In 2015 Ireland published its last agri-food strategy. ‘FoodWise 2025: A vision for growth’ was unabashed in its ambition. “It represents the shared voice of an industry striving to create a business and regulatory environment in which the extensive growth opportunities of the next 10 years can be fully capitalised on.” And growth is what the industry delivered. The value of exports grew by 64% between 2010 and 2019 from €8.9 billion to €14.6 billion. But the value of exports was not the only thing to grow in that time.
Agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, which had been falling from 2003 to 2011 also started to grow, boosted by the lifting of milk quotas in 2015, to a peak in 2018 (followed by a slight dip in 2019). Water pollution, which had been showing signs of improvement, also started to deteriorate, with a noticeable increase in pollution from agriculture in the south and east – coinciding with those areas where dairy farming is concentrated.
We have also seen continued growth in the rate of biodiversity loss. Just this week, BirdWatch Ireland published a grim summation of the state of our birdlife. Over 60% of all bird species are now on their ‘red’ or ‘amber’ list, the vast majority of which are associated with areas of intense ‘agri-food’ production, not only on land but also at sea. FoodWise 2025 was keen to state that “environmental protection and economic competitiveness are equal and complementary” but this was never realistic and the data backs that up. So, while the industry leaders have been cracking open the champagne, the agri-food sector has left a legacy of pollution and extinction while exacerbating inequalities among farmers, most of whom rely entirely on subsidies for an income.
Last week, the government published its successor to FoodWise 2025. It doesn’t have a name yet, I expect it will be FoodSmart or FoodMiracle 2030 or something which combines buzzwords into meaningless neologisms in the way only marketing people can. But here’s my suggestion: GoneOff, because while this plan may be fresh from the oven it’s already past its sell by date.
You may at first think this harsh. The strategy does recognise that environmental indicators are going in the wrong direction. It claims that Irish agriculture will be ‘climate-neutral’ by 2050 and that we’ll also be a “world leader in Sustainable Food Systems over the next decade”. But it quickly becomes apparent that a willingness to face facts is largely absent. This is demonstrated most clearly by the intention to ‘strengthen’ the discredited Origin Green programme when this really needs to be scrapped entirely.
While the strategy states that “Ireland has built a strong reputation for sustainable food by having the world’s only national food and drink sustainability programme – Origin Green”, only this week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tweeted that “Ireland’s reputation as a food producer with a low environmental footprint is at risk of being irreversibly damaged”. Only one of these statements is rooted in reality.
The plan has a strong bias towards techno-optimism. The forthcoming Climate Action Act demands a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 51% by 2030. Agriculture is about a third of our total emissions, and of agri-emissions, over half is methane from ruminant livestock. Yet the Agri Food Strategy only calls for a 10% reduction in methane by 2030. “Technology will play a key role in underpinning this ambition” we’re told, when it should be as plain as day that the only way of doing this is to reduce the number of farm animals. Who are they fooling?
However, this emphasis on technological innovation has its limits. The plan goes out of its way to criticise the development of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, sneering that “products should only be treated as meat and dairy alternatives in terms of sensory experience, but not as true replacements in terms of nutrition”. The plan doesn’t say whether we should apply this attitude to the burgeoning milk powder industry which is sold to fitness enthusiasts or mothers who might otherwise be breastfeeding their babies.
The strategy fails when it comes to one of its more important goals: policy coherence. This is important. The recent report by the National Biodiversity Forum (on which I represented the Irish Environmental Network) highlighted that one of the main failings of Ireland’s National Biodiversity Action Plan was that other plans, notably in the agri-food realm, were in direct opposition to it.
This is acknowledged in the draft agri-food strategy when it says “there is a need for policy coherence between food, climate and environment; food and health; and between domestic and foreign/development cooperation policy”. But it then completely fails in this task. There isn’t a single mention of the Birds and Habitats Directives, the most important legislation we have to protect biodiversity and one which is failing utterly to deliver. The Biodiversity Action Plan also fails to get a mention.
The Water Framework Directive, which demands ‘good status’ of all water bodies by 2015 (!) does get a mention and there is a commitment to reduce diffuse losses of nitrogen to water courses. But how this can be done while maintaining the same number of dairy cows is not explained. Ireland has a legal obligation to restore ‘favourable conservation status’ to the critically endangered freshwater pearl mussel, not only in mountain rivers in the north and west, but in the channels of rivers in the south and south-east, where dairying is concentrated. This policy challenge is not recognised.
This tone of denialism reaches its highest pitch under Goal 5: Enhance the Environmental Sustainability of the Seafood Sector. Despite having committed to ending overfishing by 2020 (another policy aim that is weirdly absent) only about one third of commercially exploited fish populations in Irish waters are fished within sustainable limits. Only this week an exasperated European Commission found that Ireland could not be trusted to report on its fish landings after it was found that weighing scales and holding tanks had been tampered with. Ireland is set to lose up to 42,000 tonnes of quota as a result. Human rights abuses are ‘endemic’ in the industry according to one report after two Egyptian fishermen were rescued from a trawler without work permits. The agri-food strategy suggests there might, just might, be a need for “a greater focus on sustainability”.
We know what needs to be done. At sea we need to wind down industrial fishing and end bottom trawling, manage all small-scale fishing and aquaculture while creating fully protected Marine Protected Areas, including some no take zones.
On land the number of animals needs to be reduced. This includes a drastic reduction of livestock on all peatlands (not just agricultural peatlands as stated in the Ag-Climatise strategy) to allow rewilding of wetlands and native woodland regeneration. There needs to be a move away from all artificial inputs, from imported feed to fertilisers and chemical sprays. This must be done using agro-ecological principles and an emphasis on producing food for humans rather than animal consumption while making space for the restoration of natural ecosystems. It’s important to note that there are farmers doing this already and making a living from it.
This is what the science is telling us and the declaration of the climate and biodiversity emergency in May 2019 demands that we face up to this. That does not mean it is easy or simple to do and helping farmers in the cultural and economic transition will be difficult. But the draft agri-food strategy is tethered to even more growth. It wants exports to grow to €21 billion by 2030. This is simply not possible if we are return to safe planetary limits within the short time that is available to us. The strategy is therefore delusional.
In February the Environmental Pillar walked out on the committee formulating the plan. This draft strategy shows that they were right to do so.