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Food & Agriculture

Five questions for Ireland on sustainability


Michael Houlihan

Sector Manager Quality & Environment Assurance – Dairy, Beef & Lamb, Bord Bia

Ireland is showing that sustainable food and drink production reduces environmental impact and increases profits.

What is Origin Green?

An initiative from Bord Bia, Origin Green is Ireland’s national sustainability programme for the agri-food sector. It unites the full supply chain in a single effort to become a more sustainable source of food and drink. Farmers, food manufacturers and retail and food service companies have a shared objective that sees them work within the scope of their own operations to have an impact on sustainability issues of real relevance to them. Their efforts are supported by central government, its agencies and other industry groups and it is all independently verified, ensuring those participating in the programme are delivering on commitments made.

Why is sustainability so important?

Sustainability is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is a responsibility on us all to recognise the challenges that exist in relation to issues like climate change, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, among others. Acknowledging that we need to respond to these challenges for the security of future generations is the first step in putting sustainability at the centre of our plans. The environmental aspect is only one reason to focus on sustainability and it is a wide and varied subject area.

From resource to availability to impact from agriculture and industry pressures, there is a need and an opportunity to respond to and improve on the current situation.

There is also a market opportunity. Increasingly, consumers are more aware of how food is produced and they are more interested in the provenance and systems underpinning the production of the food they buy. By explaining the sustainability credentials of Irish food production systems at farm and manufacturing level and highlighting the achievements of the Origin Green programme, Bord Bia has a means to address consumers’ interest and queries in relation to the sustainability of Ireland’s agri-food industry.

What are the biggest challenges facing Ireland’s sustainable food and drink production right now?

This spring, we experienced difficulties at farm level due to a very cold and wet few months. It set production back and put serious pressure on feed reserves as turnout was delayed in large parts of the country. While this may have been an exception, there are those that consider it to be part of an increasing pattern of irregular weather events. If this is the case, more considered planning will be required at farm level to ensure security of fodder supplies.

Growth of the agri-food industry is a positive thing but it will also bring challenges. As production increases, it is important that this is done in a sustainable way, without negatively impacting on resources, the environment or local communities.

The agrifood industry can contribute significantly to the sustainability of rural communities and this will be increasingly important into the future as populations become more urbanised and less connected with primary production.

Possibly the biggest challenge facing the industry is around greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Ireland has a target of reducing GHG emissions by 30% on 2005 levels by 2030.

Agriculture is the largest contributor to Ireland’s total GHG emissions and, as a result, agriculture is a focus for much of the effort in terms of meeting the 2030 target. This poses a challenge in the face of expanding production in the dairy sector and associated emissions and finding ways of dealing with this will be a key challenge in coming years.

What makes Ireland so well-suited for sustainable food and drink production?

If you take Ireland’s two biggest sectors for food production – dairy and meat – the production systems we have here give a natural advantage when looking at them from a sustainability perspective.

Our dairy and beef production systems are heavily grass-based. Our climate means we can grow large volumes of grass and maximise production from this without having to rely on concentrate feed to any great extent. There is good scope for increased efficiencies in both the dairy and beef sector. Adopting new technologies and implementing improved management practices will increase carbon efficiency and will build towards reduced GHG emissions. Ongoing research by Teagasc and UCD, for example, is identifying methods of reducing GHG emissions while also improving production performance. 

How has Origin Green impacted the local farming industry?

Origin Green has become a point of differentiation for the farming sector. Through the Sustainable Dairy Assurance scheme and the Sustainable Beef and Lamb Assurance scheme, the Origin Green programme aims to highlight the efforts of farmers through information captured in our farm sustainability assessment.

The farm programme delivers feedback to farmers in terms of their sustainability performance and it points to opportunities that exist to improve that performance. These opportunities centre on changes in management practices to increase profitability. This is linked to a decrease in GHG emissions as a result of achieving these changes and includes a guideline economic benefit, which is something that engages farmers and encourages a move towards more sustainable farming.

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