crops grown in Ireland would make sense anyway, as would a greater emphasis on higher value processing of cattle and fish here rather than exporting live cattle as has been done since Cromwellian governor William Petty came up with that plan in the 1600s, and since handing over the bulk of the fish in Irish waters was thought to be a smart idea in 1973.



C: National Library Ireland

A cartoon originally published in the ‘New York World’ stating the opinion that it is greed, rather than the war, causing the food crisis  Photo: Irish Life, 22 Dec 1916. Full collection of Irish Life available at the National Library of Ireland.

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