Food Wise 2025 sets out a roadmap for increases in agricultural output over the 2015-2020 period.
It also maintains that this must occur in an environmentally sustainable fashion.
It recognises that Ireland’s farmers and foresters manage the vast majority of land in Ireland. They play a positive role in maintaining valued landscapes and in providing valued ecosystem services.
But agriculture’s footprint also has a negative impact on several environmental resources, including air and water quality and the extent of biodiversity, as well as contributing to greenhouse gas emissions which must be reduced if we are to stabilise our climate for future generations.
Increased production will exacerbate these environmental problems unless steps are taken to mitigate them.
Food Wise 2025 proposes to reconcile these conflicting objectives by basing the continued growth of the agri-food sector on sustainable intensification. This is defined as improving productivity while using natural resources in a manner which protects them into the future.
Sustainable intensification is thus a process or system where agricultural yields are increased without adverse environmental impact and without the conversion of additional non-agricultural land.
The concept does not articulate or privilege any particular vision or method of agricultural production.
The problem is that this commitment is immediately weakened in Food Wise 2025, by establishing a guiding principle that, in meeting these sustainability goals, environmental protection and economic competitiveness will be considered equal and complementary, such that one will not be achieved at the expense of the other.
In practice, this means that economic competitiveness is often given priority, when these objectives conflict.
Where environmental targets are embodied in EU directives, they are pursued — we do not have a choice.
In other cases, environmental objectives are considered only to the extent they are consistent with pursuing economic competitiveness.
As a result, where progress is made towards environmental targets, it is slow, and in some areas, we continue to lose ground. We have almost eliminated rivers classified as bad biological quality, and lake biological quality has stabilised.
But 44% of rivers still do not meet the minimum standard of good biological quality, and the number of river bodies classified as of high quality continues to decline. The rate of improvement in nitrogen concentration may be beginning to slow down.
The important issue for biodiversity is habitat loss, which can be impacted by activities such as agricultural intensification (or abandonment); increased biocide usage, and afforestation.
The state has protected habitats for specific flora and fauna of key importance, by designating Natura 2000 sites which now cover around 13% of Ireland’s land area.
Have you heard of the Roseate Tern? It could have been yet another extinct bird species, but for a @BirdWatchIE #EU funded project to restore its numbers on Rockabill Island near #Skerries in #Dublin #EUProtects #Natura2000 @EU_Env pic.twitter.com/vmWMXWWHRN— EU Commission in Ireland (@eurireland) March 27, 2019
However, the conservation status of some habitats and species is often poor, due to the adverse impact of agricultural practices on some of these sites. There is also a need to maintain and expand biodiversity on land outside these protected areas.
National emissions of ammonia, 99% of which are linked to the agricultural sector, continue to rise, and now exceed our limit under EU legislation.
Ammonia emissions adversely affect air quality through the formation of particles and ozone, as well as contributing to eutrophication of waterways.
Agriculture is also a major contributor to national greenhouse gas emissions.
Emissions fell from their peak in the early 1990s, due to fewer livestock and a fall in fertiliser use, but have recently begun to rise again.
Although there is no national target for agricultural emissions, agricultural emissions make up 45% of the non-quota sector not covered by the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, where Ireland has a commitment to reduce emissions by 30% compared to 2005 levels.
The main reason why the environment is damaged, as agricultural production expands and farming intensifies, is that environmental resources are a free good.
There is no price or cost attached to the loss of biodiversity, or to letting excess nitrogen seep into waterways, or to emitting damaging pollution into the air.
At the same time, efforts made by farmers to provide public goods and to protect valued environmental amenities are not remunerated in the same way as the production of food or bioenergy which has a specific market price.
In the language of economists, these are externalities, whose value is ignored in the marketplace. When farmers make production choices, in the absence of any government rules or interventions, the impact on the environment is generally not factored into decisions about the optimal level of output or the farm practices adopted.
To address the problem of externalities, we need first to be able to measure them and second to put a ‘price’ on them. Great advances have been made in measuring the human impact on the environment in recent years.
The Environment Protection Agency produces regular updates of its flagship State of the Environment assessment, and has developed a series of environmental indicators which allow us to track in much greater detail than before what is happening to our environment.
Teagasc has evolved its regular farm recording work measuring economic results in its National Farm Survey, to include a wide set of sustainability indicators.
This is path-breaking work of global significance and provides detailed information on how differences in the environmental footprint of farms are related to output and farm practices.
Individual farmers also get feedback on their carbon footprint and other sustainability issues through their involvement with Origin Green.
As a result of these and other initiatives, awareness and understanding of the environmental impact of farming, including both positive and negative impacts, has greatly increased.
But we cannot rely only on the voluntary efforts of farmers to protect the agricultural environment, important though these individual initiatives are, no more than we can rely on the voluntary efforts of consumers to solve the problems of plastic pollution, or food waste, or transport emissions.
Government intervention is required to ensure that these externalities are considered in both production and purchasing decisions.
Various measures are in place to reduce the impact of intensive farming on the environment, and should be strengthened.
Potential measures include regulations, permits, subsidies, standards and levies.
Regulations are the most widely-used instrument.
For example, Ireland’s fourth Nitrates Action Plan, covering the period 2018-2021, included new strengthened water protection measures as well as targeting improved soil fertility.
Currently, the role of the nitrates derogation is under review.
The derogation allows around 7,000 heavily-stocked farms to apply higher levels of livestock manure than would normally be allowed under strict controls, and subject to nutrient management plans.
Additional monitoring and mitigation measures will be required, to ensure that any intensification or increase in livestock numbers does not directly impact on water quality.
Irish farming is heavily dependent on CAP subsidies.
Increasingly, these subsidies have been linked to environmental objectives.
Environmental conditions have been included in the cross-compliance requirements that farmers must observe, in order to remain eligible for direct payments.
Additional payments are made to farmers who agree to observe higher environmental standards under the voluntary agri-environment-climate scheme GLAS, including organic farmers.
The Commission in its legal proposal for the CAP post-2020 has rightly identified the need for a higher level of environmental and climate ambition in the future. It has proposed that Member States should use part of their direct payments envelope to support farmers in their efforts to transition to more sustainable farming practices.
It has also proposed that Member States should maintain a minimum share of spending on voluntary agri-environment-climate schemes in their rural development programmes. However, its parallel proposal for the EU medium-term budget proposes to reduce CAP funding for rural development programmes. But there will be scope for Member States to make up the gap by shifting funds from direct payments, and by contributing additional national funding.
Ireland will draw up a CAP Strategic Plan outlining how it intends to use its CAP budget allocation in the coming programming period.
This is a real opportunity to target more of the CAP funds to assist farmers in making the transition to more sustainable farming practices and to better remunerate the provision of public goods.
The IFA has suggested that support for additional measures to tackle climate change should be funded from a new climate fund on top of existing farm supports.
But the public consultation undertaken prior to the Commission making its legal proposal for the next CAP showed that most respondents, both farmers and non-farmers, wanted CAP money used to reduce the adverse footprint of agriculture on the environment and to support farmers in providing public goods.
Irish agriculture is not yet sustainable in the sense of Food Wise 2025, where further expansion will have no negative impact on the environment. Despite the industry’s heightened awareness of these issues, policy-makers must do more to reflect the value we place on our natural environment in farmers’ decision-making.
Existing targets — to improve the water quality status of rivers and lakes, to halt the decline in biodiversity, to reduce ammonia and greenhouse gas emissions — need to be pursued more vigorously.
The forthcoming CAP Strategic Plan can provide the springboard to ensure that this happens.
Alan Matthews is Professor Emeritus of European Agricultural Policy at Trinity College Dublin