A new vision for land use in Ireland

Ireland’s agricultural, health care, and climate goals can all be integrated, says JAMES O’DONOVAN, chair of Cork Environmental Forum and member of the Cork Food Policy Council
A new vision for land use in Ireland

We need to replace our animal agriculture with plant-based agriculture, says James O’Donovan

MOST of the problems with Ireland’s current agri-food system are reasonably well known.

Firstly, it’s an economic failure for farmers, with 60% earning less than €10,000 per year, and that’s including subsidies. If there were not huge subsidies propping up the beef and sheep industries, the vast majority of these farms would operate at a loss and they would close.

The Department of Agriculture’s budget of about €2.6 billion includes €1.8 billion of subsidies.

Secondly, it’s extremely inefficient. In 2018, we imported more than four million tons of grain, oil seeds and legumes for animal feeds. In contrast, the world food programme purchases just three million tonnes of food annually for all its famine relief programmes.

We combine our feed imports with the yield of three million hectares, for beef and sheep production, to produce, in 2018, 1.46 million tonnes of meat.

Assuming a stocking rate of two animals per hectare and two years to slaughter at 350-435kg, then Irish farmers produce 210-260 kg/ha. In contrast, in 2018, we produced 8,700 kg of wheat per hectare.

Thirdly, Ireland’s widely praised food system leaves Ireland totally dependent on food imports. In 2018, we exported €11.6 billion but imported €8.9 billion of food and related products (fertilisers, leather, etc).

In 2018, we imported €1.3 billion of fruit and vegetables and €1.2 billion of cereals and also €361 million of sugar and honey. The cost of the imported animal feeds was more than €1 billion.

Many of the vegetables we imported in 2017 could be grown in Ireland.

At the same time, we have seen Ireland close down its sugar factories and are losing our vegetable growers. In the 15 years between 1999 and 2015, field veg growers in Ireland decreased from 377 to 165.

James O'Donovan, chair of Cork Environmental Forum and member of the Cork Food Policy Council
James O'Donovan, chair of Cork Environmental Forum and member of the Cork Food Policy Council

In contrast, in the Netherlands the government has invested in a much more diversified agricultural system, exporting wide range of products. As a result, they had a trade surplus of €29 billion in 2018 on exports of €101 billion, on just 40% of the agricultural land area that Ireland uses.

If the Netherlands moved to a completely plant based food system, they would save billions by reducing polluting nitrates, phosphates and ammonia and other agricultural chemicals, while producing much more food, allowing them to allocate substantial areas of land for ecosystem restoration, biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

Then there is the way our food system negatively impacts our health The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation for a healthy diet for an adult reads as follows:

  • Fruit, vegetables, legumes (e.g. lentils and beans), nuts and whole grains (e.g. unprocessed maize, millet, oats, wheat, brown rice).
  • At least 400g (i.e. five portions) of fruit and vegetables per day, excluding potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava and other starchy roots.
  • Less than 10% of total energy intake from free sugars, equivalent to 50g (or about 12 level teaspoons) for a person of healthy body weight consuming about 2,000 calories per day, but ideally is less than 5% of total energy intake for additional health benefits.
  • Less than 30% of total energy intake from fats. Unsaturated fats (found in fish, avocado and nuts, and in sunflower, soybean, canola and olive oils) are preferable to saturated fats (found in fatty meat, butter, palm and coconut oil, cream, cheese, ghee and lard) and trans-fats of all kinds, including both industrially-produced trans-fats (found in baked and fried foods, and pre-packaged snacks and foods, such as frozen pizza, pies, cookies, biscuits, wafers, and cooking oils and spreads) and ruminant trans-fats (found in meat and dairy foods from ruminant animals, such as cows, sheep, goats and camels).
  • It is suggested that the intake of saturated fats be reduced to less than 10% of total energy intake and trans-fats to less than 1% of total energy intake In particular, industrially-produced trans-fats are not part of a healthy diet and should be avoided (4.
  • Less than 5g of salt (equivalent to about one teaspoon) per day. Salt should be iodized.

Ireland now has one of the highest rates of high blood pressure in the world and 60% of the population are obese. We are not dying of nutritional deficiencies, which people seem to be worried about, but, along with tobacco and alcohol, we are dying from eating too many calories, fats (saturated and trans), sugar and salt and not enough fruits and vegetables and whole grains and legumes.

Meanwhile Bord Bia, are using €30 million of taxpayers’ money to relentlessly advertise meat and dairy products, in contrast with the health recommendations of the WHO and the International Agency for Cancer Research. The latter have categorised processed meat as a Class 1 carcinogen.

At the same time, Ireland’s agriculture produces 33% of our emissions and we are legally obligated to reduce them by 40% by 2030, which one study has estimated will cost €35 billion.

The solution is to transition to a plant-based food system.

The projected agricultural and rural EU development budget for 2020 is €49 billion, equivalent to 34.9% of the total EU budget.

In 2017, there were 6.5 million farmers who were entitled to €41 billion from the CAP. You can read on EU Fact-check that 80% of the CAP budget goes to 20% of the farmers.

Perhaps they are the poorest farmers who need this support? No, I’m afraid not they are the richest farmers and landowners and sometimes huge multi-national companies (€8 billion goes to non farmers). This means 28% of the annual EU budget goes to 0.6% of the EU population. Funny that politicians don’t complain about these government hand-outs!

At Nature Rising, a non-political sustainability advocacy group that is part of an international movement, we are proposing that subsidies are moved from animal agriculture to either plant-based agriculture or payments for Ecosystems/Biodiversity Restoration. By allowing farmers to keep their CAP subsidies, average incomes for over 70% of Irish farmers (beef and sheep) would increase and incomes for tillage farmers would stay the same.

However, incomes for most dairy farmers would decrease by an average of 34% (2018).

See naturerising.ie for more.

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