‘Ireland can be the most sustainable food producer on earth’

Embracing innovation could cultivate new agricultural breakthroughs...
‘Ireland can be the most sustainable food producer on earth’

Alltech president and CEO Dr Mark Lyons addressing the ONE Ideas Conference.

Ireland can be the most resource-efficient, carbon-neutral, sustainable food producer on Earth, said economist, author and university lecturer David McWilliams during the recently held Alltech ONE Ideas Conference.

However, there are large stumbling blocks scattered along Ireland’s path to energy-efficient and sustainable food production.

One is the commonly encountered misconception that the solution to reducing carbon emissions is to reduce food production - something that McWilliams said the European Union is pushing, but that he believes is a mistake.

“In order for the European Union to get an aggregate reduction in carbon emissions,” said McWilliams, “it would seem to me much more logical to favour those countries that have had an evolutionary or ecological or environmental gift, in order to actually produce more, not less, in places like this, because your input-output ratio is so much lower here [in Ireland] than it is either in the parched Mediterranean or in the frozen tundra of the North.” 

McWilliams believes that in order for Irish agriculture to modernise and grow, it needs to take a leaf out of the book of one of Ireland’s leading sectors, technology, which generates over $25 billion in exports.

He said embracing innovation could cultivate new agricultural breakthroughs, making Ireland the best food producer on Earth, and in turn, producing a new export, in the form of incredibly valuable ag-tech.


In an Alltech ONE Ideas Conference keynote discussion, Alltech president and CEO Dr Mark Lyons joined McWilliams to talk about countries that significantly influence global agriculture.

“What the [COVID-19] pandemic has told us is that none of us is alone, none of us can isolate ourselves, and the world is kind of smaller than we thought, and more interrelated,” said McWilliams.

Looking at the United States, McWilliams said its agriculture output tripled between 1948 and 2015, with enormous gains in efficiency. 

Around 90% of farmers cannot make a living from their land alone.

Agriculture only contributes to 7.5% of total US greenhouse gases, far below the 30% attributed to cars.

“I think American culture is changing, at least when you see it from the outside,” said McWilliams, when asked about the Biden administration.

“He's saying, ‘There's no point being wealthy if the wealth is only in the hands of a small minority. The wealth has to trickle down to everybody else.’”

Environment and inequality

What President Biden understands, according to McWilliams, is that the environment and inequality are the important issues and that they need to be addressed in order for the world to move forward, even if that goes against previously held beliefs.

“We cannot have an immediate gratification mindset, which is ‘me, mine, my balance sheet, my profit margin, etc.,’” he said.

“We have to have a legacy mindset that we are, as I said at the top of the animation, we're just custodians. We're only passing through, right?”

McWilliams said the Biden administration understands that the farming community is key to addressing these issues, especially regarding the country’s environmental impact.

He said the president realises that agriculture is the solution to meeting carbon-neutral targets in the future.

McWilliams said US agriculture is about to go through an enormous change, reinstating confidence and self-belief in the industry that has been missing for a long time.

The keynote discussion also looked at Brazil, the largest exporter of beef and chicken meat globally, the world’s pigmeat producer, the largest exporter of soybeans and coffee, the biggest global producer of sugar and ethanol, and the exporter of orange juice to over half of the global market.


According to Lyons and McWilliams, Brazil has often failed to spread the good news stories of its agri-food industry. We only ever hear nightmarish stories of them forcing cattle ranchers off their land and allowing the rainforest to be destroyed.

They suggested it is time for Brazil to reassess its legacy and to show how, rather than being part of the problem, its agricultural industry is integral to the global solution.

McWilliams said Brazil can be at the forefront of agricultural and environmental change.

“It seemed to me that if Brazil gets its agriculture right, the world gets its agriculture right...and what happens in Brazil will happen elsewhere around the developing world.” He suggested that Brazil has to focus on aggressively positive messaging, revealing to people how much of what they eat comes from Brazil and how efficiently it is produced.

“The question is: Can it go from strength to strength in terms of people's perceptions of whether Brazil is a good environmental citizen?” 


In the keynote discussion, it was suggested that for China to succeed in becoming the world’s largest economy and military power, it must secure a sufficient food supply for its people, and ensure that they are not subjected to inflated food prices.

However, this is complicated by China’s limited natural resources, particularly water.

The outcome has been a transformation and modernisation of Chinese agriculture, which utilises cutting-edge technology like no other country, allowing China to stake its claim as the world’s most sustainable food producer.

Meanwhile, the trend in China and Asia towards a more Western diet of beef and dairy instead of traditional tofu and rice is another indicator of how the continent will influence food and agriculture production and the supply chain as we move forward, said McWilliams.

“The future is one whereby China will try and do whatever it can to make sure that its agricultural production remains high and/or that it can buy in food,” McWilliams said.

The annual Alltech ONE Ideas Conference invites thought-leaders and change-makers to explore the power of science, technology and human ingenuity.

Normally an in-person experience in Lexington, Kentucky, where the Alltech company is headquartered, the Conference has been a virtual event in 2020 and 2021.

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Karen Walsh

Karen Walsh

Law of the Land


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