The Irish Paradox: How Can We Claim To Be A World Leader In Sustainable Food Production When Our Two Biggest Sectors Are Such High Polluters?

By Tadgh Byrne

There is now widespread consensus that our current means of food production and consumption cannot be sustained without damaging the environment and human health. Consumers know this. Demand for food and drink has changed too, with 77% of Irish people believing that in order to save the planet, we must change how our food is produced and consumed. Thus ‘sustainable’ has become a household term.

In line with Irish, EU and international policies, Ireland is supposed to be transitioning towards a resource-efficient, low-carbon and environmentally-friendly economy. In light of this, Bord Bia – the Irish Food Board – launched the world’s first ever national sustainability development programme, in 2012. Soon after, the Irish government announced that by 2050 Irish agriculture would become carbon neutral.

Paradoxically, government institutions have been tapping into a growing worldwide demand for meat  and meat products, and have been very successful in promoting the ‘Emerald Isle’ as a high-end producer of beef, dairy and lamb. In Ireland, agriculture is by far our biggest polluter, accounting for 33% of emissions, ahead of the transport sector (19.8%) and the energy industry (19.7%). Within this, beef and dairy farming are the highest contributors.

All of this begs the question; how can we claim to be a world leader in sustainable food production when our biggest sectors are such high polluters?

Origin Green, Foodwise 2025 and GLAS

In June 2012, the Irish Food Board (Bord Bia) launched Origin Green, a voluntary programme to unite farmers, food producers, retailers and the foodservice industry with the common aim of sustainable food production. The scheme was the first of its kind in the world and was met with widespread praise. The World Wildlife Fund hailed Origin Green as“a new model of forward-thinking agriculture”, the World Bank said “feeding the future is possible, but we’ll need a coordinated effort that benefits from the wisdom of farmers while engaging with manufacturers, consumers and every part of the food system. Ireland has shown us one way it can be done.” An Taisce, the organisation that protects Ireland’s natural and built heritage, said it strongly supported the Origin Green vision for 2050.

Origin Green has since signed up over 300 companies, which account for 90% of Irish food and drink exports. Each is independently verified and annually monitored by an American environmental consultancy firm, Mabbett and Associates Inc.

That same year, ‘Green, Low-Carbon, Agri-Environment Scheme’ was announced by the Government. GLAS is essentially a small grant given to help farmers reduce their carbon output. It is designed to support Origin Green and Food Wise 2025 – a ten year plan for the agri-food sector. Here, a committee of 35 industry stakeholders identified China, South East Asia, Middle East and Africa as key emerging markets for Ireland, due to demographic changes and a growing middle class. The argument that gets put forth to the EU was that if beef consumption is going to go up, then countries such as Ireland should be allowed to produce it.

Food Wise anticipates a 60% increase in agricultural production and 85% increase in exports to €19 billion. With the abolition of EU milk quotas, the dairy industry will see a 50% increase in production, while beef output is projected to grow by 20%. Ireland is the biggest net exporter of beef in the EU and the 5th biggest in the world, exporting 90% of our beef.

Worst Polluters

It seems these campaigns have been doing a very good job at marketing Irish food but holes are beginning to appear. Foodwise 2025 quickly came in for criticism from environmental groups who accused it of having the contradictory aims of reducing emissions while allowing agriculture proliferate. Dairy has huge implications in terms of sustainability. This is significantly contributing to the fact that we are not meeting our climate change targets and we’ve actually increased our emissions.

In October 2018, the EPA published a list of the nine most polluters in Ireland. Five of these were food companies – two dairy groups and three meat processors. Three of the nine were registered Origin Green members.

A disconnect between what Origin Green says and what it does has been growing since its inception. The Irish Wildlife Trust has been repeatedly outspoken on the scheme, labelling it “a smokescreen for greenwashing” and a “sham”. BirdWatch Ireland warned of the reputation risk of falsely claiming that Irish agriculture was sustainable.

An Taisce were amongst those to highlight the hypocrisy at play, stating:

“This puts into question the credibility of the sustainability of Irish Food processors by Bord Bia. Appearance on an EPA worst offenders list should be incompatible with retaining a green label branding. This issue comes on top of the increasing climate impact caused by Irish agricultural emissions, which combined with declining biodiversity and lessening of high-status waters is placing Irish agriculture and food processing in irreconcilable environmental conflict.”

Our Competitive Edge: Grass Fed

Last July, the credibility Irish food sector’s rhetoric was dealt another blow. The Irish Times reported that a San Diego-based property executive had filed a lawsuit against Ornua (the co-op behind Kerrygold), claiming that Irish cows are not exclusively fed grass, and therefore their advertising was false and misleading. He also drew attention to the fact that Irish cows are fed genetically modified and other grains. Ornua, is currently seeking to have the case dismissed.

While GM food for humans must be labelled accordingly, it not common in Ireland. We do rely heavily on imported animal feeds, made from GM grains such as soybean and maize. The growth methods of these carry environmental caveats of their own. This is weakening our international reputation, making it questionable how well we can market our product to obtain the best price possible.

In addition, Irish dairy farmers have begun to feed their cows palm kernel feeds, a practice common in New Zealand. This is a byproduct of the palm oil industry and raises all sorts of questions around orang-utans and the destruction of virgin Bornean forests.

A False Economy

With Tesco milk currently costing 75c per litre, it’s hard to imagine dairy farming as a particularly lucrative career. Speak to any farmer in Ireland and they will tell you it is near impossible to earn a decent living from agriculture. The fact is, the entire system is propped up by EU grants. Many farmers have now fallen victim to ‘palliative lending’ – a vicious cycle of lending and debt. Just how sustainable is an industry based on subsidies?

This is a broken system and it is not sustainable in the true sense of the word. Ireland cannot claim to be a world leader in sustainable food production when our biggest agricultural sectors, beef and dairy, are two are the worst polluters. We need to start looking at alternatives.

Carbon Taxes

One of the quickest and easiest ways to draw attention away from our dirtiest industries is to implement a carbon tax. Consumers know this. Some 80% of citizens were prepared to pay higher taxes on carbon-intensive activities, with 89% backing taxes on carbon-intensive forms of agriculture, such as beef and dairy production, with the money being used to support more sustainable alternatives, including organic farming.

The Irish Farmers Association has called on the Irish Government and EU leaders to introduce a carbon tariff on imports from South America and other less climate efficient regions. The IFA opposes further taxes on Irish farmers, stating “(taxes are) already impacting on farming’s competitiveness without reducing climate emissions. Farmers in Ireland have a proud record as carbon efficient food producers.”

Both the Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar and Minster for Climate Change, Richard Bruton have said they are in favour of increasing taxes but have been accused by An Taisce of bowing to vested interests.

Vegetarianism

The Guardian recently reported that “Avoiding Meat and Dairy is the ‘Single Biggest Way’ to Reduce Your Impact on Earth” and it appears that Irish consumer habits are moving down this path. Bord Bia estimates that 8% of the Irish population are now vegetarian, while 2% are vegan. Much of the population now identify as ‘flexitarian’, meaning that they limit the amount of meat or dairy products in their diet. According to the National Dairy Council, 41% of Irish women and 30% of Irish men are now avoiding or limiting their dairy consumption, with 10% believing that cow’s milk is unhealthy.

Irish consumers are leading changes around food sustainability as they are with changes surrounding plastic packing. However, as developing countries get wealthier, their middle class grows and as so too does their demand for meat – precisely the market our own government is seeking to profit from. As consumers and health experts now know, the Western diet high in saturated fats is not sustainable from a health perspective. 

Organic

Again, this is one of the quickest ways to combat emissions. The more farms convert to organic, the more our carbon footprint will drop. The Irish food industry is trying to position itself as the home of green, environmentally-friendly farming, while around 1.8% of farms are organic – well below the European average of 6%. “Organic is the most sustainable method of production and we have lots of research to point to that and back that up. We would like to see more farmers certified organic in order to fully realise our sustainability criteria from an Irish context.”

Changes are happening at a consumer level too. Driven by the health and wellbeing movement and it’s associated influencers, organic sales are increasing all the time.

Sequestering Carbon

According to Origin Green, our grass-based system is more efficient and environmentally sustainable than intensive animal feeding systems. Of course, the opposite is claimed by US farmers, who argue that our low yields relative to land space are inefficient and that grass consumption is what causes cattle to release methane.

One of the arguments from the beef sector is that grass itself will sequester – that is to store away – carbon, as will trees. These are known as ‘carbon sinks’. Proper soil management is one of the best ways to offset emissions caused by the meat industry, If we can increase the organic matter in our soil by 2% would reach back to 1960 levels. Proper soil management, rotation, less chemical usage.

Until recently, Ireland was all but totally deforested. After years of national afforestation programmes in the early 2000s, about 10% is now forested. We are still one of the least forested countries in the EU and many see more forests as a way of offsetting our carbon output. Well managed pasture will sequester more carbon than conifer plantations, despite the fact that conifer plantations grow quite well and quite fast here.

However, according to the EPA, measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) of carbon sequestration through field and research methods in Ireland is limited and has called for a national effort to address this.

Moving Away From Petroleum

To look at these graphs showing which sectors our emissions come from in Ireland, we can clearly see that agriculture is the worst offender. It’s worth questioning what percentage of the 33.1% is attributed to petroleum based activities within the agricultural sector.

There’s the whole issue of pesticides, fertilisers, herbicides. When we calculate those at farm level, we don’t take into account the production of these chemicals. These are petroleum products, some based on natural gas, and their production contributes quite significantly to climate change.

If we were to combine this with transport, energy and manufacturing combustion under the common banner of ‘fossil fuels’, what would the chart look like? Some argue that much of the  media’s advertising streams come in heavily from the sales of cars and fossil fuels and agriculture gets blamed to take the focus off the transport emissions. Last year, the EPA released a report saying that the Irish broadcast media could be doing more to report on climate issues.

Horticulture

Through horticulture, we can grow enough food to feed our own country and many others. Spain and The Netherlands have proven this, although they are not in a position to produce the high end meat products the way we can in Ireland.

The Dutch model is successful but is mostly grown for the export market, leaving a high carbon footprint. Heated greenhouses would be required for large scale horticulture in Ireland. And that heating may be coming from fossil fuels.

Technological advances will also be key. The government recently pledged €500M for a Disruptive Technology Fund for projects including smart and sustainable food production and processing.

Conclusions

Unless we do something soon, changes in Ireland’s climate will impact significantly upon society, our economy, and the natural environment. Sustainable agriculture is one of the ways we can prevent this. If Ireland continues to focus our money and attention on its beef and dairy exports, as high quality as they might be, we can never achieve the carbon neutral society that was promised to us in 2015.

The people behind Bord Bia‘s Origin Green and Food Wise 2025 need to prove that these campaigns are more than just a pacifier for the home population and a marketing gimmick for  foreign markets. The farming sector needs to be more open and transparent, in terms of what is being done at farm levels. Can we continue to market our food as ‘green’ if we are feeding our livestock genetically modified gain-based diets? Origin Green needs to take a tougher stance on polluters, working closer with the EPA to achieve its targets.

Just 40% of consumers feel well-informed about sustainability. Yet, patterns are showing that the demand is growing for high quality, local, organic, health foods with low carbon footprint. The fact is, that these are not (yet) widely available and therefore expensive or imported. Food Wise 2025 is failing to address what the (Irish) public actually want. Consumers should continue to vote with their wallets and push for policy changes. Teagasc acknowledges “there are no subsidies” for horticulture. This should be addressed so we can promote more sustainable farming methods, such organic horticulture to match consumer demand.

While the Irish agriculture might have it’s flaws, it is by no means the worst and it’s only a fraction of the bigger picture in the fight against climate change. We each have our part to play in (Eg: residential emissions account for 10% of overall).

In his speech to the E.U. Climate – KIC Summit, recently, our minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Richard Bruton said: “It will require a revolution in how we live. Every person, every community, every business, every home and every school will have to make changes in the way we live and work and learn. Nothing less will do if we are to make the changes that are needed to create a sustainable future for everyone.”

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