No national security without food security

We often hear about Ireland’s supposed role in “feeding the world”. The reality is altogether different. Despite the hype, domestic food insecurity is a very real concern in the difficult decades ahead. I explored this issue in detail in a recent Business Post article.

AS THE government this week unveiled carbon budgets for the next decade, the sectoral group scramble for special treatment has gotten underway in earnest.

Livestock agriculture in particular is now coming under sustained scrutiny, given its emissions trajectory is in direct conflict with government policy.

Agriculture minister, Charlie McConalogue found himself in the uncomfortable position this week on RTÉ Prime Time of attempting to defend this situation and to pitch the implausible notion that “efficiencies”, or new technologies were going to somehow reduce spiralling methane emissions from Ireland’s oversized livestock herd.

Presenter Sarah McInerney pressed the minister on what she called his “very controversial policy, against all the scientific advice” in refusing to accept the need to reduce herd numbers.

As the state’s Climate Change Advisory Council confirmed this week, only small emissions cuts can be achieved by technical mitigation; in other words, if you don’t cut herd numbers, you can’t cut total agri emissions.

In an effort to explain why the rules shouldn’t have to apply to the Irish livestock sector, McConalogue stated: “Ireland contributes significantly to feeding people around the world. Tonight, 700 million people will go to bed hungry”.

Some of those hungry people may well be west African pastoral farmers, who in recent years have seen their livelihoods threatened by a glut of cheap dairy produce from EU countries, including Ireland, being flooded onto their fragile domestic markets.

The president of Burkina Faso’s milk producers’ union, Adama Ibrahim Diallo told Politico that “people who live from milk are struggling”, leading to worsening security issues in the Sahel region. “The sons of pastoralists become jihadists – not out of conviction but because there are no jobs”.

According to Bord Bia, Irish dairy exports to Africa are booming, with over €660 million in sales in 2020. A 2017 UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report found that locally produced milk in Senegal costs around $1 a litre, but imported milk products from the EU can be half the price, “thanks in large measure to agricultural subsidy policies”. The EU, in essence, is exporting food insecurity.

Millions of babies as far afield as China and Saudi Arabia are fed by powdered Irish milk, with a total annual export value approaching €1 billion, but given that this is to directly replace breast feeding, it is unlikely to be contributing to global food security.

Hunger is the spectre that has long stalked humanity, and it is deeply imprinted on the Irish psyche. The harnessing of fossil fuels and the development of chemical nitrogen and pesticides allowed the “Green Revolution” since the 1960s to usher in a global era of plenty, but at a fearsome ecological price.

“The green revolution has won temporary success in man’s war against hunger”, famed agronomist Norman Bourlag stated in 1970. In the longer term, failure to live within planetary limits would, he warned, mean in the 21st century “we will experience sheer human misery on a scale that will exceed the worst that has ever come before”.

The climate risk assessment report from the UK-based Chatham House think tank published ahead of the COP26 conference in Glasgow gave some chilling insights into the scale and gravity of fast-approaching threats to food security.

Unless drastic emissions cuts occur immediately, it projects that by 2040, around a third of the world’s farmlands will be subjected to severe drought conditions, leading to at least a 30 per cent drop in global food production by mid-century, with profound social and political consequences.

The real priority for Ireland in the years ahead must be to ensure we have achieved as high a degree as possible of domestic energy and food security, to buffer ourselves against global system shocks and supply chain disruption.

While good progress is being made on developing indigenous renewable energy, there is little evidence of any such strategic thinking when it comes to feeding ourselves if largely cut off from international markets.

According to CSO data, Ireland annually imports almost a quarter of a million tonnes of potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce and apples – all foods for human consumption that are ideally suited to our climate.

Our current food production model is overwhelmingly export-oriented, with some 90 per cent of what we produce shipped overseas, while the vast bulk of what we actually eat is imported.

Our huge livestock herd can only be maintained via the annual application of over 350,000 tonnes of imported chemical nitrogen, as well as several million tonnes of imported feedstuffs plus pesticides and liquid fuels for machinery.

The system least dependent on imported inputs and so most resilient in a crisis is (nature-friendly) organic agriculture, yet Ireland languishes at the very bottom of the EU table, with only 2 per cent organic production. Similarly, horticulture boosts resilience as it produces the most food per hectare of any system, yet it accounts for barely one per cent of our land use.

On balance, is minister McConalogue correct in arguing that Ireland contributes to global food security? No, according to data from the UN FAO. Since 2000, Ireland has been a net importer of food energy. Ireland’s net food energy imports exceeded exports by the equivalent of the calorie intake of 2.5 million people.

The reason for this surprisingly poor performance is the intrinsic inefficiency and resource intensity of animal-based agriculture, which is by far the dominant system in Ireland. Globally, over 80 per cent of agricultural landis given over to livestock production, yet it produces just 18 per cent of the calories and 37 per cent of protein for human consumption.

Since 1980, Ireland’s tillage sector has shrunk by more than two fifths, with much of the land now being switched to dairying, which produces seven times more emissions per hectare, according to Prof Michael Wallace of UCD.

In previous times of crisis and shortage during the two world wars, Irish tillage production increased sharply, as the focus was on feeding our population, not livestock. Perhaps now is the time to plan in earnest for an agricultural renaissance to help us achieve food independence to face an increasingly uncertain future.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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