Food, glorious food. It has been so abundant and relatively cheap in the developed world for so long that it has become largely invisible to us. Where it comes from, what its ecological and carbon impacts and whether we are truly food secure are, I believe, among the big questions every society needs to urgently address in the 2020s, as I discussed in the Irish Examiner in July.
CIVILISATION, it has been said, is only three meals deep. The threat of hunger has long stalked humanity. In recent decades, at least in the developed world, it looked like we had finally consigned the spectre of famine to the history books.
Reality, however, has a way of laying waste to our best-laid plans. Research published this month in the scientific journal warns the risks to global agricultural production and food security have been seriously underestimated.
The study warns of what it calls synchronised harvest failure across major crop-producing regions during summers in the northern hemisphere as a result of the jet stream becoming increasingly unstable as global warming accelerates.
The jet stream is a vast current of fast-moving air in the upper atmosphere, and changes to its flow pattern are already having dramatic impacts. The study found strong “meandering” of the jet stream is already impacting major crop-producing regions, including North America, East Asia and Eastern Europe, leading to significant harvest reductions.
The reason the jet stream is becoming more unstable is because the polar regions are warming faster than the mid-latitudes, and the decrease in temperature difference is causing the jet stream to ‘wobble’, sometimes dragging up hot air from the tropics deep into the northern hemisphere, and also occasionally plunging Arctic air down into Europe and North America.
Risks to food production from the jet stream are only part of the picture. Already, Europe is warming twice as fast as the global average, and the summer of 2022 was the hottest in over 500 years of records, with drought conditions and water shortages across much of Europe.
These were expected to be eased with the arrival of winter, but there has been little recovery in water levels, with drought conditions and loss of groundwater continuing right through spring and into this summer.
According to the European Drought Observatory, more than one third of continental Europe is now under a drought warning, with 10% of Europe already experiencing “severe drought”.
This is being felt most acutely in Spain. Even for a country well used to dealing with high temperatures, what is now happening is unprecedented.
Acute water shortages
The acute water shortage has led many Spanish farmers to abandon spring planting of cereals and oilseeds, as well as hitting vegetable and fruit production, much of which traditionally ends up on supermarket shelves in northern Europe, including Ireland.
It is astonishing that for a country with such a large agriculture sector, Ireland imports about 85% of all the fruit and vegetables we eat. Last year, we imported nearly a million tonnes of fruit and vegetables. Incredibly, this included 75,000 tonnes of potatoes.
As climate destabilisation bites, the question arises as to how food-secure Ireland, an island nation cut off by geography from our neighbours, really is? Senior politicians, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have claimed Ireland “feeds 50 million people”.
This statement was echoed by Professor Gerry Boyle, then director of Teagasc, the State agriculture research agency, who said Ireland “produced enough food for 35 million people”.
These statements would suggest Ireland is highly food secure, but they are flatly refuted by data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Agency (UN-FAO), which notes the value of Ireland’s food energy net imports in calories is the equivalent of the entire calorie intake of 2.5 million people.
We are not, in other words, currently even providing for our own domestic food needs, let alone “feeding the world”.
While Ireland exports about 90% of the beef and dairy it produces, these exports contain less food energy than our imports of cereals, sugar and vegetable oils. Ireland also imports between 3-5 million tonnes of feed for livestock, as well as about 1.5 million tonnes of chemical fertilisers a year.
Agriculture industry’s influence
It’s our worst-kept secret that farm lobbyists and agri-industrial players have undue influence on how agricultural policy in Ireland is developed. Typically, agriculture ministers and senior Department of Agriculture officials are reduced to being glorified messengers who ferry lobbyists’ demands to government while trying to placate the most vociferous pressure groups.
This iron grip also extends to Teagasc and Bord Bia, the State agriculture marketing agency. Vital parts of a balanced agriculture mix, such as organic farming and horticulture, are the poor relations to the mega-beef and dairy producers, which explains why we have among the very lowest levels of organic farming and horticulture in the entire EU27.
The capture of our State agencies responsible for food production is best understood in the disastrous 19% increase in emissions from the agriculture sector over the last decade, accompanied by sharp increases in water pollution. Teagasc promised this would not happen, but its pronouncements were driven more by wishful thinking than scientific evidence.
While this is all ostensibly Government policy, in fact the plans are effectively written by agri-industrial players, then rubber-stamped by the minister of the day. This was confirmed by former Bord Bia chief executive Tara McCarthy when she described the Government’s Food Wise 2025 programme as “industry-owned”.
Ireland and the world faces into a near future of ever-worsening extreme weather, with major question marks over our ability to feed ourselves — or our livestock. Twice in the last decade, Ireland experienced weather-related fodder crises due to inadequate grass growth to feed vast herds of cattle numbering more than seven million.
Were it not for our ability to import fodder by ship, many animals would have starved to death. What if in a future emergency, the countries we might turn to for fodder are themselves in crisis and unable to supply? In this scenario, the economic and animal welfare consequences would be horrific.
I believe the time is right to create a new department of food security, which would merge and replace the Department of Agriculture and Teagasc. Its remit would be to begin urgent planning for medium- and long-term scenarios, with an immediate focus on reviving and dramatically expanding our horticulture sector, as well as supporting a rapid expansion of organic farming.
It would also oversee Coillte phasing out its industrial clear-fell timber plantations and switching to biodiversity-rich native woodlands.
The reason we are fundamentally food-insecure is that the bulk of our farmland is given over to feeding livestock. For every 100 units of food energy in feedstuff to produce beef cattle, just 1.9 units of food energy for human consumption are produced. Huge amounts of land are therefore given over to producing remarkably few edible calories.
Horticulture, on the other hand, is by far the most efficient way to produce lots of food on very little land. The Dutch, with just 40% of our farmland, produce seven times more food. The key? Advanced plant-based horticulture carried out in nearly 10,000 hectares of greenhouses that are protected from weather extremes, while using fewer fertilisers, water and pesticides.
The likelihood of such a radical transition being led by the very people who masterminded our current livestock-led model is almost zero. Radical new thinking is needed. We’re not going to solve our food security crunch with the same thinking that created it.