With the National Ploughing Championships just past, Dr. Laura Devaney reflects on the longer terms impacts of Food Wise 2025, the latest agri-food strategy published by the Irish government. She questions the type of diet intrinsically promoted as a result of this publication and suggests the need to engage a wider consumption perspective for a truly ‘wise’ and sustainable future.
The Department of Agriculture launched its latest roadmap strategy for the Irish food and agriculture sector in July 2015. A national plan setting out recommendations for how Ireland should develop its agri-food industry in a profitable and sustainable manner to 2025, the strategy has been largely welcomed by the agri-food industry. A renewed emphasis on environmental sustainability features strongly, alongside a need to increase the profitability of the farming sector. Ambitiously, headline targets in Food Wise 2025 include increasing the value of primary production outputs by 65%, value-added outputs by 70% and overall agri-food exports by 85% to €19bn. It also promises the creation of an additional 23,000 jobs in the agri-food sector. These are very ambitious targets. Indeed, it may be a case of reaching for the stars and landing on the moon. But we need to ask can this moon support the type of production, and by association consumption practices, proposed by this strategy? What might the longer term impacts be beyond economic growth in the Irish agri-food sector? Does the plan probe deep enough? Are we any the wiser for the publication of Food Wise 2025?
Despite the overwhelmingly positive response, some concerns are being mooted regarding available markets for the proposed extra produce. We do not want to return to the era of butter mountains and milk lakes if there is no market for our extra output. Furthermore, Food Wise 2025 has been criticised for failing to move beyond a mere statement of good intentions, with a need for more quantifiable and measurable targets beyond the four headline statistics.This is something that needs to be addressed and could be incorporated into the environmental assessment consultation currently being undertaken to track the pace of change in the agri-food industry.
At a broader level, while Food Wise 2025 does an excellent job at outlining the current state of play in Ireland (e.g. regarding existing beef and dairy output, hectares under cereal cultivation and percentage of national forestry cover), one might question if the strategy is progressive enough to instigate real transformations in our agri-food industry. After all, given the current impact of conventional agricultural methods on greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution and soil degradation, it is only with significant transformations that we are going to achieve an 85% increase in the value of agri-food exports in an environmentally sustainable manner. Considering the changes in food production and consumption practices achieved in the past ten years (for example, with the escalation of ICT use for everything from farming to food shopping, the unprecedented rise of convenience and exotic foods and the simultaneous resurgence of a food identity that centres on natural and local foods), a plan to 2025 that simply extends existing food trends cannot be deemed to represent the novel, blue skies thinking required to transform the agri-food system. As Jonathon Foley (executive director of the California Academy of Sciences and presenter of the popular TED talk “The other inconvenient truth”) recommends, perhaps it is time to bring proponents of conventional agriculture, organic farming and environmental conservation together to collaborate to create a whole new type of sustainable agriculture – “Terraculture” or “Farming for a Whole Planet”.
In this sense, there is a need to honestly question the desirable mode of agriculture in Ireland and the responsible direction that we want it to take. This will require thinking not just about modes of production but practices of consumption as well. After all, in a world of rising obesity rates, diet-related illnesses and increasingly unsustainable meat-based eating patterns worldwide, we cannot continue on the path of industrial agriculture that has dominated for the last 100 years. The natural comparative advantages possessed in Ireland for grass-based meat and dairy production is certainly emphasised in Food Wise 2025, with repeated mention to the sustainability credentials of Irish food production and our unique positioning to market clean, green food. However, thought needs to be given to the type of diet we are intrinsically promoting by publishing this strategy and the impact that this might have – on global health, obesity rates, food accessibility, climate change and wider environmental degradation. In this sense, it is imperative to think beyond a national strategy like Food Wise 2025 to address global societal issues in a responsible manner. If Ireland can produce meat and dairy in a more sustainable manner compared to typically more carbon intensive practices elsewhere in the world, then we must verify this claim with scientific evidence, seek out special dispensation in policy contexts (e.g. regarding agricultural greenhouse gas emissions) and foster trading that results in Ireland supplying responsible amounts of this type of food to the world. In this way, a geographically variegated global agriculture system can emerge, where nations produce what they are best at from physical, environmental, social and economic standpoints. Such an approach however must be backed by appropriate dietary plans and nutritional health guidelines if we are to address the prevailing global burden of disease and climbing obesity rates. In this regard, further opportunities could exist for Ireland in the production of more sustainable, plant-based proteins. In terms of scale, however, current milk production in Ireland accounts for only 0.9% of the global milk supply, producing just 5.5 billion litres of the 720 billion litres of milk produced annually (ICOS, 2015). Even with the much hyped abolition of milk quotas and a 50% increase in Irish milk output, while important in a national context, will still only account for a little over 1% of the global milk supply. It is clear that we are a long way from solving the world’s food and climate crisis.
As a result, the Department may benefit from some wider thinking relating to developing the overall bioeconomy in Ireland – the latest buzzword circulating to capture economic activities related to the use of biological and renewable resources. Spanning agriculture, food, marine, forestry and energy sectors, there are abundant opportunities available in Ireland to create sustainable bio-based chemicals, products and services, from the development of novel functional foods to the creation of sustainable bio-based packaging to replace traditional petroleum-based plastics. Furthermore, the prospect of cascading effects between our natural resource sectors possesses even more potential. As the adage goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”, with potential for the waste of one sector to serve as an input and feedstock for another (e.g. agricultural waste to produce bioenergy or marine waste to develop biochemicals). This presents opportunities for real shifts in how we produce everyday items and meet societal consumption needs. It is where opportunity lies for Ireland to move towards a sustainable, low carbon economy, fostering a new wave of growth in an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable manner. Such transformations however will require a shift in thinking away from sectoral specific, nationally based strategies such as Food Wise 2025, to instead examine the bigger picture internationally and foster collaboration between previously divided sectors. While there is no silver bullet or easy pathway to follow, it is in this way that we might begin to address global environmental and societal challenges. From this perspective, Food Wise 2025 is thus only one of many steps in the path to a more sustainable future.
Overall, in its current format, the publication of Food Wise 2025 raises more questions about the future of agri-food than it answers. As a statement of intent for the Irish food industry, it sets out broad ideals of where we want to progress with our most traditional indigenous industry. How we specifically get there and what milestones we need to look for along the way are less clear and must be addressed. In this sense, there is potential for more specific roadmaps to be developed with defined and quantifiable milestones, perhaps in tandem with the final Environmental Analysis Report due in September. Monitoring progress of Food Wise 2025 is also paramount, with potential roles for a dedicated implementation committee to assess growth and impact. Agri-food stakeholders across government, industry and civil society need to probe deeper for a truly wise strategy that acknowledges international health and environmental trends and proffers an Irish solution to global problems. In the wise words of Miles Kington: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad”. To be truly wise about our agri-food strategy, yes we need to know our current resource base, but wisdom will only come when we consider how and where this potential is best placed for optimal economic, social and environmental impact.
Dr. Laura Devaney was a postdoctoral researcher on the CONSENSUS project and led their latest HomeLabs research working to promote more sustainable food consumption in the home. For more information, and headline results, visit: http://www.consensus.ie/wp/homelab/