Sustainability never sleeps.
Even as the EU struggles through the Covid-19 pandemic, the European Commission yesterday adopted the Farm to Fork (F2F) sustainability strategy.
F2F is the plan to make EU agriculture a global leader in sustainable production, as part of a wider plan to make the EU carbon neutral by 2050.
No wonder those in the farm and food industry, trying hard to cope with food disruption due to the pandemic, are this week muttering “no rest for the wicked” to themselves.
F2F will ask them to change the way they do business, even if many of them are already going flat out to keep the EU’s food supply chains sustainable through the pandemic, as intact as possible.
But F2F is not something they can even think of ignoring, because the industry is bankrolled by the EU, and the EU calls the shots.
Some EU leaders even see the Green Deal (which includes F2F) as central to the EU recovery plan from the Covid-19 economic disaster.
That is why they went ahead with publishing F2F details yesterday, despite much advice to shelve it until recovery from the pandemic is under way.
At the farm end, F2F involves, between now and 2027, reducing the use and risk of synthetic chemicals and pesticides; decreasing the use of antimicrobial products for farmed animals; increasing the EU’s land area dedicated to organic farming; and cutting fertilisers.
Reversing the rise in obesity rates is one of the main objectives at the fork end of the Farm to Fork strategy.
These and other F2F targets will test the Irish food system, already under pressure from the Covid-19 crisis.
The implications for Irish farmers, food and drink producers and exporters will be widespread.
However, in Irish farming, where the raw material for our food industry comes from, we are further along the road to sustainability than many other EU countries.
For example, we are among the lower users in the EU of antimicrobial products for farmed animals.
When EU inspectors were here recently to assist the Irish authorities in development and implementation of our strategy for tackling antimicrobial resistance, they made it clear that agriculture is not the main culprit, revealing that total sales of antimicrobials in the Irish veterinary sector are moderate.
But in our human health sector, antimicrobial consumption in the community is higher than the European average (but not in hospitals, where it is lower than average).
Reduction of synthetic chemicals and pesticides will be challenging, but not as challenging as it will be for the leading crop producing countries of Europe.
We have plenty scope for increasing our land area dedicated to organic farming, if it can be made sufficiently profitable.
We are mid-range in the EU for nitrogen and phosphorus fertiliser use per hectare of fertilised utilised agricultural area (Eurostat 2018 figures).
We are well behind the nitrogen use in Belgium, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Denmark, and well behind the high phosphorus fertiliser users such as Cyprus, Croatia and Hungary.
Among the EU’s agricultural superpowers, Germany is fighting a running battle with the EU over the high nitrogen content of its groundwater, coming from agriculture. it looks like German farmers may eventually have to bite the bullet, and suffer a similar fate to that of their Dutch neighbours.
In 2017 and 2018, Dutch farmers were forced by the EU to get rid of 190,000 dairy cows (11% of the national herd) because of their runaway phosphorus fertiliser pollution from livestock manure.
Now, Dutch farmers must also adopt new measures in order to reduce nitrogen emissions by 5% per year.
These examples illustrate the huge changes which will be needed on EU farms between now and 2027 to comply with the Farm to Fork (F2F) sustainability strategy.
However, because Irish farmers are further along the sustainability road, they can be confident that if the F2F plan is properly implemented, Irish agriculture and food production can become more competitive within the EU.
The cost of production of our food will rise, but not as much as it will rise in many more intensively farmed member states, if they have to undergo huge F2F changes, akin to the 11% reduction in dairy cows in the Netherlands.
That was a huge setback for this multi-billion euro dairy industry in the Netherlands, because its milk production fell by more than 15% from 2015 to 2018.
Such are the high costs of improving sustainability, and the huge impacts on the lives of farmers and those in the food industry.
At least some of these increased costs must be passed onto the consumer of food. They cannot be absorbed by an industry already working hard to supply cheap, reliable food, to the point of low prices for farm produce, insecure farming livelihoods, and reliance on CAP subsidies.
Despite their huge profits, retailers are unlikely to voluntarily reduce their takings for the sake of sustainability.
And processors operating on low profit margins in a cut-throat sector won’t be paying for improved sustainability either.
So it remains to be seen how F2F can provide sufficient affordable and high-quality food for healthy diets, with reduced impact on the environment and climate, while not adding to current imbalances in the food chain, such as farmers and food-workers facing disproportionate risks and reaping little value.
It also remains to be seen how F2F can cope with changing sustainability targets.
For some consumers, preoccupied with staying safe while a killer virus stalks the continent, sustainability may no longer be of prime importance. That’s a big change from when the new EU Commission chose sustainability as its political priority.
Last year, consumers wanted open food and unpackaged produce.
Last year, they were turning away from meat because of its reputation (unfair, according to many farmers and scientists) as a source of climate change.
Then, along came Covid-19. Now, one of the big changes is a shift to ‘no-touch’ consumption, and a move back to packaged foods. Supermarkets have had to do a turnaround and put more of their loose grocery produce such as fruit, vegetables and baked goods back into protective plastic or paper packaging.
Meanwhile, meat, like all grocery store items, has seen a dramatic uplift in retail sales.