Sustainability a ‘catch-all buzzword and has lost meaning’ – ASA survey

Three in four Agricultural Science Association (ASA) members believed that sustainability has become a “catch-all buzzword and has lost meaning”, according to the findings of an industry-wide study on the current challenges facing the agri-food industry.

These findings were released by the ASA and Bord Bia at the annual ASA conference in Kilkenny today, Friday, September 13.

The research also “highlighted the need for a joined-up industry approach to ensure the financial, economic and social sustainability of the entire agri-food sector”, according to the association.

Today’s ASA conference will be addressed by leading figures from the international agri-food sector including Phil Hogan, European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development and Gregg Doud, chief agricultural negotiator in the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

The day-long conference will discuss the challenges currently facing the industry and a potential way forward in light of immense global and local trade pressures.

Among the challenges facing the industry, according to ASA members, they were: global trade pressures; sustainability; price and income volatility; reducing farm emissions; skilled labour shortages; and leveraging new technologies.

On global trade pressures, 73% of ASA members think that Brexit is one of the biggest challenges, with the Mercosur deal which will allow beef imports from Brazil also featuring strongly.

Regarding sustainability, 66% believe that achieving business growth without negative environmental impact is the top challenge facing the Irish food industry regarding sustainability, closely followed by meeting greenhouse gas emissions targets – some 59%.

More than six out of 10 ASA members agree that increasing production while lowering environmental impact is achievable in next five years, however.

69% agreed that price and income volatility is considered a major challenge for future growth. 73% of those surveyed believe low farm income is impacting the viability of the profession.

Over half of ASA members believe that reducing farm emissions is one of the biggest challenges to the agri-food industry.

32% believe attracting young people to the farming industry is a significant issue facing the industry. Nurturing a skilled workforce by investing in our new generation of farmers and agri-food workers is vital.

Finally, on the topic of leveraging new technology, encouragingly, only 14% believe that adapting to new technologies is a challenge and that embracing technology has the potential to help solve time, efficiency and labour issues.

The research also highlighted the pressures the agri-food industry is facing as a result of changing consumer habits with a focus on health and wellness, and changing diets.

Commenting on the research, ASA president Amii McKeever said: “Sustainability has become a much maligned word – trotted out as a catch-all marketing tool with the result that there is much ambiguity about what it actually means.

We need to challenge the concept of a sustainable agri-food industry.

“I would argue we need to change our language to talk about the need for a viable, renewable and profitable industry which is at the same time economically, environmentally and socially sustainable.”