Irish Agriculture - A sustainable model of food production

IFA held a conference recently that examined how farmers can deliver the planned expansion in the sector, set out in Food Harvest 2020, while improving farmer returns and limiting the environmental impact.

IFA held a conference recently that examined how farmers can deliver the planned expansion in the sector, set out in Food Harvest 2020, while improving farmer returns and limiting the environmental impact.

Thomas Ryan, IFA’s Environment Executive summarises some of the main points of the conference.

Speakers included

Phil Hogan, T.D Minister for the Environment; John Bryan, IFA President; Alexandre Meybeck, UN Food and Agriculture

Organisation; and representatives from Glanbia, Teagasc, EPA, Bord Bia, NESC and the Department of Agriculture.

Farmers in Ireland are amongst the world’s leaders for sustainable food production. Greenhouse gas emissions per litre of milk have reduced by over 13% since 1990. The beef sector has the fifth lowest carbon footprint in the EU. The fall in chemical nitrogen use over the past decade is equal to an annual reduction of half a million tonnes of carbon dioxides equivalent from the sector.

Agri-food is making a real contribution to the sustainable recovery of the national economy: Contributing over €9b in exports last year; Supporting 300,000 jobs in all parts of the country; Producing enough beef each year to feed 30 million Europeans; Producing over 15% of the world’s infant formula.

The Opportunity to Grow the Sector

The world needs more food. Over the next 40 years, demand will increase by over 60%. Global milk consumption is set to increase by 104% and meat demand by 88%. Farmers in Ireland have a track record of producing these commodities successfully and sustainably.

Not all regions are in a similar position to deliver. Droughts and other resource stresses in much of the southern hemisphere will lead to a reduction in cereal crop and livestock productivity.

Ireland is different. Our grass based emission efficient model of food production, combined with the abundance of other resources such as water, makes Ireland the envy of other major agri-food economies such as Argentina and Australia. This is our point of difference and growth opportunity. To expand - sustainably.

Sustainability – It’s Not Just About the Environment

International retailers such as Walmart have identified sustainability as the single biggest commercial opportunity of the 21st century. However, sustainability is not just about the environment. It must also deliver a real return to farmers.

In Ireland, companies such as Glanbia Ingredients Ireland, recognise that economic sustainability is a key motivator to delivering future improvements. At processing level they have focused on plant energy efficiency, waste water treatment management and nutrient management. Over 250 of their farmer suppliers are participating in a sustainability programme. This programme, and similar initiatives ran by Bord Bia in the beef, lamb, pig, poultry, eggs and horticulture sectors continue to demonstrate Ireland’s sustainability record.

Can sustainability really deliver for farmers? IFA is working with Teagasc, UCD, the EPA and others, to develop a resource efficiency initiative called smarter farming. Each year farmers use €4,150 million worth of inputs. This collaboration with key agri-food stakeholders asks: are farmers using resources, such as our fertilisers, grassland and energy correctly? It provides advice on cost savings that can be delivered by better resource use. The advice to farmers is free and so too is the on-farm resource assessment. Similar voluntary initiatives in the hotel sector have delivered annual savings of €5.5million.

Food Harvest 2020 – It’s not all about more livestock and cereals

The role of science is central to the continued sustainable expansion of the sector. Teagasc has the lead role here. The single biggest emission reduction opportunity comes from genetics and improvements in breeding. Other key areas include earlier weight gain in the beef herd and extended grazing across all enterprises.

Science is already delivering. Emission per litre of milk and kilo of beef continue to reduce. Ireland’s sustainability comparative advantage remains strong when compared to other major food exporting regions such as Brazil, Uruguay and New Zealand. However, these countries are making improvements. The need for science and technology transfer to the farming sector has never been greater. Future growth must be based on maximising output (milk, weight gain, yield) from existing resources (land and animals) before additional costs and inputs are considered. Science is the only answer here and the timely transfer of knowledge is key.

Growth and Sustainability – The Double Dividend

The clear message from Minister Phil Hogan, IFA President John Bryan and many of the other speakers is that future growth opportunities and the environmental sustainability of the sector are inter- twined. In short, future growth can come from our sustainable model of food production.

The conference reaffirmed the sectors green credentials. This provides a real platform for sustainable growth. However, growth can only be achieved if farmers get a real return for their work. Sustainability – it’s about economics and the environment. That’s the double dividend.

All conference papers can be downloaded from the IFA website