Unsustainable claims behind green food production campaign

Bord Bia’s mantra that Irish farming is at the forefront of food sustainability is poppy-cock, writes Victora White

Unsustainable claims behind green food production campaign

T’S the last day of the Ploughing Championships, Ireland’s massive annual celebration of farming and farmers. RTÉ and a raft of politicians led by the President are scrambling to use the competition as a symbol of what we are.

The competition is as much about politics as it is about ploughing, as every decent-sized political party attempts to claim the rural heart of Ireland as its own.

“Go out there and discover the story of Fine Gael”, Enda Kenny told his people a couple of years ago at the competition. The story is the same, no matter what your party: We are a rural people. Our feet are on the ground. This land is our land. We cherish it.

Most of this is bally-hoo. Our 70,000 or so full-time farmers in Ireland make up a small percentage of our workforce of nearly 2m. Even if you add roughly the same number of part-time farmers you are talking small numbers, with the entire agri-food business accounting for about 8.4% of our workforce.

A friend of mine who is only in his 40s grew up on a farm of 40 acres in Roscommon which supported a family of five.

Of course, peoples’ expectations as to their standard of living have rocketed since then. But he puts the collapse of that small farm as a full-time occupation to the collapse in the price of food due to globalisation and today’s farming intensity, which includes feeding animals indoors and favours capital-rich farmers.

Clearly the attrition has been going on for decades. My mother grew up on a small farm in Donegal but when her nephew arrived at Gurteen Agricultural College, he realised he’d need a multiple of the land he had to make a decent living. He moved to Dublin.

A couple of generations and a way of life is gone. With it went sustainability in farming. Bord Bia’s lavishly-funded mantra that Irish farming is at the forefront of food sustainability is poppy-cock.

“What if all of our farmers and food producers could come together and pledge to produce food in a way that’s kinder to our planet and the people on it? What if they already have?” intones the voice on the recent TV Bord Bia advertisement which, as reported in John Gibbons’s thinkorswim.ie blog, cost €500,000 to produce and may cost another €500,000 in advertising time.

Gibbons also discovered that Origin Green, described by Bord Bia as “the world’s first national food sustainability programme” refuses 0.5% of applicants to the programme. It is, in other words, virtually impossible not to be accepted as an Origin Green farmer, no matter what your environmental standards are. And ours are appalling.

The Environmental Protection Agency has just released its report on water quality in Ireland between 2010 and 2015.

It confirms that the last 30 years has seen a collapse in the numbers of pristine river sites from 500 to just 21.

Intensive agriculture is the chief offender, responsible for two-thirds of the devastation, as freshwater gets polluted with phosphorus and nitrogen.

Some river estuaries in the south and south-east of the country are described as “nutrient-rich” or “eutrophic” with catastrophic consequences for their flora and fauna. The practice of spreading slurry on land has still not died out.

It’s true that the overall national picture has not got any worse in the last decade, as some water bodies improve and some get worse. But we had committed, under the first River Basin Management Plan (2009 to 2014) to make a serious improvement in the quality of our rivers and lakes. Surprise, surprise, we’ve broken our promise.

Origin Green, established in 2012, has clearly made no significant difference to the amount of pollution which farmers have allowed to leech into our rivers and lakes. And the EPA explicitly points out that “the planned expansion of farming” poses a threat even to the “modest improvements” in agricultural pollution which have been seen.

As Mark Howden said as part of the International Panel on Climate Change’s scoping mission in Ireland earlier this year, we need to increase the efficiency of our cattle without increasing herd numbers.

That is the point studiously missed by Bord Bia.

You can cut the carbon footprint of your cattle — Origin Green cites a reduction 0.6kg per kg of fat and protein corrected milk from our dairy cows in the last couple of years — but you wipe out the reduction if you increase the number of cattle. The reported reduction so far in carbon emissions from beef cows since 2015 has been in the order of 00.01%.

Arguably the more than 140,000 assessments which have been carried out on Irish beef and dairy farms are still valuable and the trend is still downward. The targets which the farmers are set are in all our interests, including “improved slurry management” and

“improved nitrogen use”.

But we do have to ask the question if all this is voodoo economics when we see that herd numbers are not mentioned by Bord Bia. Particularly when you consider the contribution that farming makes to Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions of 33%, exactly a third of all our emissions.

Our emissions from agriculture were described by the IPCC this year as “uniquely high” in the EU, with only New Zealand posting a higher proportion of agricultural emissions internationally. We are second-best in the whole world’s class at producing carbon emissions from agriculture and we are getting better all the time. In 2015, our agricultural emissions increased by 1.5%.

OBJECTIVELY measured, in the manner of Origin Green, the effect of the programme since 2012 on the overall sustainability of farming would seem to be nil.

This makes Origin Green’s citation of the Carbon Trust’s claim that “Ireland provides a valuable blueprint for other countries seeking to get to grips with the environmental impacts of agriculture” look wholly ridiculous.

You do wonder whether Origin Green’s main aim has ever been sustainability.

Is Origin Green’s real purpose simply to rebrand Ireland as ‘green’ in today’s vocabulary?

To find a new twist to the tale of leprechauns and rainbows and four green fields? To market Irish food and drink as “sustainably produced” in the teeth of the undeniable fact that it isn’t?

If that is the case, is it a wise use of the thousands that Bord Bia gets from the exchequer every year? Does it serve the taxpayers of Ireland, including the farmers who suffer first and worst from the degradation of our environment and the increasing unpredictability of our climate?

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