Eoin Lettice and Barbara Doyle Prestwich say an integrated approach to sustainable food production is needed in Ireland
Cork has long been synonymous with great food. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the city was home to the largest butter market in the world and of course the famous English Market, dating from the 19th century, in the centre of Cork City is renowned for its mix of local and exotic food.
In 2018, three restaurants in Cork (one in the city and two in the county) were included in the Michelin Guide. This year Bastion in Kinsale was added to that illustrious list.
Such accolades are, of course, based partly on the quality of raw ingredients available in the region and at the recent World Restaurant Awards in Paris, one Cork restauranteur won the Big Plate ‘Collaboration of the Year Award’ for their chef-farmer collaboration. All of this points to the importance of sustaining the high quality of the raw ingredients synonymous with this region.
Cork continues to constitute a large share of the Irish agricultural sector. According to the last available census of agriculture in Ireland, Cork accounts for 10% of all Irish farms; 15% of cattle; 11.5% of grassland and almost 16% of crops. This means that the agri-food sector will continue to play an important role in Cork’s economy.
At a national level, food exports in 2018 were worth €13.7bn and accounted for about 173,000 jobs in rural and coastal areas. Cork accounts for a large share of this economic activity but we must plan now for the future of farming.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently published a special report on climate change and landuse and it gives us plenty of food for thought.
Given our ambitious plans in Ireland to achieve a net zero greenhouse gas emission by 2050, particularly in key sectors such as transport and agriculture, we now face real challenges ensuring food security and establishing sustainable agriculture in the context of a low carbon budget.
Farming accounts for 32% of all greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland. It is expected that greenhouse gas emissions from Irish agriculture will continue to increase up to 2030 in light of growing cattle numbers, increased use of fertilisers and the loss of carbon directly from soil. The Government’s Climate Change Advisory Council has, however, argued for a 50% reduction in the suckler cow herd for the purposes of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Other commentators, including Teagasc, have suggested that a reduction in emissions could be facilitated without the need to reduce the herd size if a number of measures are implemented.
These include the strategic deployment of fertilisers and improving the production efficiency of the cattle through smart breeding techniques.
In publishing its Climate Action Plan earlier this year, however, the Government made it clear that there was no appetite for a major reduction in herd numbers despite the advice of its own advisory council.
We must listen to science, if our region is to be successful. The recent EAT-Lancet report and the IPCC both strongly suggested that a more plant-based diet would have benefits for human and environmental health.
In a region where dairy and beef production is an important employer and economic driver, this can be an unpopular view to hold. Regardless, if the region is to plan for the future of farming, we must take into account the best scientific advice and be cognisant of changing consumer preferences led by a desire to source food from the most sustainable sources.
An integrated approach for sustainable food production in Ireland and more specifically in the Cork region is needed.
Such an integrated approach will include a mixture of both conventional and novel strategies and crops.
For example, genetically modified food with a proven safety record and endorsed by organisations such as World Health (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and numerous medical associations and science academies globally is one option for sustainable production in Ireland.
The current ban on genetically modified organism needs to be reversed. Of course, the current ban on the growing of GM crops (brought to Cabinet in 2018 by the former Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten) would need to be reversed.
Data from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications for GM crop cultivation globally between 1996 and 2016, have shown increased crop productivity as well as significant gains in farm incomes with reduced environmental impacts as a result of a reduction in agri-chemical use (for examplepesticide use down by 18%).
In addition, savings of 27.1 billion kilos of carbon dioxide (equivalent to removing almost 17 million cars off the road in one year), increased biodiversity and improved standard of living for many resource-poor farmers in developing countries have been achieved.
Closer to home, an international study involving a team of Irish researchers published in the European Journal of Agronomy last year demonstrated that, in field trials conducted over three years in Ireland and the Netherlands, using an integrated pest management strategy in association with GM potato cultivation, achieved a reduction of 80% to 90% in fungicide use.
This has massive implications not only for the commercial potato sector in Ireland but for our other main staples. This is even more prescient given the current and future trends in agrichemical availability governed by the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive.
Farmers can no longer rely on the plethora of chemical sprays that were previously available for plant-disease management, hence the need for a more holistic and integrated approach for sustainable food production.
We must rethink our crop production if we are serious about meeting our climate targets and maintaining food security within a low-to-zero carbon budget.
According to the EAT-Lancet report: “Transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts”.
As a region, Cork could for example grow high-protein novel food crops such as amaranth varieties specifically bred for the Irish climate. Amaranth was grown by ancient civilisations such as the Aztecs. It is a crop with a high nutritional value (high protein, calcium and iron) and excellent agronomic potential.
There is also an expanding body of evidence that future gains in agricultural yields will not be provided by new crop varieties alone but by a renewed focus on soil health. A ‘brown revolution’ is on the horizon where the soil microorganisms associated with the roots of crop plants can be encouraged and even engineered to boost crop yields and protect plants from pests and diseases.
Here, conventional agriculture is learning lessons from organic farming which has long held to the mantra of “feeding the soil and not the plant”.
How the region’s scientists and farmers are trained is also changing. The School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences in UCC, in association with Teagasc has just introduced a new four-year BSc in Agricultural Science.
UCC also trains students as part of the BSc in Applied Plant Biology. These graduates will be central to solving many of the great challenges of our generation and safeguarding the future of farming.
The authors are based in the School of Biological Earth and Environmental Sciences in UCC. Dr Eoin Lettice is a plant scientist specialising in plant-pest and disease management and sustainable agriculture. Dr Barbara Doyle Prestwich is a plant biotechnologist working in the area of sustainability and biotech