Integrating Ireland’s Agricultural, Health Care and Climate Goals

By James O’Donovan

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

Food System Problems

Firstly, it’s an economic failure for farmers, with 60% of farmers 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 budget is about €2.6 billion – including €1.8 billion of subsidies.

Secondly, it’s extremely inefficient.  In 2018 we imported over 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 its entire famine relief programme.  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 – 435 kg then Irish farmers produce 210-260 kg of meat per hectare.  In contrast, in 2018 we produced 8,700 kg of wheat per hectare.

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

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 over €1 billion.  The below CSO image shows some of the vegetables we imported in 2017 – all of which could be grown in Ireland.  At the same time we have seen Ireland close down its sugar factories and we are losing our vegetable growers.  In the 15 years between 1999 and 2015 field veg growers in Ireland decreased from 377 down to 165.

Vegetable Imports 2017. Source: CSO Ireland

In contrast, in the Netherlands the government has invested in a much more diversified agricultural system.  The below image shows the range of products being exported.

Source: CBS, Wageningen Economic Research

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.

How our Food System Negatively impacts our Health

The WHO recommendations 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 and 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, which is equivalent to 50g (or about 12 level teaspoons) for a person of healthy body weight consuming about 2000 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.
  • 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 from nutritional deficiencies, which people seems 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, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.

Meanwhile Bord Bia are using €30 million of taxpayers money to relentlessly advertise meat and dairy products contrary to the health recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC).  The IARC have categorised processed meat as a Class 1 carcinogen.  The results are to be expected as shown below.

Source: IHME, Global Burden of Disease (GBD)

At the same time Ireland’s agriculture produces 33% of our emissions and we are legally obligated to reduce our emissions 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 stands at €49 billion, equivalent to 34.9% of the total EU Budget.  In 2017 there were 6.5 million farmers who were entitled to agricultural money from the CAP.  Together they received more than €41 billion.  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 multinational companies like Nestle also get CAP Payments (a cool €8 billion goes to non farmers).  This means that 28% of the Annual EU Budget goes to 0.6% of the EU population.  Funny that politicians don’t complain about these government handouts!

28% of the Annual EU Budget goes to the richest 0.6% of the EU population

At Nature Rising 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, while incomes for tillage farmers would stay the same.  However incomes for most dairy farmers would decrease by an average of 34% (2018).  For more information on our proposals see the Economics of Nature Rising.  We also outline a range of successful plant based farming models that can be implemented in Ireland and how ecosystem restoration could restore biodiversity and help Ireland achieve its climate goals.

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