Environment and output are two sides of the same coin

Independent analysis of the environmental impact of the Food Harvest 2020 (FH2020) strategy will be published shortly.

FH2020 is about increasing Ireland’s primary food output by 33%, food value-added by 40%, and food exports by 42%, between now and 2020.

The environmental analysis will include the likely impacts — if the food industry expansion targets are achieved — on biodiversity, flora and fauna, water (including groundwater quality), soil, air quality, landscape, and climatic factors (including impacts on greenhouse gas emission levels).

Irish eco-campaigning groups recently said they will consider legal action to ensure environmental law is implemented during agricultural expansion.

Farmers, on the other hand, point to their good environmental record, and are confident that they can expand in a sustainable manner — in contrast to other regions of the world which will find it hard to increase food production in line with rising global population.

West Cork farmer Harold Kingston is the chairman of IFA’s Environment and Rural Affairs Committee.

He says Ireland’s emission-efficient and grass-based sustainable food production is unique by international standards.

* The 2020 committee that prepared the FH2020 strategy recommended an environmental assessment [SEA] of its impact. A more recent progress report and action plan tasked the food industry to assess the environmental impacts. Have these commitments been followed up?

>>The Department of Agriculture has recently facilitated a full public consultation with all stakeholders, regarding the potential environmental impact of Food Harvest 2020. Everyone has had an opportunity to comment on this industry-led strategy for the sector.

IFA’s submission highlights the environmental sustainability of Irish agriculture. This sustainability is a key part of the future growth of the sector. Greenhouse gas emissions per kilo of product are the lowest in Europe and amongst the lowest in the world. People don’t have to be reminded of Ireland’s abundant supply of water; however, 46% of the wider European population is considered to be under water stress.

At farm level, farmers have invested over €2.5bn in manure storage and farm yard improvement over a three-year period. In addition. over 10,000km of biodiversity-enhancing hedgerows and one million carbon sequestering broadleaf trees were planted. Ireland’s waters are amongst the highest quality in Europe and the significant investment made by farmers is future proofing the sector and allowing for the sustainable expansion of the sector.

* What does the Government have to do to avoid EU infringement procedures over Food Harvest 2020?

>>Food Harvest 2020 is an industry-led initiative which seeks to set out a vision for the sector over the next decade. It’s a classic bottom-up approach to strategy development. However, environmental groups argue that it’s a Government plan which requires a greater environmental analysis beyond the detailed environmental assessment currently taking place.

I think all sides need to get a sense of perspective. Ireland’s largest indigenous industry, the agri-food sector which employs over 300,000 people, representing almost 15% of total employment, has taken the initiative to develop a growth strategy for the sector, called Food Harvest 2020.

This strategy is based on innovation, sustainability, environmental excellence and maximising the value and volume of primary and value added output, leading to an export target of €12bn by 2020. It’s about sustainable growth of the sector, leading to more jobs and increased exports.

Recent research conducted by Teagasc demonstrates the opportunity to achieve the growth of Food Harvest while actually reducing emissions from the sector. Therefore, there is no reason why the EU should issue infringement procedures against the Government over Food Harvest 2020.

* The strategy is largely based on capitalising on available market opportunities by appealing to global consumers, who want food produced under the highest environmental standards. Does this not constitute an in-built environmental protection strategy?

>>Ireland’s emission-efficient and grass-based sustainable model of food production is unique by international standards. This presents a real opportunity for the agri-food sector, to contribute to an export-led economic recovery in Ireland. Increased global food demand exists.

The current population of 7bn is expected to increase by 2.3bn by 2050. Ireland can meet this increased demand in a more sustainable manner than most other countries in the world. Irish farmers who farm to the highest environmental standards should actually be encouraged to achieve the full potential of the sector, for the future well-being of the national economy.

* The Environmental Protection Agency is represented on the FH2020 ‘high level implementation committee.’ Is this reassuring for environmentalists?

>>The Environmental Protection Agency has had a long record of participation in the Food Harvest 2020 initiative. The Agency was one of almost 30 organisations, including the IFA, that drafted the industry-led strategy.

The EPA, as an independent body, seems in more recent times to better understand the balance between the need for growth and expansion while achieving environmental protection.

It’s an important balancing act which farmers have to manage every day, making sure adequate slurry storage is in place to comply with the nitrates regulations. In addition to this, farmers must comply with the full rigours of their environmental obligations set out under a Department of Agriculture inspection regime called cross-compliance.

In the context of the expansion of the sector, I think it is important that well-meaning groups understand the onerous environmental obligations placed on farmers.

Farmers are obliged under existing legislation to ensure that the growth of the sector complies with environmental regulations, and are proud to live and produce food in the wonderful environment we have.

* FH2020 is a broad-ranging plan based on ever-changing global food-market trends. Since its publication, the value of Irish food exports has increased 11% for meat and 17% for dairy. So, is full environmental assessment of an outline plan a pointless exercise?

>>The future growth of the sector is not simply about increasing output. It’s actually about maximising the value and value added of output; basically, getting more money from the same output or the same money from less livestock.

This is already happening, and has had a positive impact on the environment. For example, in the dairy sector, increased efficiency and technological advances have contributed to a 12.4% reduction in methane emission per litre of milk produced.

Emissions from the livestock sector and fertiliser use have also declined.

* FH2020 includes significantly increasing aquaculture license determinations, but in compliance with EU environmental directives. Is this an adequate safeguard for the environment?

>>As it is, there is huge frustration with the delay in processing licences. The priority today for rural and coastal communities must be to focus on jobs and exports. We must have a functioning, efficient and flexible licensing system to give farmers options to grow, develop new techniques and supply the important processing sector. We have members who have been waiting up to seven years for a response to their aquaculture licence applications.


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