If we can be sure of just one thing, in the complex debates about the linked futures of our environment and our agriculture, it is that the Department of Agriculture and the farming and food industries have become extraordinarily fluent in “greenspeak”.
And no doubt they often speak it sincerely. But it can be very hard to translate what they are saying into satisfactory actions. The word “sustainable” occurs so often in national plans such as the Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025 that it sometimes seems drained of any real meaning.
For example, from the former: “A sustainable agricultural sector requires that the highest possible returns are secured for the high-quality food produced.” If you substitute “super-profitable” for “sustainable” in that sentence, it makes a lot more sense.
Or consider this gem, from the same document: “Ireland’s historic association with the colour green is linked to our unspoilt agricultural landscape.” Passing quickly over the grim human and environmental history of our landscapes in the 19th century, a cynic might say the colour green is more closely linked in recent years to the excessive use of nitrate fertilisers that turned some of our fields to an unnaturally luminous shade of emerald – and did great damage to our waterways – than to supposedly healthy habitats.
Reports the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) has sent to the EU Directorate-General for Environment since we joined the EU show that, far from being at the top of the European environmental class, as our agricultural marketing persistently suggests, our performance is often dire.
The only place to start our journey to environmental recovery is from recognition of this fact. That does not mean that the journey is impossible, or that our agriculture cannot play a major role in the process. But it can only fulfil that potential when we stop imagining that painful conflicts of interest will vanish if sufficient magical thinking is applied to them.
Nor does it mean we should abandon initiatives like Bord Bia’s Origin Green, though its publicity – Saoirse Ronan drifting through monocultural fields while praising biodiversity – could have won a greenspeak Oscar.
Bord Bia has in fact done sterling work in persuading many farmers and food companies to take the first real steps in considering the totality of their relationship to the environment, and how they might improve it. It has also applied considerable ingenuity to the difficult question of how such improvements can be measured.
As it stands, however, Origin Green gives far too much latitude to the individual producer in deciding how much improvement is actually necessary. We would never accept such latitude in matters of health and safety, for example. Yet our blind insistence on increasing emissions that accelerate climate change would, in any rational view of things, constitute the mother of all health and safety violations.
Siobhán Egan, senior policy officer for BirdWatch Ireland, was the only environmental NGO representative on the FoodWise 2025 committee. “It was a really frustrating process,” she says. Egan finds the published plan “very alarming”, and says: “The level of rhetoric being used has no basis in reality and far exceeds what the content of the plan can deliver, yet the rhetoric is what is being presented to the public.
“Sustainability is used as a marketing tool, when what we need is evidence for claims that our agriculture is sustainable. There was an attitude that we can continue doing what we are doing now, disregarding the reality of significant declines in habitats and farmland species. It was also frustrating because there is a lot of good stuff happening with farming and conservation, but it’s not getting adequate support.”
She says that the plan needs “a robust environmental assessment”, but doubts whether the assessment delivered in September, extraordinarily quickly after a public consultation closed at the end of August, will have any impact at all on the final plan.
We just do not seem to appreciate the urgency of our situation.
“Climate change is a serious threat,” former president Mary Robinson told a meeting at the Irish Institute of European Affairs (IIEA) last February. “It demands a completely new way of doing things, a complete transformation. Business-as-usual, with a little green-ness attached, won’t be enough.”
Six months closer to the crucial United Nation’s climate conference in Paris in December, Robinson, the UN’s special envoy on climate change, believes we have still not had the “broad debate” that moving beyond business-as-usual requires.
"We in Ireland recognise the importance of the agricultural sector," she told The Irish Times, "but we are not looking at it in the context of how Ireland can see its future in 10, 20, 30 years' time.
“There was the beginnings of such a debate at the Trócaire conference on climate justice. It would be welcome to have a broader debate along these lines . . . I don’t want to comment specifically on Irish policy, as a former president, but I just see a great potential for us to understand the importance of the food sector, but also, as a European country, to meet our obligations and cut emissions. At the moment we are kind of doing special pleading but it’s not really very convincing.”
Robinson believes we already have a good, nationally-funded model for climate-smart agriculture, but we are putting it into practice abroad rather than at home.
“Irish Aid is already doing climate-smart agriculture in Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, with all the elements of diverse, bottom-up agriculture – less meat-producing, more focused on maize and wheat and local plants. It would be very good to be able to align our policy in supporting genuinely climate-smart agriculture in developing countries and the policies we have in Ireland itself.”
Such change, she says, would offer us the opportunity to give world leadership on this issue.
But there is little sign that most of our policymakers have even begun to grasp this kind of message. There is still no clear understanding that the economy is a subset of the environment, not vice versa. We need to adjust our economic thinking to environmental imperatives, or there will be no stable ground on which our children can build any kind of prosperous economy.
Yet we persist in thinking that we can have it all, ever-increasing production and consumption, with just a little environmental tweaking here and there. This thinking appears quite clearly in the “sustainability” section of Food Wise 2025, though this was hardly the intention of the writers.
It says: “Future food production systems must be as focused on managing and sustaining our natural resources as they are on increasing production . . . environmental protection and economic competitiveness are equal and complementary: one will not be achieved at the expense of the other.”
But what if “increasing production”, at least at the rates envisaged in this agricultural plan, is simply incompatible with sustaining our natural resources? What if “economic competitiveness”, of the type proposed in the plan, is itself the antithesis of environmental protection, not its complement?
Our natural capital is finite, but we are behaving as if it were infinite. We live in a world with a volatile climate system that we have changed and are continuing to change with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Yet we treat this crisis as requiring only techno-fixes and eco-labelling, not radical changes in policy and behaviour.
If we took climate change seriously, could we really be drastically increasing dairy production, when we know that agriculture already generates one-third of all our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions?
In fairness, the challenge of GHG emissions is recognised in Food Wise 2025, but the assumptions and arguments advanced to meet that challenge are not convincing. There is a recurrent assumption that techno-fixes can be found to reduce overall emissions, while continually increasing the production that creates them.
Well, we just might discover the secret of nuclear fusion as well, but it’s dangerous to bet so heavily on extraordinary advances in science as our main response to a clear and present danger. Nor do crippling cutbacks at Teagasc suggest that the Government is really serious about this option.
Harold Kingston, chairman of the IFA’s Environment and Rural Affairs committee, accepts that “we are in a very tight situation regarding climate change. But I believe we can fix it in our generation, if by fixing it we mean maintaining warming below a 2-degree rise.”
He makes a cogent case for the current IFA position: our grass-based dairy and beef production is already among the most carbon-efficient in Europe. If we reduced production, he says, it would simply shift to less carbon-efficient countries to meet market demand. Our farmers would suffer huge losses, and climate would suffer more damage, not less. Our national interest would be damaged, with no gain to the global environment.
He says, with some justice, that “people who are up in arms about climate change sometimes seem to blame agriculture for everything”. He believes that most farmers want to practise conservation, in the sense of passing on their land in better condition, in every sense, than they found it. But he points out that sustainability must include economic and social well-being, as well as environmental considerations.
Kingston argues that the emissions targets agreed by the Government put an undue burden on farmers, and that his sector is given no credit for the significant amount of carbon sequestered on agricultural land.
The counter-argument is that our relative carbon efficiency does not make our substantial agri-emissions cause any less climate change. A responsible government would not be making an exceptional case for derogation for agriculture, but would be working hard internationally to build institutions that prevent the problem being shifted elsewhere.
And what kind of national interest puts the poorest countries in the world, and our own future generations, at severe risk? Why can we not summon up the imagination to even consider that there might now be a compelling need to place limits on growth? Or that our economic – and dietary – dependence on the mass consumption of beef and dairy products, which we are now selling into cultures that were never dependent on them, and did perfectly well without them, might ultimately be an addiction more dangerous to the livelihoods of our children than heroin?
Of course, we must recognise, as a society, that radically cutting GHG emissions in agriculture will have serious impacts on many farm incomes, at least in the short term. We must all be prepared to share that burden, if necessary through increased taxation to subsidise vulnerable farmers through a transition to more climate-friendly kinds of land management.
There is also considerable potential on productive land for restoring corridors and patches of native forest and other habitats of high biodiversity value, the necklaces that are so badly needed to string the jewels of our conservation sites together. Again, such environmentally friendly management must be properly rewarded financially.
There are also opportunities in eco-tourism and recreation. Enterprise and innovation will be needed in spades to make this transition successful. But this task is likely to be much more feasible than attempts to increase dairy production while cutting GHG emissions.
There will be much scope for marketing expertise also, leading consumers to switch from beef and dairy, at least in part, towards cereals, vegetables and fruit. That might cut our soaring health costs – so there could be unexpected benefits along this route. Meanwhile, the IFA’s case that carbon credits and debits on the land are not being accurately accounted for certainly deserves to be examined in depth.
These are all complex equations, to be sure. But we need to start working on them. Very urgently.
Challenges: Adapt to change
One place where the issues of agriculture and climate change are on the table is the IIEA/RDS Leadership Forum on Climate Smart Agriculture, an initiative championed by the IIEA’s director general Tom Arnold, who also sits on the board of Mary Robinson’s Foundation for Climate Justice.
Arnold is in a better position than most to gauge how the discussion will go though he is naturally keen not to close off any options at this stage.
“Our motivation,” he says, “is to bring the key protagonists together, to foster a more serious, high-quality debate aimed at clarifying the issues and educating the various parties, and hopefully arriving at sensible and progressive policy prescriptions which could attract the support of the main stakeholders. Whether these are achievable objectives remains to be seen.
“In working towards a final report for the project, there has to clarity on a number of key issues.” He asks:
What is the objective and fact-based position about Ireland’s relative competitive position as a producer of carbon-efficient food? What are the GHG consequences of the expansion in milk and beef envisioned in Food Wise 2025? What are the consequences are for other economic sectors of agricultural expansion in the context of emission commitments for 2020 and 2030?
Arnold accepts that the forum is based on the assumption that it is possible to “square this circle of increasing food production and meeting climate change obligations”.
“I am not convinced there is any realistic prospect of a radical change in dietary patterns in the short to medium term in either developed or developing countries, in the same way as I don’t think there is any realistic chances of changing in our use of cars in favour of a massive shift to public transport,” he says.
But he also agrees that “it is possible to argue that a more radical conclusion is a more reasonable position to reach. I certainly agree we have to move in a direction of changing land use and indeed supporting more schemes like Burren Life.”
Arnold is certainly right to point up the challenge of changing our behaviour. And perhaps the IIEA/RDS debate can indeed square the circle of cutting emissions while increasing production.
But if it can't, we could do worse than ponder a succinct paraphrase of Darwin's theory of evolution by the marketing and management expert Leon C Megginson: "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change." Paddy Woodworth is the author of Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century (University of Chicago Press 2013, published in paperback this month) and a founding member of the Irish Forum on Natural Capital Series concludes