Opinion

Ciaran Fitzgerald: ‘Is Irish agriculture destined to struggle and drift?’

Is Irish agriculture destined to struggle and drift, like Irish Water, or invest and innovate to address its challenges like the Irish and global pharmaceutical sector?

There were a number of major developments – global and local – in reports released over recent weeks.

On a positive note, it looks like the heavy investment across the global pharmaceutical sector throughout 2020 will deliver a number of anti Covid-19 vaccines (Moderna; Pfizer/BioNTech; Astra Zeneca) from as early as December and certainly by the new year.

A less uplifting and perhaps more revealing news piece was the pretty abysmal report by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) highlighting the fact that there are 35 towns across the state that have raw sewage flowing into waterways.

The report further identifies a total of 113 locations including in Dublin (where Ringsend treatment plant which processes almost half the country’s wastewater is the biggest contributor to non-compliance with EU standards) and other cities, where Irish Water needs to act immediately to tackle serious wastewater issues in order to protect public health and the environment.

While direct comparisons and parallels are often simplistic, it seems to me that there is a striking contrast between the two scenarios:

  • The superior effect of targeted innovation-based investment to address dramatic and evolving challenges in the case of the vaccine development process;

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  • In the case of Irish Water to quote a national newspaper, ‘growing uncertainty around Irish Water’s planning and delivery of projects is undermining confidence in its capacity to reduce risks to public health’.

Moreover, in its defence, Irish Water says that a key factor limiting its ability to deliver best available technological solutions, is planning difficulties which are prohibiting its ability to get critical infrastructure in place within a reasonable timeframe.

Foodwise report

A key barometer of whether the Irish agri-food sector can continue to deliver its unique economic impact across the Irish economy will be outlined in the upcoming Foodwise 2030 report.

In my opinion, Foodwise 2030 needs to strike the right balance between the ambition to follow the pharma industry and pursue growth through an innovation model by addressing increased costs and challenges through investment and against a heavy-handed compliance-focused anti-growth approach.

This approach would inevitably result only in increasing costs and reducing growth ambition and deliver the kind of inertia exemplified by the Irish Water scenario.

Let’s hope it’s the pharma model which is favoured and which has shown that despite huge investment costs and legitimately high administrative barriers, a combination of structured, and in some cases state-supported investment, and state-guaranteed pricing outcomes, has the potential to not just drive a vital integral economic sector but also deliver major public health demands.

Future of Irish agriculture

While it’s unlikely that Irish agriculture will receive either the total quantum of state support on the investment side or the price guarantees in the market place; the pharma model – as with the sustainable energy pricing and investment support models – very clearly shows what is achievable.

This is in terms of balancing environmental compliance and evolving consumer demand with economically sustainable innovative production and supply capabilities.

The Irish agri sector, with its very strong history of coping with dramatic policy changes and market disruption, can deliver just such a sustainable supply capability.

This would be contingent on both the Foodwise 2030 platform and the emerging EU Green Deal growth strategy containing this ambition to deliver growth while achieving increased compliance standards by supporting innovation through investment.

Ciaran Fitzgerald is a leading agri-food economist and former chairman of Meat Industry Ireland (MII).