The long-banished spectre of food insecurity has returned to Europe for the first time since the 1940s. I wrote the below piece for the Business Post in late March which looked at the intersection of energy and food security in the light of the radically changed geopolitical landscape across Europe and beyond.
IN THE HYPER-globalised world of the 21st century, such notions as national energy or food security until very recently may have seemed almost quaint. Ireland has bet heavily an economic model of exporting most of what we produce while importing almost everything we actually need.
As long as secure, reliable supplies of cheap food, energy, animal feed and fertilizers were flowing freely, the fact that 90 per cent of our agricultural output is exported is seen as a boast rather than a vulnerability.
Similarly, while marketed abroad as a “food island”, no one seemed in any way concerned at the fact that some 80 per cent of Ireland’s animal feed, beverages and food for human consumption are actually imported. We may like to claim we are “feeding the world”, but Ireland is currently manifestly unable to feed its own population from within our own borders.
All this of course now matters deeply as a result of the devastating war in Ukraine. We have suddenly come to realise that being one of the countries in the EU most dependent on imported energy – around 85 per cent of our total needs come from overseas – leaves us dangerously exposed to an increasingly volatile international food and energy marketplace.
Our situation on food production is equally parlous. In 2020, Ireland imported 426,000 tonnes of maize and corn from Ukraine and one third of its compound fertilizer imports, totalling 266,000 tonnes, came from Russia. Without ready access to these cheap inputs, our export-driven agri-industrial commodity model runs into crisis.
Every crisis begets opportunities. With impeccable timing, Environment minister Eamon Ryan earlier this week announced the launch of the Maritime Area Consent (MAC) Regime.
This aims to fast-track offshore wind energy, where the potential genuinely exists to rapidly build a clean energy industry capable of delivering not just our climate goals but also turn Ireland into a major energy exporter for the first time in our history. And, for good measure, secure our energy independence as an ‘electrostate’, free from the grip of petrostate dictatorships from Riyadh to Moscow.
Not everyone agrees. Economist and former Climate Advisory Council chair, Prof John FitzGerald stated this week that Ireland should press ahead with opening a liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal in Shannon, as a hedge against energy volatility, a view seemingly endorsed by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), which argued in recent report that an LNG terminal could reduce Irish exposure to fluctuating gas prices.
The notion of doubling down on fossil fuels was however singled out for strong criticism by UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, when he warned: “countries could become so consumed by the immediate fossil fuel supply gap that they neglect or knee-cap policies to cut fossil fuel use”.
Guterres pointed out that our addiction to fossil fuels “puts the global economy and energy security at the mercy of geopolitical shocks and crises”. According to the International Energy Agency, global carbon emissions rose six per cent in 2021, to their highest level in history. This, Guterres added, “is madness. Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction.”
As if to echo the UN chief’s remarks, nature delivered a chilling foretaste of the extreme dangers of fossil-fuelled climate destabilisation when, in recent days simultaneous unprecedented heatwaves were recorded at both poles. Antarctic weather stations recorded temperatures between 40-50C above normal for this time of year, while in the high Arctic, temperatures rose to 30C above normal for March.
“If these extreme temperatures don’t wake people up about this urgency, at the same time as war threatens to encourage more fossil fuel extraction and use, I don’t know what will,” said Dr Lisa Schipper of Oxford University.
With the eyes of the world on the bloody conflict in Ukraine, the polar heatwaves received only limited media coverage. Amazingly, RTÉ did not deem it worth reporting at all.
Ecological and climate impacts are also ‘threat multipliers’ that ratchet up the risk of armed conflict.
A group of senior Australian military figures recently wrote an open letter warning that “climate change now represents the greatest threat to the future and our security”.
Globally, water and food crises exacerbated by climate change have, they warned, “resulted in escalating cycles of civil unrest and conflict”.
This view is shared by vice admiral Mark Mellett, former chief of staff of the Irish Defence Forces, who warned last year that Ireland has a “false sense of security” and needs to prepare for the impacts of a destabilising climate.
Mellett believes Ireland should grasp our “remarkable opportunity” in offshore renewable energy, telling this newspaper it was our best means of countering Russian interference in Europe.
While some 10 million people have already been forced to flee their homes as a result of the Russian invasion, this pales in comparison with the coming storms. A major 2020 study warned that between one and three billion people may be subjected to “near-unliveable” extreme temperatures within the next 50 years.
This will trigger the greatest forced migration crisis in human history. “There will be more change in the next 50 years than in the past 6,000 years”, the study authors warned.
The key strategic challenge facing Ireland in the turbulent decades ahead is how to develop food and energy systems that are self-reliant, secure and resilient. Producing food primarily for human consumption is the new imperative.
Horticulture is by far the most productive use of land for food, yet Ireland’s one per cent is the lowest in the EU. Organic agriculture is also a win-win for farmers and for nature, and crucially, frees us from depending on imported inputs, yet Ireland is again a laggard.
Agri-industrial lobbyists in Ireland and Europe have used the cover of the Ukraine crisis to derail the EU’s new nature-friendly policies. EU agriculture commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski bowed to their demands this week with the “temporary” expansion of agriculture into four million hectares of fallow, biodiversity-rich lands, with no limits on the use of fertilizers or pesticides in these highly sensitive areas.
What these pressure groups overlook is that, ultimately, there are no profits on a dead planet.