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TK Whitaker's agricultural policy legacy

31 January 2017
Type Media Article

The passing of TK Whitaker prompted me to revisit his most influential publication "Programme for Economic Expansion". It's hard to believe that this seminal paper was published nearly 60 years ago as it has a resonance today in so many respects.

Most commentators focus on the broad macroeconomic messages of "Economic Expansion" but what's often neglected is that the bulk of the document is concerned with agricultural policy.

The macroeconomic messages are still, however, fundamentally relevant. Whitaker, with crystal clear prose, focused on the importance of "productive" public investment and the imperative of maximising the return on that investment. He makes a distinction between "social capital" investment ("housing, hospitals, communications, etc.") and “productive investment” that increases national output through additional exports. Wage competitiveness was the primary concern for Whitaker 60 years ago as it surely has to be also today "... wage standards must be realistic, having regard to the level of productivity in this country and the need for ensuring competitive costs per unit of output". 

Given the importance of agriculture to the economy in the late 1950s, it is not surprising that "Economic Expansion" devoted so much attention to the sector. What's so refreshing is that the key messages are so relevant to present-day concerns. Whitaker throughout the paper, time and time again, emphasises the importance of driving higher productivity, given the importance of securing export markets for our food production. He writes, for instance, that "... State assistance should concentrate less on price supports and guarantees than on measures designed to bring about increased agricultural productivity (i.e., lower production costs per unit of output)". Clearly Whitaker understood that fundamentally if public policy is to be concerned about competitiveness that focus has to be on productivity.

But "Economic Expansion" doesn't just focus on 'high level' concerns about agricultural productivity. It zeroes in on what it sees as the "... most important feature of Irish agriculture", namely its rich grassland resources and the clear requirement that "... future agricultural expansion will depend mainly on a dynamic policy of grassland development". This priority is still, without question, the policy priority for Irish agriculture and is clearly set out in both "Food Harvest" and "Food Wise".

An Foras Taluntais (AFT) was established in 1958 and it’s apparent from the emphasis placed in the paper on developing our grasslands, and the importance as a consequence of enhancing soil nutrition, that Whitaker was hugely influenced by Tom Walsh who was the founding Director of AFT. In 2008, when Michael Miley was working on "Growing Knowledge", which was the 50th anniversary book on the founding of AFT published by Teagasc, he interviewed TK Whitaker about Tom Walsh. Whitaker gave him the memorable quote that the "Doc" "... was a breath of fresh air in a rather staid civil service". 

"Economic Expansion" stresses that to succeed in developing our grasslands the "... first and basic essential is the presence in the soil of a satisfactory level of lime and nutrients ... [and] ... Phosphorus is the key nutrient". It's ironic that the requirement for attending to liming and nutrient replenishment of our soils is still a concern today!

Reading the following sentence really jolted me "The phosphate status of only about 10 per cent of our soils can be regarded as reasonably satisfactory". For the last few years colleagues in Teagasc have been drawing attention to the results from our analysis of soil sample data at Johnstown Castle that only about 10 per cent of soils have optimal nutrient status! Plus ca change, plus la meme chose! We've also expressed concerns about inadequate levels of liming, although application rates appear to have improved noticeably in recent times. 

"Economic Expansion is careful to note that improved liming and nutrient application rates while improving "... the carrying-capacity of our grasslands is not, of course, an end it itself; we will have to ensure that it is utilised by increasing the number of livestock". 

The only specific policy measures that were recommended in "Economic Expansion" concerned agriculture. A fertiliser subsidy was introduced "... to reduce the price of phosphates and thus encourage farmers to use them more extensively".  (The subsidy was only discontinued in the late 1970s.) The Department of Agriculture, and the agricultural advisory services, which were under its operational control in 1958, were directed to "... concentrate on improvement of grassland management as one of their most important functions".  

Nearly sixty years on it's a salutary lesson that needs to be ingrained in our collective agricultural consciousness that the most important requirement for a productive agricultural sector remains the fertility of our soils and, in particular, our grasslands. Despite a substantial enhancement in the scientific understanding of the management of our soils; the completion of a comprehensive "Soils Information System"; and the availability of sophisticated nutrient management tools, it is disappointing, to put it mildly, that only 10 per cent of our soils today are adjudged to have optimal nutrient status. 

It's perhaps appropriate that nearly six decades after Whitaker's publication that the Minister has dedicated 2017 as "The Year of Sustainable Grassland". A variety of events throughout the year will emphasise different aspects of grassland management that have the scope to greatly enhance the competitiveness of our dairy, beef and sheep sectors. At the first of these events at the end of the month, Teagasc will launch its 4-year "Grass10" campaign with the target of delivering an average utilisation rate of 10 t DM/ha and 10 grazings per annum.

With the exception of the critical emphasis we place today on both productivity and sustainability - "sustainable intensification" - the messages of Whitaker's seminal work are still relevant for the development of our agriculture and food industries. 

Professor Gerry Boyle, Director Teagasc