Ireland produces far more food than its population could ever eat, but only if our diet consists of beef, butter, cheese or infant formula.
Our food and energy systems are intrinsically linked, and because of the machinations of a madman 3,000km away, Irish consumers are suddenly facing unimaginable price hikes. We would be insulated if we were more self-sufficient in our food production.
The intensification and specialisation of Irish farming to beef and dairy means that much of the fruit, vegetables and grains we eat are imported and we simply don’t have Irish growers to meet demand.
There are only an estimated 1,000 growers currently in commercial production, and the majority of their output is consumed here. The only significant horticultural food export from Ireland is mushrooms.
Many consumers actively seek out the Guaranteed Irish or Bord Bia quality marks because we want products made by Irish producers and are aware of the importance of buying Irish to support the local economy, but now we are also beginning to think of buying Irish for food security reasons.
The Central Statistic Office reports that in 2020 we imported €1 billion worth of vegetables and fruit and €872 million of cereals. That is a lot of food being transported by land, sea and air to our supermarket shelves.
Obviously, some of those imports are to meet our taste for exotic produce that can’t be grown in the Irish climate. We can’t expect a farmer in Buttevant to become a banana grower, but when you find an apple flown halfway across the world from New Zealand, priced comparatively and sitting next to an apple grown in Tipperary, there has to be something broken with the food system.
The recent announcement that the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and the Marine were asking farmers to plant crops for food security reasons got a mixed reaction. Some farmers were willing to do their bit for the national effort, others said they simply didn’t have the know-how to grow anything other than grass.
The specialisation and intensification of Irish farming into beef and dairy means tillage and horticultural farming knowledge and skills are being lost. Even though Irish herds are fed predominantly grass, they are also fed a huge amount of imported grains and there have been numerous fodder crises in the last 15 years when the weather doesn’t play ball, or now when an unexpected war sends fertiliser and fuel prices rocketing. The fact Ireland imports 20% of its fertiliser from Russia is a worry for many.
More than 30 organisations were presented at the inaugural meeting in Teagasc Moorepark last week. The name of the committee betrays its priority - fodder first. Fodder to feed to animals and defend the beef and dairy industry, the priority in terms of protecting exports and income.
The absence of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from the newly formed committee is disappointing. It has been consistently critical of the impact of intensive farming on air and water quality in Ireland and is pushing for sustainable farming through it’s Smart Farming scheme.
It would seem to make sense to include the EPA at the table to deal with this crisis and hatch a plan for addressing the future of farming, because it’s clear the current model is not working.
We obviously need to deal with the immediate crisis, but when is the food system going to get the overhaul it needs? Modern societies rely completely on farmers to produce our food for us, and they need to be supported in a way that is sustainable for them, the environment, and wider society, in terms of affordable food.
From a consumer point of view, one thing we can do is stop wasting food. The average Irish household throws away €800 worth of it every year. We do this because we perceive the food to be cheap enough to be thrown away.
Shopping and cooking more frugally is the sensible way to save money and stop waste. You’ve probably heard the advice before, but it bears repeating. Do an inventory of what’s in your fridge and cupboards before writing your shopping list, do a meal plan for the week. Include everything - breakfasts, lunches and dinners - write out what you need and then keep to it when you go shopping!
When we throw away food, not only are we wasting the food itself, but also the resources used to produce, transport and supply it. Food waste produces up to 10% of all global carbon emissions.
We can also stop expecting or supporting ridiculously low food prices. A bunch of carrots for 49c undermines and undervalues the months of hard work that goes into producing them.
The war in the Ukraine is going to have an effect on food prices around the world. It’s time for Ireland to cook up a new way of farming that allows farmers to earn a decent living while safeguarding the environment and producing healthy nutritious food for everyone.