Back in the bleak 1980s, some 500 Irish river locations boasted pure, clean water. What of today’s modern, sustainable and super-green Ireland? Now, a mere 21 river locations remain of very high quality, according to the EPA’s newly published Water Quality in Ireland, 2010-2015 report. This represents an astonishing collapse in water quality in just 30 years, and agricultural intensification is the chief culprit.
This may also come as quite a shock to Irish TV viewers, who have been treated to Bord Bia’s latest lush, evocative ‘Origin Green’ advertising campaign, which ironically opens by panning from a height across seemingly pristine rivers and bucolic pastoral scenes reminiscent of a Constable painting.
The campaign was developed by agency Rothco with a whopping €536,000 production budget. Bord Bia will spend at least as much again this year on TV, press and online ads, including advertorials pushing the message that the Irish agri sector is not only uniquely sustainable, it is also somehow involved in “solving one of the planet’s most pressing problems”. Quite.
This miraculous gift to problem-solving is known as the National Food Sustainability Programme, to which thousands of Irish farmers are signed up. I wondered just how tough it was to receive Origin Green certification, so I contacted Bord Bia to find out. They confirmed to me that, to date, some 0.5% of applicants have been deemed ‘not eligible’. In other words, 99.5% of farmers in Ireland are practising sustainable, ecologically friendly agriculture.
With such a uniquely talented, well-regulated and conscientious pool of farmers, small wonder we are the envy of the world when it comes to sustainability. Which makes it all the more mysterious as to how some two thirds of total water pollution is attributed by the EPA to the agricultural sector. And why it is also the number one threat to biodiversity, as well as Ireland’s largest source of greenhouse gases.
Indeed, it’s equally baffling to the Irish Farmers Association; its press release on the report talks at length about the ‘disproportionately negative impact on water quality’ of…urban areas. Nowhere did the IFA spin doctors mention agriculture being in any way culpable, let alone the chief offender. Perhaps they were too mesmerised by the stunning overhead photography and silken prose in that lavish new ‘Origin Green’ ad to actually read the EPA report?
The current advert follows an earlier Bord Bia series from some years back featuring a very young Saoirse Ronan wandering dreamily through a monocultural landscape while cooing about greenness, sustainability, nature etc. etc. It too was as visually stunning as it was vacuous, appealing to an Ireland that exists only in the minds of commercial filmmakers.
Nor is Bord Bia alone in schmaltzy, deeply deceptive advertising. Fellow semi-state, Bord na Móna faces huge problems over its environmentally destructive core business. Its answer has been to hilariously rebrand itself as ‘Naturally Driven’ and churn out soft-focus ads that glibly feature butterflies, ladybugs and sphagnum moss, while glossing over the massive and ongoing environmental wreckage it makes its actual money from.
This blizzard of eco-blarney did some unintended good in annoying ecologist, Pádraic Fogarty sufficiently to inspire him to research and write a hard-hitting book entitled ‘Whittled away – Ireland’s vanishing nature’. For him, Bord Bia’s deeply cynical Saoirse Ronan ad campaign was the last straw.
It is no coincidence, as Fogarty points out, that Bord Bia received three times more in taxpayer funding for its PR work than the National Parks and Wildlife Service to look after our actual natural heritage. It is equally unsurprising that during the recent recession the NPWS – now under the ministerial remit of agri industry-friendly Heather Humphreys, found its funding top of the list to be slashed.
Imagine for a moment that Mother Nature had access to a top creative agency, with celebrities willing to do the voiceovers – what might such an ad campaign look and sound like? The NGO Conservation International put together such a series a couple of years back, featuring the voices of Julia Roberts, Liam Neeson, Kevin Spacey, Ed Norton and Penelope Cruz, among others.
The series, entitled ‘Nature is speaking’, is beautifully produced, but the charity didn’t have millions in taxpayers money, like Bord Bia to buy TV space. It relied instead on social media to spread the word. My favourite, entitled ‘Mother Nature’, has so far been viewed over 6.8 million times on YouTube. “I have been here for aeons”, Mother Nature warns us. “I have fed species greater than you, and I have starved species greater than you…your actions will determine your fate, not mine”.
So much for that ridiculous ‘saving the planet’ conceit. Saving ourselves is always what this has really boiled down to, despite our fonder delusions about planetary stewardship. And frankly, even that more modest project looks to be well beyond our collective abilities.