The future of Irish agriculture

Trinity’s Agricultural Society Chair, Conor Stapleton, discusses the bright future agriculture has in Ireland, as well as the many hurdles that exist along its journey to modernisation

“The more and more we move into big cities and the further away the production of our food goes from us, the less we think about it” are words of caution by Trinity Agricultural Society’s Chair, Conor Stapleton, which are likely to resonate with today’s student body population. Stapleton explains the perils of the growing reliance on processed and packaged foods: “If you buy a ready meal, you don’t think about every single ingredient that’s in that ready meal, you just see the package in the shop.” While this may seem like a simplistic remark, when sitting on an Arts Block couch in the early afternoon, or dodging JustEat cyclists on a Sunday evening, one finds little contradictory evidence. Have today’s youth become a generation who JustEat or are they truly tracing their lunchbox foods from farm to fork prior to consumption?

“Trinity’s first Agricultural Society was officially established in 2017 by a group of first year students residing in Trinity Halls.”

An Irish Times article from January 2019, further fuels these burning questions. The article by JP McMahon called “Do you care where your food comes from?” follows a group of parents who, in 2018, sent a letter to the Minister for Education requesting the implementation of a mandatory food subject for primary school children. This subject would aim to educate children on nutritional values, healthy eating practices, and the origins of their foods. To their great dismay, the group met with a ministerial response which claimed that “food education lay in the hands of the parents”. This speaks volumes for the place of food in a society where agriculture has consistently been one of its biggest industries. So, when Stapleton admits “I feel like it’s important to educate people on where food comes from and which foods are Irish”, he may not stand with the minister, but he certainly doesn’t stand alone.

Trinity’s first Agricultural Society was officially established in 2017 by a group of first year students residing in Trinity Halls, who felt their agricultural interests were underrepresented in university. Stapleton explains that originally, “it was just to create a space for people who were interested in agriculture in College to get together”. However, as time progressed so did the focus of the society. “I suppose on an official level there’s no agricultural mention really in Trinity,” Stapleton concedes. “Like without setting up a course for agriculture, I feel like it’s up to the students themselves to create a bit of interest, get interesting speakers in, and to have people think about where their food comes from. Agriculture and agri-business is one of the biggest industries in Ireland and Trinity is a very business-oriented university; at the same time, you never hear anything about agriculture.”

“That’s the goal behind us,” Stapleton enthuses, “we’re trying to drive the change”. With this ethos in mind, the society has hosted a petting zoo on campus, facilitated trips to the organic farm of Áras an Uachtaráin and welcomed a wide array of guest speakers such as Justin McCarthy, the editor of the Farmer’s Journal, and Ewen Mullins, a geneticist from the Teagasc Research Centre in Carlow, thus encouraging a real agricultural interest among the student population.

“The omnipresence of climate change and the looming threat of Brexit, Irish agriculture finds itself under immense pressure to transform.”

A key example of their influence is committee member and third year Dentistry student, Michael Ryan, who candidly confesses “I didn’t even know what Ag Science was to be honest” prior to his membership of the society. Through his societal involvement, Ryan asserts a new-found appreciation for agricultural affairs. “There’s so much more to agriculture than going out and milking cows,” he maintains. “It has opened up new pathways in Ag that I wouldn’t have known existed”. As a society member coming from a non-farming background himself, Michael refutes the notion of being at any disadvantage: “My uncle has a farm but I feel as though what I’ve learned in AgSoc is totally different to what I would’ve learned on his farm, whether or not you have a farm I feel is irrelevant.”

This modern dynamic is interesting to appreciate against the backdrop of Irish agriculture’s ever-changing and uncertain future. Today, amidst a changing tide towards vegetarianism and veganism, the omnipresence of climate change and the looming threat of Brexit, Irish agriculture finds itself under immense pressure to transform. 21st century farming cannot simply concentrate on meeting quotas, balancing national budgets and increasing yields. Modern agriculturalists must firmly set their sights on sustainability, environmental stewardship, and diversification to ensure a fruitful and viable future. Phil Hogan, European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, began 2019 with a sharp focus on what he coined the “new green architecture” of proposed reforms to the EU Common Agricultural Policy to be implemented in 2020. These reforms boil down to more explicit links between the current Common Agricultural Policy and EU legislation on climate, allowing for greater policy coherence and efficiency, while also allowing flexibility in approach. Alongside this stand, the ongoing Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme 2020 is tailored to promote biodiversity, habitat conservation, protect water quality and to further incentivise both arable and livestock organic farming, while the Bord Bia Origin Green programme aims to improve nationwide sustainable food production. These prove that today’s Irish agricultural industry is anything but stagnant. These measures aside, Ireland currently holds the title of being the fifth most carbon-efficient producer of beef per kilogram in the EU, and the most efficient producer of dairy as of February 2019. Considering the accelerating potential of these schemes among others, the Irish farming industry is on track to further improve these statistics and pave the way for a more sustainable, green future for European agriculture.

“He speaks with excitement about the innumerable environmental benefits of Teagasc’s research into harnessing biogas from slurry pits and run-off pits.”

Trinity AgSoc certainly espouses the transformative nature of Irish agriculture with great enthusiasm, with Stapleton saying: “Farming should always be based on looking at science and seeing what ways it can improve itself.” Reminding us that agriculture is an industry, one affected by economic factors, Stapleton explains, “[farming] is a business so it’s important to see what demand is and answer demand”. With this in mind, he speaks with excitement about the innumerable environmental benefits of Teagasc’s research into harnessing biogas from slurry pits and run-off pits, and using it as a renewable energy source, minimising the reliance on harmful pesticides and herbicides, and therefore hugely reducing farming’s carbon footprint. He also greets the changing food habits of the Irish nation with optimism. “People always think of farming as just meat and producing animals but also all vegetables come from farming; there’s a place for both,” he explains, welcoming any new opportunities which recent shifts in consumer demand may present to the industry. In particular, Stapleton is drawn to new developments in genetically modified foods: “It’s often a phrase people are afraid of – ‘genetically modified’ – probably due to a lack of public understanding. It’s not inventing ‘super potatoes’ or anything like this but just targeting specific diseases, targeting production, and trying to increase yields. With the increased population growth in the world, we need to increase yields in our crops – whether that be for grass, for livestock, or plants for human consumption – so genetic modification is an important part of that.” Alongside its influence in the reduction of pesticide dependence, Conor ventures, “it would also be interesting to consider the possibility of being able to reduce the water requirement of plants with genetic modification considering the growing challenge of global warming”. For AgSoc, tomorrow’s agricultural landscape is a rolling meadow of untapped potential.

As far as the future is concerned, AgSoc stand in firm agreement with the words of Jim O’Brien, columnist for the Farming Independent, when he said: “Farming is about food production. Humans will always need food so there will always be a need for farmers.”