The Government makes big claims for the latest national agricultural strategy, Food Vision 2030, aiming to make this country “a world leader in sustainable food systems”. This is an admirable, and necessary, ambition, but to achieve it is a daunting challenge.
The term "sustainable" was given wide currency by the 1987 UN Brundtland Commission report, defining sustainability as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Sadly, the trend since then, in our agriculture as in many other industries, has been in the opposite direction. Our environment, from our soil to our water bodies to our climate, has continued to deteriorate rapidly. The intensification of agriculture has been a major factor in this potentially catastrophic decline.
It is depressing that the IFA's response is led by a demand for more State funding for the sector
Predecessors to this new plan have struggled, and failed, to square the circle of increasing production while committing to sustainability, most notably in proposing increases to the national herd while aspiring to climate targets negated by those increases. Critics of the plan note that there is still no limit set on the national herd. But its supporters, among them Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, can legitimately point out that the strategy will have to be adjusted to meet the targets in the Climate Action Plan and other forthcoming environmental measures. It is indeed troubling that the major environmental NGOs, represented with one seat on the Food Vision's 32-member committee by the Environmental Pillar, saw fit to withdraw in February, on the grounds that its proposals were "largely disregarded".
It is certainly regrettable that highly successful initiatives, like the results-based agri-environmental schemes pioneered by the Burren Programme, are not placed front and centre on our path forward, to rebuild decaying rural communities. And it is depressing that the IFA’s response is led by a demand for more State funding for the sector, funding which has disproportionately rewarded intensive farming to date.
Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that the new strategy reflects concerns about climate and biodiversity far more extensively than previously. Its "food systems approach", ably defended by the committee chairman, Tom Arnold, does offer mechanisms which, theoretically, should show clearly the environmental impacts of each stage of food production, and guide corrective moves where required.
It’s fair to say that Food Vision 2030 represents a point of inflection in our society’s relationship to agriculture, and the urgency which most citizens now feel about the climate and biodiversity emergencies. Farmers must be properly rewarded, both as food producers and as stewards of our environment, but they cannot continue to be rewarded for damaging it.