Despite huge ongoing investment of both political capital and marketing euros in selling the message that Irish agriculture is green, climate-friendly and sustainable, it still keeps on running into the knotty problem that this simply isn’t the case. Recent comments from the EPA simply confirmed Ireland’s worst-kept secret: our food production system isn’t clean, nor is it especially green. I teased out these issues for the Business Post in mid-October.
ON PAPER, Ireland is a world leader in sustainable food production. The statistics are impressive: according to Bord Bia, Ireland’s food board, some 53,000 farms and 320 major food and drink companies are part of ‘Origin Green’, which it describes as ‘the world’s only national food and drink sustainability programme’.
On the ground, the situation is a great deal more complex. Since 2012, millions of euros of taxpayers money have been spent on developing and promoting Origin Green, yet paradoxically, in the same period, Ireland’s air and water quality has continued to decline, while agricultural pollution and emissions have both spiralled. For instance, 269 Irish waterways fell in quality between 2015 and 2017, as a direct result of increased nitrogen and phosphorus levels from artificial fertilizers.
For years, environmental NGOs have been pointing out that Origin Green, despite its impressive statistics, appears more about marketing and perception than concrete actions to address either pollution or emissions from the agri-food sector.
Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust has described the programme as “a sham that should be scrapped”, adding that instead of being a tool to improve environmental performance, “it is simply a smokescreen for greenwashing the significant environmental problems we face”.
However, shielded by a phalanx of government ministers and multinational agri-food giants, it was highly unlikely that sniping from NGOs was ever going to derail the Origin Green juggernaut. Similarly, occasional negative publicity, including a recent piece in the Guardian outlining the deep problems in the sector, is routinely met by a wave of anger and denial, the clear insinuation being that Irish journalists need instead to “pull on the green jersey”.
This week, however, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) delivered a devastating critique. Contrary to years of spin, the agency confirmed that the race to intensify agricultural production, specifically dairy, “is happening at the expense of the environment as witnessed by the trends in water quality, emissions and biodiversity all going in the wrong direction.”
Tackling the idea of Irish agriculture being essentially ‘green’, as promoted in Origin Green and similar labelling schemes, EPA director Laura Burke added that scientific evidence made it clear that such claims are “largely not supported by the evidence”. Burke said the case for agricultural sustainability is actually weakening year by year, as air and water quality continue to decline.
Setting off alarm bells right across the sector, Burke added: “Pending evidence and implementation of effective solutions to ongoing unsustainable air and water emissions, any plans for further intensification/expansion of the dairy herd would be difficult to sustain.”
Untrammelled dairy industry expansion has been an article of political faith, with an extra half a million cows added to the national herd since the lifting of milk quotas in 2015. The muscle of the dairy sector within agriculture has grown commensurately.
For instance, Teagasc, the state agricultural research body is governed by an 11-person Authority. Its chair, Liam Herlihy, is a dairy farmer, as are four other members. There are zero representatives from non-dairy agriculture or any environmental or sustainability expertise represented on this Authority. Meanwhile, Bord Bia’s board of directors is chaired by the former chief executive of Carbery Group, and includes the CEO of Dawn Meats and a representative of a company owned by Kerry Group.
Strangely, for an organisation that touts Origin Green as its crowning achievement, there are no environmental or ecology experts on its board. And uncomfortably for Bord Bia, Carbery, which is a verified Origin Green member, was successfully prosecuted by the EPA for environmental offences in 2018 and fined €23,373.
Another Origin Green member, Dairygold, was fined €19,000 by the EPA earlier this month for emissions into the river Gradoge. A key aspect of Origin Green is that it is entirely voluntary, and there appear to be no sanctions for failure, however egregious.
The committee to which Burke submitted this analysis is charged with developing Ireland’s agri-food 2030 strategy. Of its 31 members, there is just one representative from the entire environmental sector, and its inputs have been by largely ignored by the committee which is a who’s who of corporate Ireland, including no fewer than five Ibec-affiliated groups.
This committee is building on earlier agri-industrial expansion plans (Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025) which were, in the remarkably candid assessment of Bord Bia CEO, Tara McCarthy, “industry-owned.”
What this committee appears determined to ignore is the EU’s Farm to Fork 2030 strategy, which sets out a series of strong actions to cut agricultural emissions, reduce pollution and boost biodiversity. It demands a minimum 20 per cent cut in artificial fertilizer usage, as well as a 50 per cent reduction in pesticide use.
Perhaps most dramatically, Farm To Fork calls for a quarter of the EU’s farmland to convert to organic agriculture, which is critical to allowing biodiversity to co-exist with farming.
Organic farming generally offers farmers decent margins, but presents far fewer opportunities for companies selling expensive inputs, such as fertilizers and sprays to farmers. This may help explain why barely two per cent of Ireland’s land is farmed organically, a crushing fact that reveals our ‘green’ credentials to be largely an illusion.
Tellingly, Bord Bia issued a tender in 2019 inviting companies to help it “win (vegetarian) customers back or reassure them regarding food choices”. Rather than reflecting and embracing shifting consumer tastes, Bord Bia likely feels huge pressure to support the overwhelmingly dominant beef-and-dairy model that Ireland has doubled down on.
As this week’s devastating response from the EPA highlights, Ireland’s agri-food policy is adrift from ecological and climate reality and facing an ever-strengthening tide of public concern on the wider impacts of food production.
Globally, livestock rearing and feed are among the leading drivers of biodiversity loss and rainforest clearance and account for around 14.5 per cent of total emissions of dangerous greenhouse gases.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that dietary shifts away from meat and dairy could free up several million square kilometres of land for nature, while cutting global emissions by up to 8 billion tonnes a year. The challenge for Irish agriculture is to either embrace change or risk being marginalised and losing its social licence.
- John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism