Ireland's new food strategy targets quality and doubles down on sustainability

Sustainability is the buzzword of the Food Vision 2030 plan for agrifood export expansion

That’s the three-card trick Irish agriculture plays on us. It presents itself as artisan but, in reality, its produce is one of the most intensive in the world.

Over the past few years, its pristine green image has been sullied as Irish agriculture has experienced increased emissions; water pollution from farms and food processors; overuse of fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides; and the continuing serious impact on wildlife and habitats which changed farming practices have wrought.

This week saw the publication of the third major agriculture strategy for the State in little over a decade. Food Vision 2030 is a 10-year strategy that follows on from Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025. Both of those were criticised for prioritising economic expansion at a cost to the environment.

At first glance, Food Vision might be seen as a straight follow-on from the earlier strategies, which prioritised rapid expansion of dairy and beef exports. Since milk quotas were lifted in 2014, the dairy herd has increased by almost 25 per cent, with milk production increasing by a stunning 41 per cent. The consequence? Emissions in agriculture have continued to rise.

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So is this part of a continuum? Not quite. While Food Vision 2030 does foresee another major expansion in the agri-food export sector, increasing its overall worth from €14 billion to €21 billion by 2030, it is focused more on quality rather than quantity. It recommends Ireland focus on premium, authentic, sustainable and traceable food into the future.

As the chairman of the Food Vision committee, Tom Arnold (an agri-economist and well-known public figure) notes: “Most of the growth in population over the next 30 years will take place in Asia and Africa, with growing middle class populations with the capacity to pay for more diversified and higher quality diets.”

The document at least partly acknowledges that the image of Ireland as a "green" producer is becoming a chimera and must be addressed

Already China, Japan and Nigeria are three of Ireland’s five biggest export markets for food – with Canada and the US (which alone accounts for €1 billion of food exports) being the other two. The report says Ireland could focus its efforts on those emerging markets becoming a “world leader in sustainable food systems” and a “global leader in the production of natural premium sustainably produced food”.

Sustainability is, without doubt, the buzzword of the strategy. It appears 183 times in the 192-page document. Unlike its two predecessors, the document at least partly acknowledges that the image of Ireland as a “green” producer is becoming a chimera and must be addressed.

Incidentally, the strategy enjoys a unique position in terms of Irish policy-making. It was launched this week at Government Buildings with the strongest Coalition team togging out for the occasion: Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue, and the two junior ministers, Pippa Hackett and Martin Heydon.

Yet, highly unusually, this major policy document that will govern the State’s agriculture policy for a decade was not drafted by the Government but by a committee of 31 people, many from the food and agriculture sector.

There was a sole representative of the Environmental Pillar on the committee, but Karen Ciesielski stood down when the draft of the report was published in February. At the time, she said the draft was “on an entirely different book, let alone page, when it comes to our intensive model of agriculture”.

Arnold notes with regret that the debate between the agri-food sector and environmentalists has become polarised. He argues this report is balanced. “[It can make] an important contribution to Ireland achieving its climate and environmental targets, through urgent short-term action… within a longer term vision to achieve 2030 targets.”

So how does it measure up? The strategy has 22 goals and more than 200 actions to make Ireland a world leader in “sustainable food systems”. The two previous plans viewed economic competitivity and the environment as complementary, when clearly they were not.

This one does acknowledge that proactive measures are needed to balance the two objectives.

It concedes: “On-farm agricultural practices accounted for a third of national GHG emissions in 2018. The sector is almost exclusively responsible for ammonia emissions. Thirty per cent of listed species have an inadequate or bad status while 85 per cent of listed habitats have an unfavourable conservation status and agriculture is contributing to these trends.

“Agriculture exerts the most pressure on water quality, impacting on just over half of water bodies at risk of not achieving water quality objectives.”

The evidence for the latter is stark. The number of pristine rivers in Ireland has fallen from more than 500 in the 1980s to a shocking 20 now.

The most urgent action is a detailed plan to be published by summer 2022 to manage the environmental footprint of the dairy and beef sectors. Its long-term aim is for a carbon-neutral food system by 2050, “with verifiable progress by 2030, encompassing emissions, water quality and biodiversity”.

It also sees agriculture having a role in carbon sequestration and storage, especially through forestry.

The question is really how much of a burden is agriculture willing to put on the rest of society in terms of meeting the 2030 targets. They have not grasped the nettle or the necessity to reduce emissions

Another big takeaway is a single line in the strategy that states it “should not be seen as a final or definitive roadmap”. This marks a very big change in terms of its status.

Oisín Coghlan of the environmental NGO, Friends of the Earth, observes: “Until now these agriculture strategies were sacred cows. They were industry-led documents. But once they were published, the Government stood by them come hell or high water.

“Now they are saying, this is not the final word. That is really significant.”

To be fair, the strategy acknowledges that the figure needs to be adjusted to be in line with targets in the Climate Action Bill. That is the only reason there is Green buy-in; it knows the climate legislation can override the modest targets set out in the strategy.

Climate expert Prof John Sweeney says the figures in the strategy will have to be changed. “The figures quoted are not realistic,” he says. “The question is really how much of a burden is agriculture willing to put on the rest of society in terms of meeting the 2030 targets. They have not grasped the nettle or the necessity to reduce emissions.”

Judged on its own merits, while the strategy goes further than the previous two, it sets some very conservative targets.

It echoes the Government’s own “Aglimatise” strategy (from last year) which warned that “any increase in biogenic methane emissions from continually increasing livestock numbers will jeopardise the achievement of the sector attaining climate neutrality by 2050”.

So like all previous strategies (and in line with the position of the three main parties, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Fine Gael) the strategy pulls back from calling on any decrease in the national herd (only the Greens support this).

So without decreasing livestock numbers, how do you decrease greenhouse gases like methane? The strategy recommends a biogenic methane cut of a modest 10 per cent by 2030.

The strategy puts large reliance on technology, better pasture management, reductions in chemical fertiliser, an increase in clover cover, more sustainable slurry spread, use of protected urea, better use of genetics, and feed additives. The jury is out on whether that will achieve the 10 per cent reduction by 2030.

There are some very good pilot programmes such as An Teagasc’s 100 “signpost farms” scattered throughout the country. They use all the alternative methods listed in the previous paragraph as an example of how it can be done. But how long will it take to make that a national programme? Five years? Ten years? Similarly in the Bride Valley in Co Cork, farms have been incentivised to earmark 10 per cent of their land to biodiversity. Can that truly be spread nationally by 2030?

A cohort (unquantified) of farmers are completely impervious to the crisis

A shocking admission in the strategy is that a cohort (unquantified) of farmers are completely impervious to the crisis. It states that the new Common Agricultural Policy (Cap), and rural development programmes, be designed to “ensure participation by more intensive farmers who typically do not engage with agri-environmental measures”.

Besides reductions in fertiliser use, ammonia use, herbicide use and pesticide use, there is a proposal to plant 8,000 hectares a year of forestry (that remains very aspirational as current planting targets are not being met) as well as to increase the proportion of organic farming from 2 per cent to 7.5 per cent. Details are sparse on how these targets can actually be achieved.

Even then, some fall well short of EU targets. The Farm to Fork strategy, for example, set a target of 25 per cent of land to be organically farmed by 2030.

The relentless expansion of the beef and dairy sectors may have slowed but is it enough? Irish farming has long argued that its dairy sector is the most sustainable in the world. Just about all players acknowledge that grass-based grazing is beneficial. But there is a downside to expansion and intensification.

As the report states: “Ireland’s largely grass-fed livestock has a natural advantage in the marketplace reflected in the Origin Green programme but its credentials will be vulnerable to challenge if key environmental indicators are going in the wrong direction.”

Origin Green, it concludes, will also need to improve its evidence and information bases, as well as increasing the standards required to achieve the status. It will need to prove that those farmers and food producers who get the label are truly sustainable and are not contributing to increased emissions or pollution. (Critics portray the Bord Bia programme as a marketing exercise that does not reflect the reality on the ground.)

To those criticisms, Bord Bia responded on Friday: “Origin Green is a constantly evolving programme, which seeks to build on the successes its members achieve and, just as importantly, to identify gaps and work with members to address those.

“Much has been achieved through the programme but the agri-sector recognises the need to do more.”

That’s the big challenge for Irish agriculture, the need to do more to retain a green status while surviving and adapting into the future. For now, Ireland remains some distance away from being “a world leader in sustainable food systems”.