Can Ireland feed itself? Yes. A nutritious diet? Not at the moment

Opinion: If food shortages occur, we will see we have neglected essentials such as cereals

Russia's invasion of Ukraine, known as the "bread basket of Europe", has far-reaching implications for food. The most direct and urgent implication is Ukrainians in besieged areas being cut off from food supplies, and the millions of people trying to flee Ukraine not being able to access food and water. This is where the immediate humanitarian focus needs to be. Beyond these immediate needs, there is great concern about the catastrophic impacts on Ukraine's agricultural production and the spill-over effects globally.

Ukraine is one of the world’s major grain exporters. Seeds that were destined for Ukrainian fields sit in warehouses unable to reach farmers and the window to sow them is shortening by the day. Crops already in fields will not be harvested as long as Ukraine is under attack, and some crops may already have been destroyed.

The loss of Ukraine’s exports of major agricultural commodities such as wheat, maize, and sunflower oil, along with the loss of fertiliser supplies from Russia, has serious repercussions for global agriculture and food supplies. In addition, there is growing concern for food security of North African and Middle Eastern countries that will feel the impacts most acutely, due to reliance on Ukraine and Russia for over half of their cereal imports and on wheat as their main staple.

But, as a country that produces and exports many times the food required to feed our population, do we need to worry about Ireland’s food security? Why did the Minister for Agriculture ask this week that all Irish farmers grow crops this year? What does this say about Ireland’s current food system and our food policies?

While Ireland is very successful at producing food and at finding exports markets for it, our agriculture has become highly specialised. We have focused primarily on beef and dairy production due to the suitability of our climate and our competitive advantage in grass-based production. Ireland is not unusual in this level of specialisation.

This has come about through increasingly globalised markets and policies that have encouraged countries to specialise in areas of production that they can do best and most efficiently; the very same reason why Ukraine is focused on production of wheat, other cereals, and oil seed crops, due to its rich, fertile plains. But, in order to produce the quantities of meat and dairy that we do, even in grass-based systems, we rely heavily on imported inputs of fertiliser and feed.

Because we have been so focused on beef and dairy, and because we have been able to source animal feed cheaply from abroad, we have not worried so much about growing other things.

"Ireland is well placed to be food secure," says Fintan Keenan, a tillage farmer originally from Co Monaghan who has been farming wheat and beans organically in Denmark for the past 10 years. "But as cheap wheat became abundant on global markets, Irish farmers were encouraged to stop growing it." The same can be said for other crops and cereals, with the tillage sector seeing steady decline in recent decades due to challenges of viability.

'They will look at how many acres they can sacrifice to grow their own fodder... input prices will force them to think differently'

Now, having largely moved away from mixed farming systems and with many having left tillage, farmers are suddenly being asked to plant crops again. Will Irish farmers answer this call? Keenan believes they will, if they can. “Farmers are rolling up their sleeves, they are responding because they are looking at the rising price of animal feed. They will look at how many acres they can sacrifice to grow their own fodder. These are farmers who would not dream of growing anything tillage-wise, but input prices will force them to think differently.” But that does not mean it will be straightforward.

“The infrastructure simply isn’t there. In Denmark, tillage is very much part of a mixed farming set-up and the facilities for drying, storage and milling are there in every community. Irish farmers aren’t set up for this. Even if the equipment was there, the knowledge and skills have been lost.”

Keenan says Ireland is in a “double jeopardy” situation when it comes to staple crops such as wheat. We rely both on imported or homegrown wheat for animal feed and on wheat from international markets, mainly coming through the UK and France for milling, for flour.

'My sense is that any additional crops that will be grown this year by Irish farmers will be destined for animal feed, not for human consumption'

“My sense is that any additional crops that will be grown this year by Irish farmers will be destined for animal feed, not for human consumption,” says Keenan. That the main concern around shortages, and the call to grow crops, is focused on animal feed and not food for people seems clear. In a statement this week, the IFA suggested that potato farmers might be well placed to switch to tillage crops, indicating that human food production might be sacrificed for animal feed. Of course, in the short-term, the animals we have will need to be fed, but this exposes real weakness in Ireland’s narrow approach to food policy.

“How can we be called food secure?” asks Fergal Anderson, a Galway-based farmer who produces vegetables and fruit for the local market with his partner Emanuela Russo. “We export huge quantities of beef and dairy that are dependent on inputs. But humans don’t live on steaks and milk. It is a huge simplification to say we are food secure; we don’t produce the whole picture, right now we can’t supply our own population with a nutritious diet.”

Indeed, specialisation also has consequences for what we produce. With policy support focused elsewhere, sectors such as horticulture have been left to languish. There has been a continual reduction in the number of fresh produce growers in Ireland over the past two decades and this exodus continues.

According to the IFA, the number of field growers of vegetables has fallen from an estimated 400 down to 100 in the past 20 years, and they attribute this exodus primarily to the ever-lower prices offered by retailers. Appeals to retail multiples to end the notorious 49c fruit and vegetable deals have so far fallen on deaf ears. Supermarkets serve their customers, and they want to offer them low prices.

Domestic horticulture is not given adequate support and no concerted policy effort has been made to prevent below-cost selling of fruit and vegetables

Ireland now finds itself importing the majority of our fruit and vegetables. While we will probably always want to import bananas and oranges, we also import vast quantities of crops that can be grown in Ireland, including tens of thousands of tonnes of apples, potatoes, onions, cabbages and carrots. Our reliance on imports of fruit and vegetables is something we have walked into with our eyes wide open in policy terms. Domestic horticulture is not given adequate support and no concerted policy effort has been made to prevent below-cost selling of fruit and vegetables.

“Our focus on commodity production and exports has left local markets behind, particularly for fruit, vegetables and grains,” says Anderson, “We have been supplying local markets from our farm for 10 years, farming agro-ecologically, and we have never received government supports”.

The war in Ukraine, and its impacts on the global food system, are shining a light on problems that were already there. Anderson along with other small and medium-scale farmers, established Talamh Beo in 2019 to advocate for a new approach to farm policy in Ireland.

“We are extremely exposed. The future we want is many eggs in many baskets. Currently Ireland has all its eggs in the dairy and beef baskets; and this makes things fragile because of all the inputs required and the fact that those inputs are mostly imported. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in moving away from this currently,” says Anderson.

But we know that we need to move away from it. We are in the midst of dual biodiversity and climate crises and the way we farm and produce food are key to solving them. The need to shift away from chemical inputs of fertilisers and pesticides, to reduce animal agriculture with its high reliance on imported feeds, and to close the loop through regenerative agricultural practices has been clearly recognised at an international level and has been incorporated into EU policy through the Green Deal and the Farm2Fork strategy, but Irish policy has been slow to move in that direction.

The price of fuel, fertiliser and animal feed was already on the rise before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and now with prices soaring and real concerns about supplies, there are serious implications for farm profitability. If the growing evidence of the huge environmental impact of our current farm practices has not been enough of a wake-up call, perhaps this will motivate the move to a new direction.

But farming organisations and agri-business representatives are already lobbying for relaxation of environmental measures in light of the Ukraine war and food security concerns. There is a real and palpable fear now among environmental groups and farmers who have advocated for a more regenerative, agro-ecological approach, that hard won-policy progress will be rowed back on.

Fergal Anderson, represented the European Co-ordination Via Campesina, a farmer-led international organisation advocating for food sovereignty, at this week's European Commission meeting on Food Security and Contingency planning. He says that while there are genuine concerns about food security, the current crisis further highlights the fragility of current agricultural models.

He says the Irish Government and the EU must avoid knee-jerk reactions and remain focused on long-term goals to move away from dependence on synthetic fossil fuel-based fertilisers and towards agro-ecology.

The vision of Talamh Beo, and Via Campesina, of which it is a part, is one of food sovereignty and agro-ecology, and this is what Anderson wants to see Irish policy move towards.

“The key difference between food security and food sovereignty is that food sovereignty includes agency of people and farmers in the process. It is about democratisation of the food system, one that doesn’t centre on agribusiness and industry but on citizens and communities, that puts people and the environment first. It is inseparable from agro-ecology, which is an entirely different way of farming that doesn’t depend on synthetic inputs, but on complementary livestock and crop production, closed nutrient cycles and biodiverse landscapes.”

'If we want real sustainability, we should be building regional food economies, not motorways'

Fintan Keenan believes in moving Ireland in a similar direction. “We are not talking about going back to horses and carts,” he says, “If we want real sustainability, we should be building regional food economies, not motorways. That means providing the supports and the environment for every region to produce grains, vegetables, meat and dairy.”

Both Keenan and Anderson point to further key challenges in both food and farming beyond our reliance on imports and our lack of diversity in production, not least declining farm incomes and the ageing farming population. Both believe things can be turned around, and farmers can deliver on the vision for a better food system, if the incentives are right.

“We are really challenged by the culture from the top. We need policy shifts, but we also need a cheque through the door. A lot of farmers are doing what they are doing because that is what they have been taught by the State and industry for a long time. It is not easy to jump out of that loop. But I think, given the issues we are facing with input costs, more farmers will start to consider organics and alternative approaches now,” says Keenan.

Anderson also believes the time is ripe for change. “We need to create an enabling environment. If it costs money to produce fruit and vegetables here, we need to pay it; but we also need to put policies in place that ensure access to healthy and affordable food for all, not just those for who can pay more.”

“It can be done. There are examples all over the world, including in Ireland, of regenerative systems that produce nutritious food for local communities. This is what needs support, not agrochemicals and fertiliser,” says Anderson.

“There is a shocking lack of vision in Ireland. But we have to ask ourselves what kind of agricultural sector do we want to have in five to 10 years’ time? What does the Irish citizen want to see? More environmental damage, more concentration, more specialisation? Or vibrant local economies, that provide decent livelihoods to farmers and nutritious food to citizens.”

Ruth Hegarty is the director of Egg&Chicken Consulting, an agency dedicated to food policy, advocacy and education, and to developing diverse sustainable food businesses.