‘Consumers don’t want to be told Irish food is sustainable; they need proof’

Consumers don’t want to be told that Irish food is sustainable, they need proof, a senior figure at the Department of Agriculture told the Food Wise Conference 2017 earlier today (November 4).

Bill Callanan, chief inspector with the department, said: “Sustainability is one of the key themes of the Food Wise 2025 strategy and it recognised that environmental sustainability and economic sustainability are equal and complementary; one can not be achieved without the other.”

Identifying some the strengths and challenges facing the Irish agricultural sector, the department chief said that pasture-based livestock systems are recognised as being very efficient.

Grass-fed beef and dairy is something that the consumer is asking for and we know that from the likes of Bord Bia.

On water quality, he said: “Internationally about 70-80% of all water used and extracted is used for irrigation for agriculture and that’s certainly not a problem that we have in Ireland.

“We sit in the top 33% in terms of water quality, so again, we’re on the favourable side in terms of strengths.”

Despite this position, Callanan said: “We have to live within the constraints of the Water Framework Directive and, from a national biodiversity point of view, we have to protect our habitats.”

Crucially for Irish farmers, Callanan said there are two drivers of this. They are market and regulatory demands.

The informed customer who is purchasing Irish agricultural produce is seeking that sustainability and not just that it’s claimed; they also want evidence to support that claim.

“Regulator demands are significant and we have signed up to that ambition so it’s important that we deliver on that.”

Touching on climate change targets, he said: “Our stated national ambition is an approach to carbon neutrality that does not compromise sustainable food production.

“To my mind really, there are three potential avenues for delivery on that: improving underlying efficiency; a focus on the opportunity that agriculture has to sequester carbon; and finally to recognise the contribution that the sector will make to areas like energy and transport from the likes of wood biomass.”

However, he said, that this can not result in unbridled expansion in livestock numbers or fertiliser usage; thought must also be given to the national ambition of reducing emissions.

“We will rightly – as an nation – identify our investment in afforestation and our improvement in the efficiency of our production systems; but we cannot ignore that agriculture most contribute to the overall national ambitions.”

Areas for improvement

Callanan also touched on a number of areas where Ireland can improve. He said 75% of the increase in milk output in Ireland has come from additional cows, while only 25% has been from improved performance.

“That’s not the correct balance. In terms of day-to-day production at ground level, there’s about 50kg of milk solids production differential between cows that are milk recorded and those that are not milk recorded; clearly identifying an opportunity for improvement.

“We have too many suckler cows that are calving for the first time at 28-30 months and similarly an improvement opportunity arises there.

“In terms of that regulatory space – from a water quality point of view – 60% of the pressure in water is arising from agriculture and we must avoid the difficulties that have behest or challenged the likes of New Zealand in terms of dairy expansion.”

A more targeted approach

He also admitted that the department has become a lot more targeted in terms of the interventions it uses.

“Our Rural Development Programme is all about putting the right measure [in place] at the right location.

Over 20,000 of the 50,000 participants in the agri-environment scheme were based on prioritised entry using high-status maps from the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).

“Similarly, ‘Natura’ lands were prioritised in terms of access to the scheme and that’s about ensuring that we are implementing measures that are focused on water quality, biodiversity and climate change for the right cohort of farmers.

“The current review of the nitrates regulations, which is nearing completion, sees a similar evolution of supporting productive farming while also pressing on reducing sources of loss to water; for example, by protecting access to waterways on higher stocked farms and preventing the run off of from dairy farm roadways.”

From a climate change perspective, he said, we have led the beef industry through the BDGP (Beef Data and Genomics Programme) scheme and over 25,000 farmers have committed to improving their herds.

Benefits have also been seen from the Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme (TAMS) and over 1,000 farmers have been approved for funding for low-emission slurry spreading systems.