The impact of new human disease pandemics, long predicted by medical experts, is now universally recognised. The same global response in confronting COVID-19 needs to be brought to bear on the multiple impacts and risks being accelerated by the climate and biodiversity loss emergency.

The maintenance of a secure and equitably distributed global food supply chain is paramount for the decades ahead. The last year has seen ample warnings. The current African swine flu pandemic, which has swept across Asia and affected Eastern Europe, has resulted in the slaughter of a quarter of the global pig population [1]. Similarly, a locust infestation is devastating crops in West Africa [2]. These demonstrate the vulnerability of both animal and crop agriculture.

Over 800 million of the world’s poorest suffer inadequate nutrition in countries most vulnerable to climate breakdown and ecosystem collapse. Parallel to this, the developed world is dependent on global food supply chains based on low-cost labour in order to maintain fruit and other produce on the supermarket shelves year-round. The landmark 2019 EAT Lancet report [3] outlined how the population of the richer parts of the world is over-consuming, resulting in obesity and rising levels of non-communicable disease, in particular diabetes.

In this global context, the risks to Ireland’s food production and security need to be confronted. The lesson of the 1840s potato famine should be a warning about dependency on a single food output, particularly now that the country has a national cattle herd vulnerable to a new and unprepared-for pandemic. Ireland’s animal agriculture is dependent on animal feed and fertiliser imports amounting to 4 million tonnes annually. This includes soya from South America, yet at the same time, the Irish beef sector is opposing beef imports from South America. The scale of land needed to produce 4 million tonnes in a comparative Irish context is the land area equivalent to the major part of Munster.

Much of our fruit, vegetables, grains, and other nutrients are imported from countries that face increased climate and other vulnerabilities, as was shown with the olive crop decline in Italy in 2019 [4]. Crucially, we are importing huge quantities of fruits and vegetables that could be grown domestically [5].

In 2016 the coalition of Irish NGOs forming Stop Climate Chaos (of which An Taisce is part) published a critique of agriculture entitled “Not So Green”. Contrary to Bord Bia’s ongoing Origin Green export marketing strategy, all of the indicators have worsened: greenhouse gas levels are rising, agricultural ammonia air pollution is breaching mandatory EU thresholds, the impact of nitrates is increasing, and biodiversity loss is continuing, among other issues.

In April 2020 the School of Natural Sciences in Trinity College Dublin published two significant papers [6] under lead author Professor Mike Williams with the headline conclusion:

“The Irish diet is unsustainable, nutritionally, financially and ethically”,

and stating that:

“The Irish diet is rich in unsustainable foods and is causing nutritional and financial problems – as well as seriously limiting our potential to limit the effects of global warming and nitrogen pollution”;

and

“The new research that pinpoints these worries also finds that we could make major improvements if adopting the EAT-Lancet ‘planetary healthy’ reference diet.”

Both papers are available online and titled: “The Environmental Assessment of Diets” [7] and “A Combined Environmental and Nutri-Economic Assessment of Diets” [8].

Planning applications for extended milking parlours are approved on a weekly basis. Irish dairy expansion is now creating “carbon leakage” as European cheese companies migrate to establish plants in Ireland. With the Netherlands required to reduce cattle stocking because of nitrates excesses, a Dutch cheese company, Royal A Ware, has entered into a deal with Glanbia to build a new plant at Belview, Co. Kilkenny, up river from Waterford City. With Norway curtailing subsidies for dairy exports, a long established cheese brand, TINE, has done a deal with Dairygold to build a new plant at Mogeely to the east of Cork City. In the global agri-business world, there are no national loyalties as firms merge and diversify.

There are multiple reasons why a major reduction of the polluting nitrate fertiliser-based bovine grassland monoculture is needed. Similarly, we need to address feed import-dependent pig, poultry and aquaculture factory farming methods and the associated impacts.

The response for Ireland’s food future must be diversification to growing a range of nutrient crops on a soil, area and scale-appropriate basis. To meet the nutrition sources set out in the EAT Lancet reference diet, reduce imports, and sustain Irish farming and rural economies, there must be an immediate turnaround. This means research about and application of large-scale plant-based diversification.

This research is not being done on the scale and with the level of integration required. Teagasc, which has a legislative obligation to provide science-based advice under its establishment act, focuses much of its activities in supporting further expansion and intensification of the dairy sector. Much of the food and nutrition research in UCD and UCC is in industry-funded “Dairy Science” on achieving increased product output.

Over the coming months An Taisce advocacy will be seeking to research and advance an alternative model for Irish agriculture based on diversification, climate action, nature enhancement, water protection and nitrate reduction to grow a range of crops most suited to Ireland.

It is not suggested that Ireland should become a self-sufficient cocoon in the global food economy. The objectives should be to (1) achieve significant import substitution through crops suitable for the Irish climate and which do not cause ecological or land use conflicts and (2) be an exporter of high-value plant-based nutrients to our more immediate neighbours. Great care needs to be taken, since in many parts of the world, it is industrial crop-based agriculture rather than animal agriculture that is causing water depletion, pesticide pollution and other adverse impacts.

We will be seeking to engage with those working in crop research and involved in the grain, fruit and vegetable sectors to form potential alliances in advancing a diversification strategy for Ireland. As well as increasing crop-based agriculture in the main arable land areas of the country, we are also seeking to advance the community potential for Ireland to grow more locally-based and organic food through farmer co-operatives, markets and local distribution networks, as well as at community or individual levels. This will involve promoting wider cultivation of domestic gardens and allotments. Many locally based groups are already doing this, providing us with an opportunity to support them.

There should be major public engagement in the three parallel consultation processes led by the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine that are proceeding in the course of 2020 namely:

  1. Common Agricultural Policy - The post 2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Plan for Ireland leaves significant choice to be determined by national governments. The subsidy-based beef and dairy lobby is seeking to perpetuate the status quo, claiming that Ireland is only good for growing grass. In March 2020, 3600 scientists made a presentation to the European Commission and Parliament with ten recommendations for changes to the European Common Agricultural Policy [9]. This included a recommendation that direct farm subsidy payments be aligned with public goods, supporting effective climate action (including rewetting peatlands), and maintaining biodiversity and ecosystems. An Taisce is represented and taking an active role on the CAP consultation forum.

  2. Agri-Food 2030 - The consultation and Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) process to supersede the Agri-Food 2025 beef and dairy focused strategy is proceeding under Chair Tom Arnold. Environmental NGOs only have a single representative through the Irish Environmental Network on the industry-dominated consultation forum.

  3. Agri-Climate - There is an ongoing process on which the An Taisce Climate Committee is providing the only effective independent NGO scientific critique of the DAFM and Teagasc direction of the process.

These three consultations are too important to be left to industry lobbyists and insiders.

by Ian Lumley, Head of Advocacy, An Taisce

[1] African swine fever [2] Locust infestation [3] EAT Lancet report [4] Italian olive crops [5] CSO statistics on Ireland’s fruit and vegetable imports [6] Trinity College papers on unsustainability of Irish agriculture [7] Williams, et. al. (2020), “The Environmental Assessment of Diets” [8] Williams, et. al. (2020), “A Combined Environmental and Nutri-Economic Assessment of Diets” [9] Scientists’ recommendations to EU on CAP changes