Has the agri-food sector responded sufficiently to climate science indicators?

It makes good economic sense to act now, says leading scientist Prof John Sweeney

On the morning of February 25th, Karen Ciesielski, co-ordinator of the Environmental Pillar (EP), joined a virtual meeting of the Department of Agriculture's Agri-Food 2030 Committee. The committee members had spent 15 months working on a Government strategy that will profoundly reshape the Irish landscape, farmers' lives and our food system, and a draft version had been circulated a few weeks before.

The EP coalition were dismayed at what they read. They believed it did not put livelihoods, a fair price for producers and environmental considerations to the fore. After submitting lengthy proposals on multiple occasions, including targets for legal compliance, Ciesielski told the committee, which is headed by agricultural economist Tom Arnold, they couldn't support it. They were out.

“We felt strongly we should be at the table and we stayed engaged throughout the process,” she says. “The decision wasn’t easy, but how can we campaign for the environment and sustainable agriculture and sign something that is so against what we believe in? It’s full of lofty language about sustainability but the actions aren’t there.”

In 2019 the publicly-funded EP, comprising 33 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), was offered a seat on the 30-person committee by the department. It had requested two more seats for Stop Climate Chaos (whose members include Trócaire, Concern and Irish Doctors for the Environment) and the Sustainable Water Network (an umbrella group of 24 NGOs); this was rejected and Ciesielski was asked to represent them all.

Committee members selected by the department include five business lobbyists, five farm organisations, one fishing representative, one banker, chief executives of companies, including Glanbia and Keelings, chairs of State agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, and scientists and academics (one of whom also works for an agri-feed company).

The predecessors to Agri-Food 2030 were economically ambitious. Food Harvest 2020 had specific production targets that were achieved within years; Food Wise 2025 continued along the same vein. Both strategies have brought significant economic growth; in the last decade, food and drink exports doubled in value to €14.5 billion.

Increased emissions

It has come at a price to the environment, however. Nitrogen and greenhouse-gas emissions have increased beyond legal limits and scientists point to the expansion of agriculture, under these strategies, as a driver of water pollution. About 85 per cent of protected habitats have "unfavourable" status and the National Parks and Wildlife Service says the main reason for the decline is agricultural practices. Species are slipping away; scientists warn we're facing a "silent spring" with a loss of bees and point to intensification as a reason for this.

"We've been very slow to act," says Dr James Moran, an agri-environment expert from the Institute of Technology Sligo who sits on the "Cap 4 Nature" group of independent scientists. "I hope this strategy has clear targets and measurements for success for the environment. If we don't make serious changes now, in 10 years' time we'll be in for a big shock with serious consequences for farmers and industry, with very heavy and painful cuts."

The EP's decision to stand down attracted damning criticism from the agri-media, with claims they're driven by "deep rooted ideology" and a sense of moral superiority. It was met with disappointment from committee members, some of whom agreed with aspects of what the EP had asked for, but felt it was a mistake to withdraw before the final document was agreed.

President of the Irish Farmers' Association, Tim Cullinan, who sits on the committee, was surprised. "I'd much prefer that the EP would have continued," he says, adding that while the two previous strategies were about growth, Agri-Food 2030 would "point us in a different direction of travel. We have to be carbon neutral by 2050. We're all striving to get there."

It comes at a critical time for food policies. Ireland’s Climate Action Bill will set out how emissions will be reduced for the next decade. Internationally, the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 will form the backdrop to two major United Nations summits this year: the Food Systems Summit and the COP26 Climate Change conference.

There are seismic shifts at European Union level, along with Common Agricultural Policy reform. The European Green Deal, with the Farm to Fork strategy and the €20 billion biodiversity strategy, will feed into the need for food policies that are fair, healthy and environmentally friendly.

Opportunities

This offers momentous economic opportunities and the Agri-Food 2030 strategy seeks to position Ireland as an international leader in "sustainable food systems". Does the data back that up? According to economist Alan Matthews, professor of EU agricultural policy at Trinity College, the trends in emissions, water and biodiversity mean that Irish agriculture is not on a sustainable path.

Intensification of dairy farming is a key – but emotive – issue. In the past decade, dairy farm incomes have increased by about 31 per cent and although farmers are carrying debt and working hard, dairying is an economically viable way to stay on the land. The dairy processing sector has significantly grown andsells nearly all of its output worldwide. The herd is forecast to grow by 200,000 between now and 2027, bringing the total to 1.65 million cows.

Some farmers are rapidly pivoting towards ecological-friendly farming. But an increased dairy herd will mean we’ll all pay an ecological price. “We’ve seen declines in water quality that are clearly linked to dairy intensification, particularly in the south and southeast,” says Sinead O’Brien of Sustainable Water Network.

“It’s unlawful under the EU’s Water Framework Directive and the Nitrates Directive. If this strategy goes ahead we’ll see bigger dairy farms, hedgerows going, wetlands drained, scrub being cleared. We’re in an absolute crisis of nature loss, climate change and plummeting water quality. The strategy is completely divorced from the scientific reality.”

Beef and tillage farmers are also concerned that their livelihoods will be shut out. “Where will this expansion finish? Will we have to milk a thousand cows?” says farmer Edmond Phelan, who sits on the committee as a representative of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association. “We have to get away from the idea we have to just keep expanding. It can’t just be about output, uber alles.”

One of Ireland's leading climate scientists, Prof John Sweeney, says it makes good economic sense to act now. "I would like to see a change in direction from a policy of intensification towards diversification that encourages the family farm. What I worry about is the sense that once we lose our clean green image and the world cottons on to the cost of production to the Irish environment, then the risk to agriculture will increase substantially."

Shared interests

This points to an increasing alignment of shared interests between some farmers, scientists and environmentalists, who are together wondering: who should benefit from these policies? And where does it leave small to medium-sized family farms?

In the draft Agri-Food strategy, it says that the number of farmers earning their living exclusively from farming “is likely to continue to fall during the next decade”. The acceptance of this as a fait accompli is not only of concern to Edmond Phelan.

"What worried me most is that smaller farmers are being abandoned," says Oonagh Duggan of BirdWatch Ireland, an EP member. "I see nothing in this to support these farmers . The ambition is very low. If we don't see ambition now – when will we see it?"

The strategy is due to be finalised and sent for public consultation within weeks. The withdrawal of the EP has undoubtedly heaped pressure on the remaining committee members; as signatories to this strategy, they will have to stand over and defend their decision in the future. The stakes could not be higher.