Agriculture is often synonymous with Ireland, a country famous for its rolling green pastures and agricultural landscape. It is an important part of both the Irish economy and society; however, it is also one of the main contributors to environmental degradation, and therefore loss of natural capital, in the country.
Natural capital is the monetary value attributed to the environment and the services which it provides – such as pollination, air purification, and soil formation. Greenhouse gas emissions, chemical fertiliser and pesticide use, wetland drainage, and habitat destruction have all increased due to the policy visions of two reports from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine: Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025.
These reports push for an agricultural future for Ireland that relies on exports, mainly from the beef and dairy sector, without addressing the fact that Ireland is currently a net importer of food. Under the guise of contributing to global food security, these reports create a food-insecure future for Ireland – a future where the country’s resources and natural capital are plundered to satisfy global markets and the agri-food industry.
Ireland has a total land area of 6.9 million hectares; 4.5 million hectares of that area is used for agriculture- that’s almost 2/3 of the country under agricultural use. Despite this, overall crop production has decreased, and Ireland remains a net importer of food. Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025 both focus on making Ireland a major contributor to global food markets by increasing the agri-food industry’s export value by 85% by 2025 – adding an expected €19 billion per year to the industry through the expansion of the dairy, beef, seafood, and consumer food and drinks sectors.
What these reports fail to make clear, however, is the impact this significant increase in exports will have on the country’s natural capital, biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emission targets. First, it is important to note that both reports were developed with substantial influence from industry and lobby representatives in the agri-food sector.
In addition, the policies put forth in both reports are being used by the Irish government to argue that Ireland should receive “special treatment” from the EU with regards to not meeting climate and energy targets for 2030. The government argues that if Ireland were to reduce or limit agricultural intensification (the main driver behind Ireland’s failure to meet these targets), production would need to increase somewhere else in the world, where it could be more environmentally damaging.
These claims are based on the myths, put forward by the agri-food industry, that Irish agriculture is ecologically sustainable, contributes significantly to global food security, and mitigates climate change through “climate-smart” agricultural practices. In reality, Food Wise 2025, now the official policy vision of DAFM, is set to increase greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 4-5% by 2020, increasing greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector to 45% of the country’s non-ETS emissions.
The push to expand the dairy and beef sectors has also led to increasingly intensive agricultural practices, including: an increase in pesticide and fertiliser use, mechanical drainage of wetland areas, the re-seeding of natural and semi-natural grasslands, and the clearance of non-cropped farmland habitats. All of these practices have considerable negative impacts on the country’s natural capital.
Finally, Irish agriculture is not contributing significantly to global food security. Currently, Ireland’s major food exports are products such as beef and infant formula, which do not contribute meaningfully towards feeding the world’s poorest people. In fact, the intensification of the Irish beef and dairy industry will take more calories away from the global food supply than it will contribute, as the increase in cattle will require a subsequent increase in grains and cereal crops as feed.
The increase in emissions caused by the implementation of Food Wise 2025 is being met with a simultaneous push for afforestation through commercial forestry plantations of non-native conifer trees. Not only does this program of afforestation represent an impermanent and insufficient method of sequestering carbon, it also has significant negative impacts on Ireland’s native biodiversity as plantations often replace areas of diverse habitats. The most well researched impact this has on biodiversity (a major source of Ireland’s natural capital) is the decline in the populations of many farmland bird species.
The health of farmland bird populations is used as an indicator of overall ecosystem health, and their decline is attributed to habitat degradation and loss. This habitat loss and degradation is directly linked to the intensification of agricultural practices and afforestation programs. These practices are also having a major impact on populations of breeding wader birds that rely on farmed grassland habitats.
Intensification of agriculture in grassland habitats, including increased fertiliser use and drainage, are the major factors linked to the decline of these birds, which include species such as: lapwing, redshank, snipe, and curlew. Curlew are especially threatened, with their populations declining from 5,000 breeding pairs in 1990, to less than 200 breeding pairs as of 2016. It is likely that the Curlew will face extinction in Ireland in the next thirty years if nothing is done to protect the species and its remaining habitat.
Neither of these practices – agricultural intensification and forestry plantations of non-native species – bode well for Ireland’s natural capital. Natural capital is measured by adding economic value to ecosystems and their services.
Pollinators, such as bees and other insects, are estimated to contribute €53 million annually to the Irish economy, while nutrient cycling by soil organisms is estimated to be worth €1 billion annually. Both of these services are important for successful, sustainable agriculture in Ireland. But the Food Wise 2025 plan jeopardizes these ecosystem services and much of Ireland’s natural capital through the promotion of unsustainable land management practices.
These unsustainable practices have put Ireland off-course for meeting its climate targets and caused the state to fail to meet its obligations under the EU Water Framework Directive, Habitats Directive, and Birds Directive.
To create a truly sustainable system of agriculture in Ireland, focus must be turned away from expanding the beef and dairy sectors and use of monoculture forestry plantations to a system that supports small farmers, and not just the agri-food industry.
This vision of Ireland’s agricultural future would require a focus on reducing emissions, non-ruminant and plant-based food production, low intensity farming practices (such as High Nature Value Farming), and policies that protect and enhance Ireland’s natural capital and ecosystem services. A food-secure future for the island is possible, if the vision of Food Wise 2025 is not allowed to further influence Ireland’s agricultural policies.