We are in deep, deep trouble, as a planet, as a species. Climate change is garnering all the headlines but it is not the only issue. Biodiversity, on a global level, has broached critical levels; mass extinctions of habitat and wildlife is an ongoing phenomenon.
Biochemical flows — phosphorous and nitrogen used in industrial agriculture to artificially enrich soil — are at critical levels, causing eutrophication, whereby nutrient-dense chemical runoff from the land into the water system causes algal blooms to develop, food chains to alter and oxygen to deplete, eventually causing ‘dead zones’.
This same chemical cocktail is wreaking equal havoc on our precious soil, exhausting, then fatally overloading that frail membrane covering the earth’s landmasses. A third of earth’s land is now severely degraded, and the UN predicts we have about ‘60 remaining harvests’ before soil becomes too barren to feed the planet.
Ireland is not immune. More than 100 of our plants and animals are already extinct; about a third of all monitored species in Ireland are threatened with extinction or on the cusp of being so. Our agricultural land is essentially a chemical cocktail and, say the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):
A major EU report last year found Ireland to be to be the second worst member state at tackling climate change — only coal-mining Poland sparing us the ignominy of being last — yet Fine Gael’s new climate change strategy concentrates on electric cars and renewable energy. Yes, fossil fuel usage is heavily implicated in this catastrophic environmental destruction but industrial agriculture is equally complicit.
Nobody in their right mind wants to lose those jobs or that huge input to economic wellbeing but we face hard choices ahead and as economist Kenneth E Boulding, once stated: “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.” Yet, hope remains, in a quote that still resonates from the 2016 International Slow Food assembly: ‘They may be giants but we are millions.” In other words, we must take matters into our own hands and institute change from the bottom up. Here we meet a small selection of inspirational people in Ireland, choosing to do just that.
Dr Colin Sage recently retired from UCC’s Geography Dept; food geographer and world-renowned expert on food and sustainability; chair of Cork Food Policy Council; author, Environment and Food.
“The word ‘sustainability’ is tarnished, devalued by overuse and misappropriated by vested interests wanting to sustain the existing model, but it is important to retrieve it because it does enable us to refocus on ‘environment’. ‘Sustainability’ presumes there is some relationship between society, economy and the environment and requires us to appreciate there are things other than growing the economy that we have to pay attention to.
“Cork Food Policy Council (CFPC) is a civil society organisation [of statutory, community and voluntary groups, educational institutions and businesses] committed to working towards building a healthier, more sustainable, more equitable food system for the people of Cork. CFPC began in 2013 and had a big launch on St Patrick’s Day 2014, when we fed 5,000 people on the Grand Parade, using one ton of veg destined for landfill.
“It’s about finding a way of networking, exchanging ideas. A good example would be growing projects in the South Parish, working with Cork Healthy Cities project. It’s about creating visibility around plants, greening the historic core of Cork, using edible plants in particular and encouraging people to help themselves. We are also doing a food mapping project, of food outlets across the city, everywhere that sells food — supermarkets, takeaways, restaurants, food service, retail, looking at patterns of availability of food and its consumption.”
Ecology graduate, food activist, proprietor (with husband Donal O’Gara) of My Goodness vegan food company.
“I came to Ireland from Texas to do the course on permaculture in the Kinsale college, the only place in the world to have it at the time. Sustainability is kind of a loaded term and can be used and misused but, to me, you have to study the patterns of nature and permaculture design encourages you to create the perfect sustainable design. In permaculture design you don’t have waste; in nature you don’t have waste. Everything that is produced from a plant is used within the system. The forest is a perfect example to understand its patterns and emulate its sustainable cycles: work is minimal, it synthesises what it needs from sunshine and water and CO2 and any of its waste products are cycled back into the forest; the perfect design, little work, zero waste.
“We’re far from being perfect but keep trying our best every year to waste less. We use as much of a vegetable as we possibly can through dehydrating, preserving, fermentation, putting it back into the stock for the broth that we make. We make sauerkraut crackers from the brine from our sauerkraut and the tops and tails and skins of our vegetables and flax seeds. We buy local whenever available, supporting our local chemical-free and organic farmers, and we work at four different farmers’ markets every week to get the best of Cork’s produce and we starting to work with a group called CUSP, spreading out our zero waste ideal to Mahon Point Farmers’ Market"
Organic farmer, Co Galway, growing exclusively for Michelin-starred restaurant, Loam; co-founder of Talamh Beo, an organisation of farmers, growers and land workers.
“I’d worked with farming organisations [Via Campesina, Brussels] and seen how they could empower farmers, and I had a real sense of disempowerment amongst Irish farmers, even those on the fringes doing different projects. They weren’t being put front and centre, the narrative was always dominated by Big Ag.
“The Talamh Beo core group started with six men and six women — a concious decision from the get-go to ensure parity of representation — and the idea is to give a voice to farmers to articulate an alternative vision as to what the landscape and the Irish agricultural system could look like, addressing cultural as well as economic barriers, looking at concepts like ‘Regenerative Agriculture’ — regenerating degraded soil, sustaining something which has already been badly damaged — and agro-ecology, which is more than just a production system but looks at how a farm fits into a place, socially, culturally and economically.
“We are looking at low input systems, reducing the dependence on inputs, imported feeds and imported and synthetic fertilisers and dependence on fossil fuels input, which are unsustainable into the future.
“We want to regrow the community around food production, to regrow local economies around food, fuel and fibre production, to create sustainable industries based on our own production, not just imports, and there is huge untapped potential for that in Ireland. We want to put the ‘culture’ back into ‘agriculture’.”
Researcher, Clean Technology Centre, CIT; food activist and a co-founder of CUSP (Cork Urban Soil Project)
“CUSP is a year-long experiment to deal with waste in a new way. We’ve picked one place, Mahon Farmers’ Market, working with My Goodness stallholder, Virginia O’Gara, and market co-ordinator, Rupert Hugh-Jones and the traders at market to change the way people behave and to transform the waste into a reusable resource.
I'm sad it's over. What fun!! https://t.co/qiOxhjWyJn— Keelin Tobin (@KeelinTobin) October 22, 2018
“First, we would encourage waste prevention, encouraging people to bring reusable containers to try and break down single use. Then, all traders will use compostable packaging and the idea is to ensure it ends up in the right bin. Very often companies go to the extra cost and effort of using recyclable or compostable packaging but it is taken off site and put into general waste. We will take it away, separate it out and see if it can be turned into workable compost, using a biodigester [a container that rapidly and organically breaks down and digests waste, turning it into compost in 48 hours].
“We don’t have all the answers, — even though I work in waste — it’s not easy because there are a lot of stakeholders involved but we just want to see if we can do it and provide learnings for others. We don’t know if it’s something that’s easy to use but we want to record information about capacities, costs and any other potential impediments, to learn as much as possible from the whole endeavour.
“Composting is a fine balance. I know enough to know it is not as simple as ploughing it back into the soil but there is no ‘away’ place for waste. We want to take responsibility and come up with solutions and would love for the end product to be a reusable resource, something nutritious to return to the soil.”