By Maeve O’Keefe, Food & Health Editor
With our generation’s heightened concerns about climate change and sustainability, many young people are striving towards environmentalism by making dietary changes to reduce their consumption of animal produce. Their environmental concerns are not misplaced. As a sector accounting for 7.7% of Ireland’s total employment, the agri-food sector is a vital aspect of the Irish economy, but it is also a major contributor of emissions. That said, has our heightened emphasis on environmentalism demonised the work of Irish farmers and food producers to an extent, while failing to scrutinize the sustainability of imported alternatives to home-grown Irish produce? Perhaps in working with Irish farmers and food producers, rather than against them, Irish consumers can benefit both the planet and the Irish economy, while moving closer to reaching the targets set by the government in the 2030 Climate Target Plan.
Both globally and nationally, agriculture has unfortunately played a significant role in climate change, but it is important to differentiate between global and local agricultural contexts. One could argue that holding Irish farmers and food producers accountable for the same level of planetary damage as some of their industrial counterparts internationally does a great disservice to the endeavours of Irish farmers to reduce their negative impact on the environment in recent years. As Padraig Brennan, Bord Bia’s Director of Meat, Food, and Beverages explains, “Irish agriculture is in a relatively positive position when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, with Irish dairy having the joint lowest carbon footprint in the EU while our beef production is in the five lowest member states.”
Stemming perhaps from a sense of disconnection from rural life in recent years, many young people are unaware of the rigorous standards that Irish farmers and food producers must meet with Bord Bia’s now renowned Quality Assurance scheme. The Quality Assurance Symbol, which you are probably familiar with viewing on meat and dairy products, is a guarantee of excellence that Irish farmers work hard to earn; ensuring food safety, traceability, and animal welfare along every step of the production line. With the introduction of Bord Bia’s Origin Green programme in 2012, these quality assurances were expanded to encompass sustainability issues, with farms being audited every 18 months for biodiversity, greenhouse gas, water measures, energy efficiency, soil management, as well as socioeconomic factors
Some environmentalists contend that this is merely an attempt at “green-washing”, or conveying exaggerated information about the environmentalism of a company, from Bord Bia. However, the participation of more than 53,000 farms and 324 leading Irish food and drink companies in the programme means that real progress is being made towards reaching sustainability goals, while continuing to support prospering Irish industry and fuelling new job opportunities nationwide. “Through the sector’s participation in Origin Green we have seen consistent reductions in the carbon footprint of the sector on a per unit of output basis over the last five years,” says Brennan, highlighting how the programme “provides the infrastructure to measure, monitor and provide practical advice to help members identify areas for further improvement over the coming years.” From the farmer’s land and raw materials to the packaged product that you find in the supermarket, the Origin Green programme ensures the highest quality and improved sustainability along every step of the production process, and it is the only nationwide scheme of its kind globally.
As well as this, Bord Bia are currently working on a new Grass Fed standard, to uphold the standards of grass feeding livestock that sets Irish produce ahead of its
international competitors. Many consumers today take Ireland’s high-quality produce for granted, or are simply oblivious of the routine inspections that take place on Irish farms, yet internationally, the unique benefits of grass-fed animal produce are appreciated, as evidenced by Kerrygold butter’s success as the top selling butter in Germany, and the biggest imported butter in the USA. The majority of livestock production globally is from confined herds, kept indoors every day, in contrast to the outdoor existence of Irish livestock, grazing grass in fields with rich hedgerows, promoting biodiversity. In fact, the hedgerows in Irish fields are so plentiful that they could circle the planet three times, if unravelled and looped around the earth. Nowhere else in the world is farming taking place on such a closely monitored, outdoor, local level. It is thanks to the tireless efforts of Irish farmers and food producers that Ireland is now viewed as a world leader in the drive to produce food and drinks more sustainably, according to Bord Bia.
The numerous standards that differentiate Irish farming and food production from their international counterparts do not negate the fact that agriculture remains a significant source of emissions here, but it is important to acknowledge and support the active role farmers and food producers are taking in reducing these emissions and promoting sustainability. For example, the Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP) has seen farmers keenly trying to improve water quality on their farms, having acknowledged that water quality had deteriorated somewhat in recent years. This “innovative approach to protecting water quality” on Irish farms is one of many areas in which the “industry has invested significant efforts to improve performance across farm and processing levels when it comes to areas such as greenhouse gas emissions, water quality and biodiversity,” according to Brennan.
Unflattering media reports of agriculture’s contribution to climate change have failed to acknowledge the efforts made by the Irish agri-food and drink sector to actively improve sustainability and biodiversity, particularly when contrasted with industrial scale farms with poor standards of animal welfare, hygiene, food safety, and sustainability elsewhere in the world.
While a plant-based diet is certainly one way of aiming towards a more sustainable lifestyle, it is important for consumers to take responsibility for their education about the products they eat. Opting for locally sourced produce, whether plant-based or not, is far more sustainable than importing produce grown in irrigated monocultures using chemical fertilizers that damage the soil and surrounding ecosystems, transported over many miles using fossil fuels. The environmental benefits of plant-based products are arguably negated when they are not grown, flown, packaged or produced in a sustainable way, so if choosing to follow a plant-based diet, try to follow the ‘grown not flown’ approach. It might be difficult to totally eliminate imported foods from your diet, but cutting down on “food miles” can be of great benefit to both the economy and environment.
The Origin Green programme is fostering improvements not only in environmental sustainability, but also social and economic sustainability, by serving local communities effectively and providing jobs and opportunities in rural areas that are at risk of decline and depopulation. “The sector’s science-based approach through initiatives such as the Marginal Abatement Cost Curve, developed by Teagasc, demonstrates [its] commitment to make further improvements by focusing on the areas where progress can be made to benefit the environment, while also helping the economic viability of the sector”, explains Brennan, illustrating how economic and environmental sustainability are being balanced in the industry here. We are the only country in the world upholding such stringent standards of environmental, social, and economic sustainability in every aspect of agriculture and food production nationwide.
Although this does not mean that we shouldn’t continue to demand real change in sustainability from the industry, it would be unfair to tar Irish farmers and food producers with the same brush as some of the large-scale destructive agriculture in other countries, which is
heavily reliant on irrigation, synthetics, and fossil fuels before ending up in your supermarket trolley.
Ultimately, trying to be an environmentally conscious consumer is not easy. Inevitably, the food we eat will have some impact on the environment. Yet, making informed decisions about the food you consume can make a huge difference, and acknowledging the progress made by the Irish agri-food and drink sector is vital to promoting new opportunities in the industry for today’s young people. In championing Irish industry and shopping locally, you are supporting the livelihoods of small family-run farms and business owners, who work hard to achieve internationally recognised standards of quality and sustainability. Household brand names such as Glanbia, Heineken, and Flahavan’s Oats have already embraced the Origin Green initiative, as well as a host of smaller Irish food and drink businesses.
This St. Patrick’s Day, why not take a look at how you can incorporate more Irish produce into your diet, and benefit both the local economy and the environment by cutting down on food miles? Look out for the Bord Bia Quality Assurance symbol on products, and make an effort to learn more about how your food, whether plant-based or not, is farmed and produced. Instead of viewing agriculture as the problem, supporting the efforts made by the Irish agri-food sector can help the industry to become part of the solution to climate change. As Bord Bia’s Brennan concludes, “The future sustainability of our food systems will rely on consumers having a balanced diet that provides their nutritional requirements while also respecting the planet. The efforts being made by the sector to date and the commitments to make further improvements signals a clear intent to ensure that Irish farming and food production continues to respect the natural environment in which they operate.”